Klar: A Country Mouse, in defense of the local

by John Klar

There have been numerous iterations of the classic fable of the Country Mouse and City Mouse, but the theme commonly centers on each visiting the other cordially, eliciting contrasts about their respective cultures. America appears to be witnessing a falling out of this historic union. Wealthy City Mice sneer in disdain at rural bumpkins, even while extracting natural resources and wealth for urban consumption, or buying up high-end idyllic country retreats. Instead of hosting their visitors with country fare as in the fairytale, rural natives are hired to do the landscaping and plow the driveway, uninvited to the city. The Country Mice are tiring of this abusive colonization. The urban-rural strain is a visible fault line in America’s Culture Wars, and the relationship is floundering over seemingly irreconcilable differences.

Among the various permutations of the City Mouse and Country Mouse story, most versions recount a visit to the country by the City Mouse, who is unimpressed by the simple country fare. This leads the mice to then seek the plenty of the city, but threatening dogs terrify the Country Mouse to flee. In Aesop’s version, the Country Mouse says “I would rather have a crust with peace and quietness, than all your fine things in the midst of such alarms and frights as these.” 

The COVID pandemic saw “alarms and frights” rock the concrete foundations of urban America: hospitals were horror movies of ventilators and overcrowded hallways; grocery stores were swarmed by masked toilet-paper hoarders bouncing into one another with overstuffed carts, frantic consumers in bumper cars. The perceived social benefits of city living inverted for many into a near-claustrophobic prison of vulnerability. Climate change ideologues assert that humanity must compress yet more tightly into efficient urban life, but this turns out to be a precarious bargain.

Wendell Berry has long lamented this drawdown of talent, resources and culture by the migration of rural farmers to urban residency. Mr. Berry does not mince his precisely-chosen words about how extractive and exploitative this economic/cultural shift has been:

A human community, then, if it is to last long, must exert a sort of centripetal force, holding local soil and local memory in place. Practically speaking, human society has no work more important than this. Once we have acknowledged this principle, we can only be alarmed at the extent to which it has been ignored. For although our present society does generate a centripetal force of great power, this is not a local force, but one centered almost exclusively in our great commercial and industrial cities, which have drawn irresistibly into themselves both the products of the countryside and the people and talents of the country communities. (The Work of Local Culture, 1988)

This “giant sucking sound” of wealth from the rural heartlands and hinterlands of America is not heard of in the media or the cities, save an occasional lame lament that “family farms are suffering and isn’t that a shame.” The City Mouse perception that farmers and Country Mice are dull slaves to dirt has become more widespread since Mr. Berry raised his alarm in 1988 (and much earlier). This shift is a cultural shift, as city denizens are mostly themselves rural immigrants to their urban sprawl.

American cities import food and labor from the countryside just like Rome of old, though the capacity to export toxins and waste back onto that nurturing landscape in return payment is far exceeded in America today than in Nero’s time. Wendell Berry graphically personifies this urban tendency as parasitic:

There is, as one assumes there must be, a countervailing or centrifugal force that also operates in our society, but this returns to the countryside not the residue of the land’s growth to refertilize the fields, not the learning and experience of the greater world ready to go to work locally, and not—or not often—even a just monetary compensation. What are returned, instead, are overpriced manufactured goods, pollution in various forms, and garbage. ….The cities, which have imposed this inversion of forces on the country, have been unable to preserve themselves from it. The typical modern city is surrounded by a circle of affluent suburbs, eating its way outward, like ringworm, leaving the so-called inner city desolate, filthy, ugly, and dangerous. (The Work of Local Culture, 1988)

This intergenerational sapping of rural culture is evident in Vermont, where agriculture, especially cow dairying, has generally declined for a century. The “local” culture of Vermont was built on self-reliance and independence, which in turn was entwined with agriculture. But the poverty and deprivations that accompanied the death of dairy persist across the Green Mountain landscape even as more farms disappear.

Thirty-five years after Wendell’s 1988 essay, Vermont’s landscape carries the imposed burden of that “inversion of forces on the country” in the form of skyrocketing real estate prices (especially for farmland; especially post-COVID), dependence on tourism, and the storage of mountains of urban garbage.

The Coventry Landfill in Coventry, Vermont has ballooned into a Bog of Eternal Stench. Locals call it “Mount Casella” after its operator and mountainous dimensions. This incongruous stain is striking because it is so disproportionately massive compared to the declining nearby city of Newport. The heights of the rising mountain of refuse overlook thousands of acres of pristine wetlands and the Black River, as well as the international Lake Memphremagog. Mount Casella is partly constructed of out-of-state waste including “construction materials, sludge from sewage treatment plants, asbestos, ash, contaminated soil, medical waste and more.”

Gradually, over decades, Vermont’s remnant of poor ex-farmers and their families and homes have been displaced by mansions and estates, as the colonization and gentrification of this rural hold-out region has worn down the “locals” much as the harsh winters have withered their leaking barns and drooping farmhouses. In their Exodus back to the country, the City mice have decided they too prefer Aesop’s “crust with peace and quietness.” But they are not bringing an agrarian culture back from the cities to Vermont. They are more likely to suburbanize its towns and seek modernity and convenience. Much like that ringworm analogy.

And yet this infectious idea of an illusory progress has tainted many native Vermonters as well, equally beguiled by the dubious goods and perceived plenty of the big city. The conflict unfolding is one not really between people but between worldviews: cultural worldviews.As Wendell Berry continued in his 1988 alarum:

But the old opposition of country versus city—though still true, and truer than ever economically, for the country is more than ever the colony of the city—is far too simple to explain our problem. For country people more and more live like city people, and so connive in their own ruin. More and more country people, like city people, allow their economic and social standards to be set by television and salesmen and outside experts. Our garbage mingles with New Jersey garbage in our local landfill, and it would be hard to tell which is which.

Vermont dumps almost all of its own garbage into Mount Casella, though it exports some to New Hampshire and New York. Its own consumption of goods–often including unhealthy processed foods, shipped huge distances–is culturally indistinguishable from the flow of garbage trucked out of the cities.

That flow now includes fentanyl and methamphetamine, gang traffic and violent crime. America watches the chaos and deterioration in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Portland, Philadelphia and New York City. Is the urban cultural decay not itself the direct consequence of the inversion described by Berry–of a society that founds itself on the urban and extractive rather than the communal and agrarian? Vermont’s young people perishing from fentanyl mingle with the dead of the ghetto, as the scourge of urbanization, cheap energy, and technological excess continues to destroy the rural landscape and culture.

As America’s cities are ravaged by BLM riots, looting flash mobs, rising violent crime, powerful gangs, and homelessness, many are fleeing for the hills, seeking refuge and sanctuary. The solution to the problems of ecological destruction, rural economic decline, and cultural identity are not utopian visions of a grand Green New Deal or WEF GMO wheat kernel. They are to be found at the local level, where local culture still clings to the knowledge of tended soils and self-reliance; of the proper balance between the health of humans and of the place that nurtures them. 

Wendell once again: “Lacking an authentic local culture, a place is open to exploitation, and ultimately destruction, from the center.” The Country Mouse must hold his meager remaining rural ground and simple traditions, not against the City Mice (who remain his cousins), but against the ways of the urban-industrial center. Reckless urbanization severs human connection to soil and life, to the detriment of all.

(The author, connected to soil and manure with heifer Molly and some yearling sheep.) 

Previously published at Front Porch Republic.

The author is a Brookfield best-selling author, lawyer, farmer and pastor. Reprinted from the Small Farm Republic website.

Categories: Commentary

8 replies »

  1. Bingo ! Even some of the urban refugees get it ! They have changed this state from what they moved here for, to what they moved here from .

  2. It is perhaps time for our state legislators to recognize that tourism as the main business endeavor for Vermont is a bad idea. In the town in which I live in the NEK, over 50% of the homes are not owned by locals. These people therefore have no interest in the local community. The locals pay the burden of the taxes that support these non-locals. Is it time to reverses this? Perhaps the non-residents should also pay the school taxes ( which are way too high in my opinion and probably due to waste on use,ess programs rather than actual education). The locals bring their ATVs, dirt bikes and race up and down our roads throwing out their beer cans etc. which is hardly and improvement and just an an annoyance for permanent residents. In my town there is no business other than an Inn, so there is even very little revenue from outsiders. Home based businesses are still difficult because Internet is still very poor for most of us as the local CUD drags its feet in connecting the town.

    • Oh… and not to mention that Vermont has been an unfavorable place for those engaged in dairy farming etc. Vermont has a climate very favorable to small scale but diverse farming, but tourism has made this unaffordable for anyone starting out. If Vermont believes in local food security then as a state we need to retake our land back to small scale farming and support and create an environment where this is possible.

    • Just as a point of information, non-residents pay a higher level of property taxes than residents which includes the ridiculous levels of education taxes. In general, non-residents (or VT residents with a camp or second home) get very little for what they pay in taxes since they don’t have kids in schools,

      • They also raised the price of housing by overpaying for homes and land. Young people can’t afford to buy or build here now. I think you may have moved here and might be defensive about not being a Vermonter by birth. Just a guess. If you are young, you aren’t qualified to tell people as old as me about what you think you know, we have lived it.

  3. If you want to blame urban residents for all of our ills, then that’s what’s called scape goating. Perhaps many of the country mice need to look at themselves to find realistic solutions. Dairy farming in Vermont has been on the decline for a long time because it has become and will continue to be simply cost ineffective, partially due to the decline in the use of dairy products nationally, especially milk and, yes, even ice cream. Guess those city mice need to go have a chocolate sundae. It’s great to have the idyllic vision of the way it used to be but I don’t know how many people can afford the prices local small farms need to charge to make a living unless it’s the city mice who are buying it.

    On another note, is it the city mice who have destroyed the Vermont state college/university system? No, it is Vermonters who refuse to understand that there are too many colleges for the number of students who want to attend. Just look at the reaction to any suggested changes in the system and you can see why it is failing. It is time for a painful reckoning, not to play with the deck chairs on the Titanic.

    • First of all, what you say about the colleges is true. Before that is way off. The government has made everything you mentioned from the cost of milk and what farmers have to charge. The city dwellers who moved here did exactly what Pat said by running for elective office and filling our institutions with liberal nonscience. Maybe you don’t realize that Vermont was conservative for 109 years before the liberal invasion. We had more cows than people. The cows didn’t turn Vermont, the implants did.

  4. This whole article explains just what happened to Vermont. Look at Burlington and the surrounding area. Box cities for urban shoppers and meaningless trinkets for sale to buy for 5 minutes of satisfaction. Neighborhoods of people not knowing who their neighbor is. Basic drone people doing the same thing every day to survive the payments and taxes and if lucky a two-week vacation.

    Quaint small towns have driven jobs away and replaced them with hopeless welfare, drugs and crime. Nothing for young people and fear for the elderly. I’ve watched it happen while traveling the state for work.

    Those who moved here with their city money and liberal politics have as Patrick above says, ” They have changed this state from what they moved here for, to what they moved here from”. Nothing is truer than that statement.

    As I have witnessed over the last 60 years, my disgust has only grown, and my heart is broken to see the great state I was lucky enough to born in as a youth and then raise my family before the worst of it hit.

    On the road to Bradford on Route 25, there’s a long rundown barn and painted on its weathered boards it says in red paint, TAKE BACK VERMONT! On another white painted barn on route 16 toward Glover, there’s another saying painted in black letters that says, A MUSIUM OF EVERYDAY LIFE. The owners of these two barns have expressed their feelings in the Vermont way and live life, real life.

    I’ve come to really appreciate the open spaces and of beauty of Vermont and those who tell it like it is without all the fluff and fancy words with limited meaning. What I’ve also come to realize is that most people are fake, and humans are highly overrated. Especially those empty suits, dresses and pants suits who call themselves our leaders. As well as those who moved here from somewhere else to tell us how to live.

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