Life in a rural neighbourhood has been taking a beating in literary circles for about 200 years. Legions of writers, starting with Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, have been working steadily to show us how dull, backward and unpleasant small towns can be.
But now an Israeli writer named Noah Harari has announced that the village is our oldest and most durable form of social organization. In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind, he points out that the village has been around for at least 75,000 years and that much of our craving for connection is actually a longing to re-create the village of our ancient past. We need to feel connected to a circle of about 100 other souls to maintain our mental health. We may appear to be obsessed by the cult of celebrity and the global marketplace but what we really crave is the emotional warmth that comes out of a potluck dinner at the community hall. Without it, we become neurotic and miserable.
Unfortunately, villages make great settings for bleak novels. That may be because small communities have been in steady economic decline for so long, sucked dry by an old economy that exhausted its resources and even drier by a new economy that doesn’t need its skills anymore. No place shows well in decline.
Life on the sideroad has always been a glass house. Farming is one of those occupations that give you a wonderful opportunity to make a complete idiot of yourself in public. When small family farms lined the concession roads, everyone lived and worked in full view of his neighbours. Each family followed the same schedule of morning and evening chores and all entered the same race against time and weather to plant and harvest the crops. It was a matter of public record when the lights went on in your barn in the morning, how well you maintained fences and buildings and how successfully you stored up good quality hay and grain to carry your animals through six months of hard winter. A man was judged by the straightness of his furrow and a woman by her skill in the garden and kitchen.
This constant vigilance could become oppressive. Farms are not built on level playing fields. Some have topsoil and some do not. Some are paid off and some still have mortgages. When one generation slips behind, it often takes two more to bring it back.
Many of the community’s best young people took the first opportunity to bolt on a bus to escape this glare of publicity and judgement. Those who stayed behind, found themselves locked in a grim struggle to hang onto the land in the face of powerful forces arranged against them.
When I was growing up on the farm in Dufferin County in the 1950s and 60s, I was struck by the way people took such pleasure in lopping off the heads of the tall poppies of the community. Conversations frequently moved to someone absent from the gathering and the sniping began. Because they had all grown up together, people knew just where to plant the bombs. They labelled each other freely and cruelly: The Whites were lazy, the Browns were cheap, the Greens were hot-tempered and the Greys were drinkers. If someone had done well, that was because some windfall had dropped into their lap, not because they were smart or diligent. If they did badly, it was due to some genetic fault that ran through their family back to the time of William the Third.
At the same time, I was also struck by the way a death or a fire brought the community out in droves, not to stand and gawk, but to cook and clean, do chores and fieldwork, to comfort and to grieve.
For a long time, I struggled with this contradictory behaviour and assumed it was just the way small towns were. But as I grew older, I found similar behavior in any group that was forced to function together in one place for a long time under severe stress: On a university campus, in a theatre company, in a political party or an insurance company.
To make any village work properly, it must offer us the opportunity to hear and be heard, to receive and grant forgiveness of human nature and circumstance. In the end, this is the only relief we ever get. It is forgiveness that restores us to our community and its endless cycle of loss and pain, joy and hope.