Sunday, February 06, 2005

Further Musings on the Nature of Rurality

One beauty of living a rural existence is the quality of the characters you meet. Urban dwellers on the other hand - stuck between commuting and hockey practice - rarely encounter their cul-de-sac compatriots and thus miss the opportunity to indulge in their peculiar conformist quirks. Personally, I feel somewhat blessed in this regard.

In contrast to urbanity, the space factors of rural life force one to combine neighbourhood and friendship. Unlike urban areas, rural kids grow up together. You have to attend the same school, play on the same hockey team and are forced to more or less get along and compromise - there is only one social circle after all. There is no room for labels like the 'goth', 'nerd' or 'jock' crowd so often emblematic of high school existence. I am convinced that this great social compromise of growing up rural - combined with the excessive drunkenness and drug abuse - is exactly what leads to the proliferation of odd loveable characters so famously portrayed in the Wingfield series of plays.

On my concession alone live a cast of characters fit for any drama. My favourite is my buddy Lyle, who is basically a hermit and lives by choice in a condemned house without electricity with his mother who makes incessant fun of him because of his lisp. He refuses to drive and thus has to bike to town. When passing him on the road, this 65 year old man promptly throws his bike in the ditch and races for cover. He's not afraid of getting hit, rather he's afraid that someone he knows might stop and offer him a lift. Occasionally though, he does show up at our house unannounced for dinner and a bath - as he does with everyone up and down the road - and nobody particularly minds. From bearded mountain men to Steam Thresher enthusiasts, he's merely one of a multitude of interesting sort that make up the eastern townships of the County.

Of all the characters of the townships, the most interesting to a wider audience - as the only one with a web presence - has to be Larry Towell. He lives in an unassuming ramshackle farm house dating from the 1830s on the banks of the Sydenham River and travels only as necessary, yet is a full member of the world's most prestigious guild of photographers founded by such notables as Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Chim. A resident of the Sydenham valley since birth, Towell's work - which includes the Townships, West Bank, Mexican Mennonites, and El Salvador - has led to being published in the New York Times and Life. In true township form, he remains as doggedly unconventional as they come, choosing to wear his legendary straw hat and suspenders wherever he goes - including board meetings.

My first encounter with him was as a 12 year old when I stayed for a weekend at his house visiting his son Moses. The Persian Gulf war was on and he proceeded to grill me on the illegitimacy of it all:

"War is wrong. You can't justify it."

Those words remain imprinted on my brain. Can't say he's not right, it's just that it was indeed heavy stuff for a youngin'.

The crux of Towell's work is based on 'landlessness'. He's lived with and documented the Sandistas in Nicaragua and the rebels in El Salvador.

'Assignment editors tend to think of Towell when a story fits into what he calls "the culture of resistance." Experiences in Latin America, photographing Sandanistan resistance to the Contras in Nicaragua, then working with the relatives of the disappeared in Honduras, established Towell as a photographer who could express not just the violence, but the resilience of people and their struggle to maintain personal identity and home.'

“The Land makes people into who they are, and when they lose it, they lose their identity.”

The same could be said for all of us... whether in El Salvador or the Townships. The land is indeed what makes people into who they are, and as Towell suggests, forms their identity. It is the experiences of our physical world that sculpt our reality in terms of how we live and interact and subsequently the realities of urbanites and a ruralites are dichotomous because of it. However, economic pressures coupled with urbanization is quickly eroding the unique culture of Rural Canada. With urbanization comes standardization and conformity. It also brings about the elimination of the hallmarks of the true rural identity - tight-knit communities and the embracing of unconventional characters like my buddy Lyle.

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