Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Too Many Careerists, Not Enough Place-bound People

September 11, 2000

This summer I published a column on the psychology of place bound people showing a distinct mindset and value system of people who live and work in one place all their lives. I contrasted this with the mindset of the views of mobile people - "careerists" - who are the product of the dominant culture in western industrial and post-industrial society. I received the following response from Jim Van Der Pol, a farmer from Minnesota.

Dear Dr. Farmer,

Thank you for your recent column about place bound people. As a farmer, and one who has lived most of my life in the same area, I appreciate the accuracy and descriptiveness, but especially the feeling evident in your writing. That farmers and rural people share this trait with native people and some of those in the center urban areas of our country is true, if not much talked about.

All of the various quests that careerists types (Wendell Berry calls them urban nomads) have made over the years to "seek wisdom" have involved talking to one or another place bound person. From the natives who are thought to understand much of the natural world to the "family farmer" to monks in a monastery as Kathleen Norris mentions in "Dakota," the bearers of wisdom always turn out to be people who have learned how to be at home in their place.

From that perspective of course, it is easy to agree with you when you say, "that way of life is fast disappearing from our midst." There are times when I think that the simple act of being at home must have been made illegal while I wasn’t looking.

It would not be obvious to the American mainstream, but any place bound person knows that it takes real effort and determination to stay place bound. Every act of government, much of the mission of public education, television, computers, the Internet, as well as all advertising, work toward the destruction of living and being at home. It is not enough to feel sorry that a fine way of life is disappearing. We must ask if that way can be done without. Would, in fact, the careerists, or the urban nomads, be able to live a decent life if they were the majority? This, of course, is the experiment being played out now on a grand scale as our country urbanizes and moves further away from its sources. The jury is definitely out.

How will we care for our environment, for instance, if we are never in one place long enough to know it? To assume that we will, or that we can, is to assume that environmentalism or ecology can succeed as an intellectual exercise rather than as a long established habit of living. I cannot believe it. It is likelier that the environment will be cared for by millions of humans caring for their place, in much the same way as a person washes his face, i.e., not because he expects pay or praise, but simply because it needs doing.

And is not the random violence that so scares us, whenever it shows up, possible only because we have become a nation of drifters? How would random violence perpetrated by an unknown person against someone that the killer does not know, be possible in the kind of world that is built of connections and networks, of people knowing other people?

Road rage is the very definition of drifter violence. Generally people are shot at or run off the road in these incidents merely because they are offering some small delay to someone who wants to "get somewhere". The perpetrator, having gotten somewhere, will within minutes or hours jump back in the car and head for somewhere else.

Dr. Farmer, it is impossible to make the argument I am trying for in such a short space. Suffice it to say that I think that the kind of American dream that is built on unlimited mobility is responsible for many of our society’s ills. Alienated and dangerous youth, rest homes full of older people, broken marriages, all of our various dependencies and addictions, as well as our unmanageable cities, environmental breakdowns and disasters, unsafe food, destruction of rural economies, as well as local urban ones are related to our tendency to move around endlessly.

I don’t think we can casually if regretfully say goodbye to the ways humans have lived with each other for centuries. We may be leaving something in the past that we will need, at considerable cost and misery, to go back and get.

What if it turns out that the life of a careerist or urban nomad is only possible for a small minority of people who can live that way as long as the rest of the population holds the common life together?

Once again, thanks for your column. It touches a vital concern.