Reflections On A Rural Sojourn.
I was born in a city, and cities were what shaped me as a person. Furthermore, it was not just any city where I was born, but the most archetypal and cosmopolitan of them all- New York City, on the island of Manhattan. Some of my earliest, most blurry memories involve being surrounded, in my stroller, on all sides by the “concrete jungle” of skyscrapers on either side as my parents or babysitter wheeled me down a Manhattan sidewalk.
At a very young age, my family moved across the country to San Francisco, different in many ways from New York, but no less urban. Growing up, I attended the French American International School, immersed in learning another language at a near native speaker level from the very start of my education. My particular education gave me the opportunity to travel overseas numerous times, most particularly to France, but also to countries as diverse as Poland, India, Israel and others.
When I was in college, I went on a journey that took me in an entirely opposite direction, deep into the heartland of “middle America.” I took a position with Barack Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012, as a field organizer. My assignment was in eastern Iowa, in two deeply rural counties, one having a population of less than twenty thousand people in total.
In order to get to the region where I would be assigned for my work on the campaign, I drove, with my father, for three days from San Francisco to my final destination in Dubuque, a town of around fifty eight thousand people that was the closest thing my region had to a central metropolis. By the afternoon of the third leg of our trip, we had finally turned off of Interstate 80 onto Iowa State roads, and this is when it began to fully dawn on me just how different of an environment I was entering.
I remarked to my father that, although I had visited half a dozen foreign countries by this point, this was the most “foreign” place that I had ever been to, such were my dyed in the wool urbanite sensibilities. And this is before I truly went off the beaten path, beyond even the main towns of the counties in which I worked. These towns often consisted of just a central road running through the country, with a few houses on either side. There might also be more remote farmhouses, miles away from the “main drag.”
These small farmhouses would require a drive of their own away from the “center of town” for me to reach them, fifteen minutes or more on some occasions in order to reach just one household. Iowa was not as flat as the common stereotype holds the Midwest to be (Nebraska is another matter, however), at least not the eastern area where I was. The form of the countryside was much more rolling hils than flat cornfields, although there certainly were cornfields that I encountered over the course of my fieldwork.
The people that I encountered as part of my Iowa journey were nothing if not kind and welcoming, although minor elements of cultural disconnect would assert themselves from time to time. I frequently found myself asked by people whether I was married or not (sometimes accompanied by the question of whether or not I had any children, presumably with my hypothetical wife). I would habitually respond “no, I’m twenty one,” only for this response to be met with puzzled expressions from my interlocutors.
As I met more and more people and became more and more accustomed to my surroundings, I realized just how alien my own attitude was in this part of the country. People there still held something of a more traditional mindset with regards to the age at which to marry and have children, whereas the mindset that I was coming from still held me to be a child in many ways. More than once I met people my own age who had at least one child, if not two. I eventually learned to simply answer “no” in response to this question, omitting the commentary about my age.
It has been almost nine years since my Iowa sojourn, so why has this been on my mind lately? Over the past year, I have been on a journey of learning about and improving my physical and mental health, developing a much greater understanding of the role that food and environment can play in well being. Part of my education in this process has been learning about the pivotal role of regenerative agriculture in not only improving the climate, but also in providing humans with the most nourishing food available in a world where unhealthy is food is not only readily available, but actively promoted to the general population.
I have perused sources that are more academic in nature, such as the Allan Savory Institute, as well as ones that, while no less educational for me, are less strictly academic in background, such as the Armstrong sisters. These two young women remind me a great deal of some of the people I met during my time in rural America, and they also have a health journey similar to the one I underwent, although arguably even more severe than my own.
The sisters, Ashley and Emily, are originally from Illinois (Dubuque, Iowa sits on the border between Iowa and Illinois). The sisters both suffered, according to their website, from a host of issues including “autoimmune diseases, dealing with extreme fatigue, brain fog, rashes, chronic constipation, inflammation, depression, Raynaud’s, joint pain, & more.” Just as conventional dermatology had failed me, conventional medicine had clearly been failing them.
Just as I did, Ashley and Emily found that their way of eating was the key to restoring their wellbeing. By adopting first a ketogenic, and then a fully carnivore diet, they were able to cure many of the health issues that ailed them. They have since transitioned to a way of eating that is, while no longer fully carnivore, still mainly an animal-based way of eating that includes eating animals “nose to tail.” Their YouTube channel provides several short, helpful videos on how to prepare various organ meats, which has been very helpful to me as I attempt to incorporate organ meats into my own way of eating.
Beyond merely diet, the sisters also dedicate much of their public platform to advocating for the benefits of regenerative agriculture, hosting interviews with the likes of Will Harris, owner of the regenerative farm White Oak Pastures. They also have criticized the push towards mass-produced “plant based meat,” purported by many (and often with big business backing) to be the supposedly more healthy, ethical, and environmentally friendly way of eating “meat,” even though this idea may fall apart under scrutiny, with regards to both health and the environment.
Beyond merely making YouTube videos and publishing a book, the sisters have decided to take a decisive further step in putting their beliefs around regenerative agriculture into practice. They have done this by purchasing their own farm in rural Illinois, which they will attempt to operate in a regenerative way. So far, they seem to have made both progress, but have also faced numerous challenges along the way.
Does this all mean that I am going to suddenly drop my urban existence and attempt to start a farm somewhere. No, at least not at the moment. However, when I think about my own time in rural America, I think that that experience was crucial to me developing the ability to think outside the usual perspective of someone who had the upbringing that I did.
This has now manifested itself, years later, in me following a path to health that was not altogether conventional, particularly in my experiments with the carnivore diet, which conventional wisdom decries as being unhealthy (although I have found that it did benefit me, as have many others.) As of right now, I am not planning to leave the city life behind and take back to the land.
But what I will do is attempt to use these experiences, both mine and those of fellow people of my generation like the Armstrong sisters, as I further reflect on how I can broaden my perspective as my life journey goes on. And as time goes on, I become more and more comfortable with the idea that my life journey may take me further and further off of what I thought the beaten path of my life would be.