The meaning, value and future of place in rural Minnesota

Gregg Aamot has a compelling commentary over at MinnPost today talking about how young adults from small towns feel the sometimes simultaneous urge to stay and leave. Growing up outside the metro means growing up in a place with an unpredictable economy and a highly specific local culture, two factors that create this dichotomy. I’ve written about this phenomenon here on northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. Aamot writes about his experiences in Willmar. Here’s the wheelhouse:

I have always valued a sense of place. For me, the churches scattered throughout town, the local newspaper, the college, the cafes and barber shops, the old neighborhoods, the amateur sports and the people – white collar and blue, natives and new immigrants – represent a tangible place with its own character.
Sure, modern life has made the world smaller (think email, Twitter and Facebook) and more alike (think Perkins Restaurant and, yes, Wal-Mart), chipping away at those things that make small towns unique. But enough of that local flavor exists to separate small towns from suburban conformity or big-city anonymity.
In many ways, the idea of place – in a world of constant change, mobility and striving – is an important element of identity.

Bingo. In an information economy the only real value is identity and authenticity. Small towns and tucked-away regions like the Range offer something unlike the traditional, increasingly homogenized American experience. The richness of people’s stories may be traced generations, adding meaning beyond the here and now. This is endlessly frustrating to some, but deeply meaningful to people like Aamot, myself and many of you who read this blog.

The tie that binds Aamot’s commentary and what I write here or in my book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range” is a shared reverence and quotation of the work of Paul Gruchow, the late southern Minnesota writer who penned the extraordinary essay “What We Teach our Rural Children.” This piece, probably the most important contemporary essay on the challenge facing rural areas, is found in the collection “Grass Roots: The Universe of Home.”

(PHOTO: A friend of mine pulled in an easy chair with skis behind a snowmobile at highway speed on an Iron Range lake. The driver is a former Republican legislative candidate. This kind of stuff happens all the time around here, if you know where to look).

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