Essay by Christina Nealson
Mountain Life – July 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine
Emma’s coveralls sag ’round her small, plump body and cast a smell of alfalfa and cow dung. The furrows in her face are as deep as those in her fields, dark lines etched by years of sun and wind, the work of the land.
Her two-story wood home sets proud on a prairie landscape with few trees. Its quiet walls no longer rumble with the comings and goings of family. Her clutch is gone, the up-stairs bedrooms shut off to save on heating bills.
Emma expected this much, to work from sunup to sundown raising her family on the ranch with her husband. She knew her sons and daughters would leave home with college acceptance slips and probably not return. But she still hopes that maybe one will.
What Emma didn’t foresee was Jeep Cherokees and mini-vans outnumbering pick-up trucks on the road to town; or that she would be standing in line with strangers at the meat counter in the corner market; or that she’d be forced to vote against a new school for children with last names she’d never heard of.
What Emma didn’t predict was how her interior West would become the new Nirvana. Miles of undeveloped land. Clear air. Crystalline water. Low crime. Little traffic. Safe schools. Seductive mountain backdrop. She didn’t foresee that the world would discover what she’s known since birth.
“I wish they’d all go back to where they came from” says Ralph, my neighbor, as he unloads my horse hay. He quickly stops and looks me in the eye, “Not you, of course, but everyone else.”
“Of course you mean me,” I say, “and that’s okay.”
Debates and forums and committees and mediations spring up like mushrooms across the Mountain West, addressing change and growth. The West, an urban oasis for years, is now experiencing a population shift to small communities, as urbanites become discouraged with sprawl and development, and their neighborhoods become less habitable.
My county, Custer County, a sleepy little windswept ranching valley since the first German colony in 1870, a bison grazing ground before that, now boasts the title of the fourth-fastest-growing county in the country. Country, not State!
U-Hauls arrive, driven by good people, good citizens, who want to be a part of a smaller, safer, healthier community. No one faults the intent. It’s when things begin to change that hackles raise.
It is a tender situation, full of good intentions by all. A situation that brings me to this central observation: as time transforms a house into a home, as time makes a partnership a marriage, so time makes a town a community. Newcomers may move to a town, but the community isn’t theirs to claim. The patterns and habits and blood that set the pace are born of those already here and those who lived before. I, a newcomer, must earn my place. My physical presence alone should not grant me voice or membership.
It is a hard pill to swallow for the instant-gratification generation, breast-fed on mobility. Most of us couldn’t wait to leave our home community. We left for a college education, better jobs, and more money. We left the suffocating opinions of those that knew us too well behind. We left in the ’60s upheaval to find ourselves. We left because it wasn’t cool to stay.
Now middle-aged, we do not turn back to the land of our ancestors. No, we seek what we left behind in other people’s communities.
The fact is, no one owes us community. We must earn it.
Newcomers need to acknowledge that our move into a new area generates huge change to the landscape and its inhabitants. Once settled, newcomers should take five years to become informed citizens. To build relationships. To get to know the landscape and all of the inhabitants: two-legged, four-legged, winged, finned, plant, and rock.
Listen. Feel the heartbeat already in place. Communities in the West fit no one description. They are a collage of differing desires and realities, that includes everything from ranchers, tourists, subdivisions, ecologists, large industrial developments, small cottage industries, and descendants of the first settlers to weekend spiritual seekers. The one thing our communities do share is a proliferation of real-estate offices.
This five-year period should be used to attend meetings and give opinion and input. Most importantly, it would be designated a probationary time until newcomers could vote on local issues, a time period defined by the community. I suggest five years. It is my observation that many transplants move by that time, a fact that census figures are beginning to confirm.
This idea is sure to meet resistance. But a probationary citizenry period would give newcomers the opportunity to make an informed decision about staying in a new community, while preventing the disruption of existing community principles.
Yes, it is a slippery slope, but one that must be contemplated. How else to value and protect the small, intact community in a time of rapid movement and upheaval? Change can not and should not be stopped, but it can be slowed and informed.
Christina Nealson lives and writes on the mountain’s eastern thigh in southern Colorado. Her book, Living On The Spine (A Woman’s Life in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains), Papier-Mache Press, will be available from your favorite local bookstore in July.