Why We’re Here

~by Thomas & Susan Laehn

At a social gathering a few weeks ago, one of our friends commented, “I hate living in town; you can’t see anything!” We chuckled politely, unsure of what our friend, who is a farmer, meant. Indeed, most of the members of our generation would assert precisely the opposite: the city, not the country, is where one goes to see something. For many, anything worth seeing, whether a Broadway musical, a Major League Baseball game, or an art exhibit, can only be found in a city.

Later that night, however, we discussed what our friend might have meant. We pondered what, exactly, one sees in a rural setting that a city’s tall buildings and busy streets hide from view. Our friend’s comment also prompted us to think more deeply about why we have made Greene County our home.

Two summers ago we were both living in massive metropolises. One of us was working in a law firm on Times Square, while the other was working as a professor and living in London, England. But neither of us felt at home; open fields and rolling hills, rather than concrete and asphalt, allow for a sense of rootedness and belonging. Both of us longed for community and for the quiet rhythms of rural life. And we discovered, through our conversations with our acquaintances in New York and London, that those who have lived in cities their entire lives are often unable to see what is plainly visible to those who have lived in a small town or down a gravel road. Indeed, a cityscape tends to conceal at least four significant aspects of man’s existence from view: (1) that history repeats itself, helping endow human life with meaning; (2) that there is a created natural order, placing limits on all human acts of production; (3) that human existence is fragile, reminding man that his life is a gift and that he himself is not God; and (4) that all men are jointly dependent upon the earth, giving rise to the mutual obligations that are the basis for community life.

First, the rural man sees that time is not just linear, but cyclical. The city-dweller believes in the inevitable march of progress. And why wouldn’t he? All around him is evidence of human ingenuity and the power of technology. The city-dweller feels invincible, surrounded by infrastructure built by human hands across the centuries. And it is true that history has a linear, forward movement, both an Egypt and a Promised Land. However, history also recurs, and the resulting motifs and patterns within the flux of time help endow human life with meaning. The Israelites’ forty-year trek through the wilderness was retraced by Christ during his forty-day sojourn in the desert, and it is repeated every year during the Lenten journey from Ash Wednesday to Easter. The rural man’s observation of the linear progress of time does not blind him to the cyclical passage of the seasons. The rural man sees an annually recurring cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, that alerts him to analogous cycles across the whole sweep of history.

Second, the rural man sees a natural, created order beyond human manipulation. The city-dweller looks around him and sees only that order which human beings have produced: marquee lights that blind him to the stars and man-made mountains of concrete and steel that rise like modern towers of Babel above subterranean sewers. The city-dweller sees only those ways in which man has conquered nature and tamed its forces, thereby giving rise to the delusion that he has freed himself from the natural order of things. The rural man, however, works in concert with nature. Indeed, the rural man recognizes his dependence upon an immutable natural order and his place in God’s design. The city-dweller visits an art museum to see Monet’s painting of a wheat field in the setting sun, and he sees the natural order only as it has been reproduced by human hands. The rural man must only look out his window to see a natural order that preexists any human act of production.

Third, the rural man sees his own fragility and contingency. The city-dweller is tempted to conclude that human ingenuity is the paramount virtue—that God is dead and human beings are capable of achieving their own salvation. Experience teaches the city-dweller that his steak comes from his butcher, his potatoes from his grocer, and his water from his faucet. The links in the chain stretching from the soil and the sun to his evening meal are so numerous as to make it difficult to see both ends of the chain simultaneously. In a parody of omnipotence, the city-dweller often forgets his dependence on anything other than man himself. The rural man, however, knows his own contingency. He knows that his yield is dependent upon the weather. He knows his existence presupposes an underlying order he did not create, but which modern man has obtained the power to destroy.

Finally, the rural man sees the community of which he is a member and feels his rootedness in it. The city-dweller looks around him and sees an ever-changing skyline and thousands of alien faces each day. City populations are transient, such that a city is, in some sense, never the same city two days in a row. A city-dweller may identify with a location, a set of coordinates on a map, but he is not rooted in the soil. And this, above all else, is why we have chosen to begin our family in a small town in rural Iowa. The rural man is bound to his neighbor by something more than a shared set of coordinates in space and time. In a rural community, we see that we hold something else in common with those who live around us: a sense of personal obligation stemming from a recognition of our mutual dependence on the earth and an awareness of our shared fate.

~Thomas Laehn is the Greene County assistant attorney. Susan Laehn is a research fellow for the University of Louisville. They live in Jefferson.

Print or share article:Print this page
Print
Email this to someone
email
Tweet about this on Twitter
Twitter
Share on Facebook
Facebook