by Peter Paden
Published August 2, 2013 in the Register-Star
I was speaking recently with a friend, a really wonderful guy who has lived in the county all of his life, who knows the area like the back of his hand, who loves it. He loves the land. He loves farming and appreciates the deeply imbedded rural heritage and traditions that are central to our customs and culture. He loves the landscape and, having traveled widely, appreciates that we live in a place of world-class beauty.
He thinks it is possible for those of us living here today to take steps to ensure these qualities will last long into the future. But he is concerned that this may not happen, that the day will come when development pressures intensify and we will not be ready, when the land will be built out in a way that best suits the interests and the profits of the developers, chopping up our extraordinary agricultural resources and our extensive forests into small bits, putting an end to a vibrant farm sector, seriously diminishing the rich ecosystems and wildlife that thrive here, and spreading residential and commercial structures over large portions of the entire landscape.
In short, he shares the fundamental concerns of the Columbia Land Conservancy. But he was at pains to make a point to me that I found intriguing. He said, “I am not a tree hugger.”
I think what he meant to say was that although he shares our concerns, appreciates the work we do and supports our goals and vision, he does not comfortably identify as a CLC supporter. He thinks of us – or thinks that people with whom he may identify think of us – as a group of “other people.” That is my word, not his. But the word “elitist” did creep into the conversation. And these words have set me to thinking – once again – about a recurrent challenge confronting CLC.
Labels and Stereotypes
Ever since our founding 27 years ago, CLC has had to deal with the perception in some circles that our membership is comprised largely of wealthy second home owners who come here because it’s a beautiful getaway, but who don’t understand or appreciate the culture and heritage of the county and are not really at home here. There are a number of implications: that we are primarily motivated to protect the interests of a small group of people who are not truly of or from the county; that CLC supporters hold romantic and impractical views about trees, animals and nature unleavened by direct personal experience or responsibility for their care and stewardship; that we are trying to take land off the tax rolls and fundamentally change the nature of our communities (see the recent campaign literature from a candidate for Ghent Town Supervisor); that we are rolling in dough and don’t really need the financial support of ordinary people. None of these propositions is true.
Like all stereotypes, those associated with words like “tree huggers,” “elitists,” “weekenders” and “citiots” do bear a dim, if distorted, relationship to reality. It is true that there are second home owners in Columbia County who are not very involved with local issues and with their communities. It is true that some of these people don’t understand or identify much with rural culture and heritage, that sometimes they are overheard to say things that sound laughably ignorant about facets of rural life, and, yes, that some of them contribute to CLC. And of course, it is also true that there is an entire lexicon of equally negative and unfair stereotypes and labels that are sometimes applied to full-time residents whose families may have been here for generations, (many of whom also contribute to CLC).
(It’s worth noting that these stereotypes and labels, running in both directions, are part of a long tradition in this country. “The Arkansas Traveler” is a musical folk-tale with roots dating back at least to the 19th Century that presents a lengthy and amusing exchange between a city dweller who is traveling in the country and a good old boy sitting on his front porch. The city dweller has lost his way and asks for directions and advice, and the fellow on the porch has no end of fun giving unhelpful directions (Q: That stream up ahead, is it fordable? A: Neighbors ducks forded it this mornin’) and generally showing the city slicker up for a fool.)
In the end such stereotypes do a lot of harm. They give rise to suspicion and aversion for entire groups of people, feelings that feed ill-will and work against community. They are grossly unfair. They distort reality. Every sentient adult who has spent any meaningful amount of time with groups of people unlike her own, whether the differences are racial, gender-based, ethnic, cultural or economic, knows that human beings are uniquely individual. For every member of any group who reflects in some way a cultural stereotype, there are dozens who defy it. All anyone needs to do to overcome negative associations and judgments associated with labeling any group of people is to get to know them.
Let’s Make an Effort to Put Them Aside
All of us, myself included, from time to time find ourselves thinking in stereotypes. It’s an easy thing to do. But I’d like to encourage us all to make a real effort to rid our minds of these stereotypes – weekenders vs. country folk. What’s important is to focus on the things we have in common, not the lines that divide. There is so much common ground.
There are a large number of people with a stake in this county who share a set of values and concerns. We value the extraordinary natural world here. We recognize how wonderful it is to live among the highly scenic rolling hills, expansive fields and forests, and historic hamlets that characterize the area. We appreciate the profound benefits of nurturing a relationship with the land and the animals and plants whose home it is. We love the agricultural heritage and rural character that infuses the countryside and our communities. We are confident these qualities can be secured for future generations without sacrificing a healthy local economy. And we are committed to working to ensure that end.
A lot of people who hold these values and aspirations, like my friend I mentioned at the outset, are full time residents. Some have roots that go back multiple generations. Some arrived more recently. A lot of people who hold these values and aspirations are not full-time residents, but have developed a connection and commitment to the area within more recent years. Who cares? People who share these values and aspirations span the entire spectrum of economic capacity. They span a spectrum of knowledge and understanding about farming and about nature. Indeed, they reflect as many differences in interest, skill sets, and every other personal trait as can be found in the human race.
I say: viva la difference! Let’s try to get to know each other better and enjoy the things we learn from each other along the way, while we work together in pursuit of a vision we all share.
Peter Paden is Executive Director of the Columbia Land Conservancy. His column appears on the first Friday of every month.