Who’s Telling the Story? Consumer Culture and America’s Rural Communities

by Kate Parker   |   November 21, 2019

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In Bluemont Virginia, there’s an old country general store, and it’s been there for over a century. It’s painted blue, and it sits at the end of an old road called Snickersville Turnpike. It’s said that the road used to be an Indian path. Sweeping hills and broad bends remember a time when human paths still paid heed to the migratory routes of animals. Now, of course, the road has been paved for local traffic.

In addition to school buses and pick-up trucks, the town sees a lot of traffic from the city. Sports cars and bicyclists roll westbound down the turnpike, eager for a taste of the countryside, and many of them end up at the general store. The cyclists drop in to refuel on water and energy bars, their shoes clattering loudly on the old wooden floors, paying with cash from little Ziplock baggies. Ladies in summer dresses stop in to peruse the collection of used books, canned goods, and horse tack. Soon-to-be-weds stop in for ice cream after touring their wedding venue. They muse about moving to the area someday. 

I’ve noticed that the customers always bring more to the counter than just their money. Whether or not they’re aware of it, they are contributing, in their own way, to a story about rural life in Bluemont. Both city and rural kinds collide in the store, and their views on country life crash in complicated and awkward ways.

You see, the store pretends to be simple, but in reality, it’s powerfully political. The store is alive and uniquely conflicted; torn between loyalties to the past and present; strategically blending the real and artificial; constantly confusing private and public perceptions of rural Virginia. The store operates ambivalently upon an impasse between community and tourism; rich and poor; Democrat and Republican; rural and urban. Just to step through the door and hear the bell ring is political, because the store itself is a political narrative; an unfinished story, a spinning projection of rural life.

When I worked behind the counter, I was many things to different people. I was a farmer and a bona fide local to some. To others I was “miss,” “sweetheart,” or “darlin’.” A few times, I was the object of a cyclist’s sexual gaze. He would come in on Saturdays just to buy ice cream and stare. Once, I was the girl in a love song a man wrote and sang for me. Another time, a father declared that I was “more of a man” than his two sons when I caught him five chickens.

It was even assumed by a select few men in MAGA hats that I sympathized with the Klu Klux Klan. They expected me to laugh at their jokes. Well, wasn’t I a Republican? And when the bible school buses pulled up, wasn’t I a Christian? When the war vets came, wasn’t I a patriot? So long as I stood behind that counter, God bless it, wasn’t I American? In hindsight I realize my apron wasn’t a neutralizer—it was an open canvass. 

*  *  * 

That summer, Bluemont was experiencing an abnormally wet season. It didn’t rain constantly, just regularly at three or four in the afternoon. I started to expect the rain—I felt that I could plan around it. But the rain didn’t just fall. It flooded the fields, browned and bloated the rivers, and lifted the creeks to meet the roads. The days came and went until, suddenly, the rain became the subject of local small talk. 

Sometimes, farmers visited the store during lunch time for hot soup. “It just rains and rains,” they’d say. And “How are we supposed to make our hay?” they’d ask me. Sodden, wet Appalachian Trail thru-hikers warmed up with coffee. The chicken coop developed a leaky roof, and I worried about my co-worker Patsy, a small, 80-year-old woman, getting home safely on her partially flooded dirt road.

Not everything is so weather dependent, though. Life has a curiously stubborn momentum. The same men came every morning asking for the same packs of cigarettes, and every morning I could count on Becky from down the road to buy $1 coffee and a Washington Post. After jotting down my to-do lists for the day, I’d heat up frozen “country” pies and “homemade” whoopie pies. I’d price and put away the Coca-Cola deliveries, check the dates on Pennsylvania milk, and restock the tubs of Hershey’s ice cream.

Cyclists planned around the rain. Tourists spent the afternoon downpours indoors, drinking wine. A Texan couple remarked how “lush” and “tropical” Virginia was. They’d never seen a place so green, and they never wished to leave. In many ways, the rain was simply not a problem.

One morning, Becky came to the store, obviously agitated. She said, “Did you know that the water table is above ground here?!” I said I’d noticed how saturated the soil had become. We talked about the weeds in her garden, and about how her squash blew up in size overnight. When she saw my cracked hands, she asked, “Do you garden?” I said I had a job on a farm, about a half hour away. She said it was good I had another job, because in her opinion, the store wouldn’t be around too much longer.

I asked why, and she pointed to the vacant building across the road. “The counties just approved a plan to spend half a million dollars to renovate that place into a ‘historic’ general store. Town says it’ll be a welcome center for tourists and bicyclists. They’re gonna put up old maps and historic photos and sell old-timey shit like we’re in Harper’s Ferry!” I didn’t know whether to take her seriously. But then the man behind her shook his head and muttered, “This town’s history — ‘s been history”. 

*  * *

For decades, America has been attempting to flush rural life from rural places. Earl Butz called in the flood, and only the biggest farms were able to survive it. To be sure, organic vegetable farming and the local food movement are on the rise, but I worry that these trends are merely fashionable alternatives to the reality of industrial agriculture. The fact remains that U.S. farm policy has decimated rural farming communities across America in the name of agribusiness.

The environment has also suffered as a result, and the condition of animals in modern industrial slaughterhouses is inexcusable. We don’t live on the land like we used to; we’ve forgotten how to respect it, how to know its limits. The land has historically been both the symptom of, as well as the remedy for, an ailing civilization. But I fear we are far beyond such practices. We have emerged into a saran-wrapped world, so shielded and separated from the land that we no longer respect the communities that know how to work and sustain it.

Rural America is not without its vices, but the answer cannot be to simply ignore these vices. I fear, however, that ruralism has become so commodified that the market actually permits us to ignore rural realities. In other words, Bluemont can now be whatever the consumer wants it to be. It’s true, agritourism has its economic benefits, but without enough wisdom, it can also whitewash an entire way of life.  

If we are not careful, we risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It is inevitable that our communities change and evolve, experiencing frictions that are difficult to comprehend. This world is expanding and colliding in new and often violent ways, tearing swaths of histories from entire places as it makes way for the Market. We cannot help but be consumers, I know. But my hope is only that, as consumers, we have the courage to ask: “Who’s telling the story?”

Kate Parker grew up in Round Hill, Virginia, and spent most of her childhood working in the dirt or romping through fields and riversides with friends. She has spent many of her summers farming with Potomac Vegetable Farms, and she likes to paint portraits of friends and write music whenever she can. She is currently finishing up school at the University of Virginia and hopes to use her degree in Political Philosophy, Policy, and Law to advocate for rural communities and sustainable farming practices.