Since 2000 North Carolina has grown from about 9.5 million people to well over 10 million, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Most of that growth is in our urban areas while many rural areas and small towns are losing people. These facts would not please the late Reynolds Price, the great writer and Duke professor, who died in 2010. He loved our small towns.
Shortly before he died, he explained in “Ardent Spirits” that when he was a Rhodes Scholar in England and in his early teaching years at Duke, he reached back to his growing-up years in Macon, a town in rural Warren County. His experiences there helped him define who he was and gave him the setting for his first and best-known novel, “A Long and Happy Life,” published in 1962.
Price got me thinking about the importance of small towns back in 1989 when he gave a talk about the importance of memories to good writing. Memories, he said, develop alongside the connections of extended families and stable surrounding communities.
He brought home his point by saying, “That couldn’t happen if you moved every three years.”
Here is what I wrote in response:
Our memories are our treasures. They are who we are. Looking backwards, some of us see our parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, cousins, longtime friends, teachers, preachers, and the places we knew them–home, church, school, stores, and fields. Those people and places of growing up define us. They are our anchors, our foundations, our roots. At least they are, if we have those memories–if we remember where we grew up.
But fewer and fewer of us know where we are from. The average American moves every three years. You can’t let your roots grow too deep if you move that often.
If you move every three years and live in a new neighborhood where everyone else is new, Price said, you are not going to have the same kind of memories as those who grew up in one place.
Does it make a difference? I think it does. I can’t prove it, but look around at the people who are making a difference in North Carolina–the best business leaders, our best political leaders, our best teachers and writers.
Don’t a disproportionate number of them come from small towns and farms?
What explains their success in the development of leaders for the rest of us?
Some big city snobs would say that these leaders have had to overcome their culturally deprived backgrounds. Look at the small towns, they say, and see nothing happening, backward schools, no theaters, no big libraries, no big-time sports.
Nothing there? Nothing but the stable nurturing that creates the self- defining memories that Reynolds Price talked about.
North Carolina’s small towns and rural communities are the state’s “people estuaries.”
Estuaries are those protected brackish waters along our coast, which, with the marshes, swamps, and backwaters, are the most efficient producers of food in the state. They are a critical link in our food chain. We often think of those areas as underdeveloped swamps. But they are irreplaceable treasures where the richness and stability of life makes for one of the earth’s most productive ecosystems.
Reynolds Price was right. Those nurturing memories that the small towns make possible are important in giving people a sense of who they are. People who have a sense of who they are become better equipped to lead, which may explain why small towns are so successful in producing so many North Carolina leaders.
These small towns are our “people estuaries.”