View From Afar

“One Kansas farmer feeds 87,000 people-and you.” This smug and slightly hostile billboard always catches my attention when I drive back to Chicago from Marion County.

“You city folks would starve to death in a week-without us faithful, yeomen tillers of the soil,” is the implication.

I want to get off the highway and head up his driveway and tell this sign-posting farmer, “Hey, after you get done feeding your four kids and your wife-and yourself-you’ve got enough wheat and cow meat left over that you better hope 86,995 folks chose to buy them. Otherwise you can stick it in your basement and look at it for a few years.

“By the way, nice pickup truck you got. I presume you built that yourself and refine the fuel that runs it?”

“Is there any chance some grocery-dependent urbanite generates the electricity you use on your farm?”

Cities and farms, when I think about, must have emerged simultaneously. When a farmer grows more than his family can eat, he is presuming that some city person will give him cash and goods in exchange for the surplus. When a city-dweller knows he can get a regular food supply, he can become a metal smith, pot maker and cloth weaver.

Both sides expand in size and skill-and, probably, within about 10 years they start making hostile jokes about “helpless city slickers” and “stupid country bumpkins.”

Decades ago my friend Jim spend a week in Marion and Harvey counties. Jim was half-Black, half-Italian and the ultimate urban gangster and Chicago storyteller.

(I doubt if he had been outside of a city for more than 10 hours before his visit to Kansas-and that would have been on a Greyhound bus.)

When he returned he said, “Those folks in Kansas are just like Chicago people. They are blunt, honest and funny.”

Jim helped me think about rural and urban lifestyles in a new way. City kids and country kids grow up knowing life is real-the dangers for a 12-year-old moving cattle and driving heavy equipment on a farm are not so different from a city kid taking the subway to junior high and knowing which streets are dangerous.

A farmer who watches a hailstorm wipe out a bumper wheat crop in 20 seconds and a union member who gets notice on a Friday that his plant is closing and moving to Mexico both know that some things are simply beyond human control. Both know they must go on.

City and country people both know how to pound out a living from a hostile, harsh and often unforgiving environment.

Country people who become urban dwellers eventually get the hang of city life in a few decades. The few city folks who move to rural communities do learn to fit in.

The very sweep of human history-as sketched in the biblical narrative-begins with a bunch of naked animal namers living in a garden and ends with a vision of a new city with pure water and a perfect climate.

“I don’t care, I ain’t never gonna live in no city,” is what I imagine the sign-wielding farmer in northwest Kansas is saying.

But eventually-at the end of our histories-we do become eternal city dwellers.

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