A Patchwork Quilt
On the back of my couch rests a patchwork quilt made from the old jeans and corduroy work clothes of farm women and men, many long since gone. The now-frayed quilt of smooth pale denim and paisley, barn red and sun yellow corduroy, was assembled by the skilled hands of Volmer Lutheran Church Lady’s Aid women. It was auctioned off at a bazaar in the church basement one dark October evening where my mom placed the winning bid, and I immediately co-opted the quilt for blanket forts and comfort on days I was home sick from school. The day I moved 600 miles across the Big Sky State to attend the University of Montana in Missoula, the perfectly weighted seven by five-and-a-half foot multi-colored quilt was lovingly packed into the back of my 4Runner. It kept me warm in the depths of Rocky Mountain winters, soothed me on Sundays I felt homesick, and later blocked out white noise so I could record a podcast.
My home is filled with reminders like this. Reminders of where I come from.
Atop a slab of granite rock pulled from a harvested wheat field rests a spindly skyward-reaching houseplant. Propping up memoirs by Sarah Smarsh, Grace Olmstead, Kathleen Norris, and Ivan Doig is a rusted out sprocket from one of Dad’s tractors. A found deer skull with antlers sits on a bookshelf filled with classic rock and country records. Sand from the hills in Grandma’s pasture and soil from the fields surrounding my childhood home line the low windowsill beside my kitchen table.
I wasn’t always this preoccupied with my homeland. In fact after I left the sandy hills, prairie buttes, and coulees of Northeast Montana and Western North Dakota, I sought to distance myself from my prairie past. Arriving to a forward-thinking college town from a place that no one had ever heard of, with a slow and thick high plains accent, I was pegged as provincial. While I tried to laugh off being called a country bumpkin by new friends from sexier places like Seattle, those slurs cut deep. It took me years to admit that, but at the time, I learned to pause and think before I spoke, shedding elongated pronunciations of bag [pronounced bayg] for bag, sorry [sorey] for sorry [saw-ry], Megan [Maygan] for Megan [Mehgan].
I leaned so much into this vocal transformation that I was even asked at a party once where in New England I was from. These are the growing pains of early college for a country kid. Test driving versions of yourself until you’ve found a vehicle for being that better fits into popular culture.
While I was busy trying to outfit myself with an affect that would grant me the perceived sophistication and wit of my peers, I was still proud of being from a Montana farm family, and I never once said I was from a place I wasn’t.
And despite trying to change the way I spoke, my new friends were intrigued by my childhood stories weathering weeklong snow storms, witnessing golden bumper crops lay flat after a hail storm, and warding off coyotes with an old radio during calving season. It was beside these companions that my love for the mountains and my attachment to the greater state of Montana deepened.
I was intoxicated by the Garden City and craved constant stimulation from hot spring adventures across the Idaho border, to house shows on the North Side and footloose nights on the town. I was more of a student of my helter-skelter life than my English studies, and my identity became wrapped up in everything Missoula meant to me, from the time I first crossed the Rocky Mountain Front to visit my oldest sisters in college, to my new early-adult life.
At that time I hadn’t the patience or the reverence to see what humble beauty resided on the grasslands in my rearview mirror. I didn’t yet realize all the sophistication and wit that abounded on my family’s multigenerational farm.
As the youngest in a family of four girls, with siblings 7, 12, and 14 years my senior, I spent many days during childhood entertaining myself. Without many kids nearby, my best friends were my dogs Lucky, Fritzie, and Oscar. We’d dig tunnels into snow banks or sneak down to Grandma’s for tang and ice cream when mom was on long phone calls with German relatives. In the fall my cousin Jacob and I would climb hay bales and shoot gophers with the 22. My favorite times were spent playing in an old hay loft with my friends Katie and Alexa then sneezing myself to sleep after. I had many glorious days like this. Days I’d come home with dirt inside my ears and ticks embedded in my skin.
I also had many lonely days. By the age of 11 my sisters lived in Pullman, Washington; Nederland, Colorado; and San Francisco, California. Then my two best friends moved away, and I became the only girl in my fifth grade class with three pre-pubescent boys. With my friends gone, and my sisters far away, I grew to think of Northeastern Montana as a place to wait until the rest of my life would begin. Eighteen years later in a grad school classroom in Seattle’s bustling Capitol Hill district, I began learning how broader cultural forces and public policy also played a hand in why I thought about my rural home as a waiting room.
“Most of the mainstream media I consumed portrayed rural America as a backwards place lacking in culture, education, and economic vitality.”
First let’s consider the cultural forces. The reason my peers thought to call me a country bumpkin in college, and the reason I was convinced it was better to have a metropolitan sounding accent, was due in part to urban-normative media portrayals that valorize urban society while creating single stories of rural and blue-collar people. Especially when I was growing up, I either didn’t see myself in TV characters or film protagonists, or they leaned so far into belittling stereotypes that they were hardly recognizable. On the other end of the spectrum, some pioneering mythologies framed country life as a white pastoral utopia devoid of conflict, loss, or diversity. But most of the mainstream media I consumed portrayed rural America as a backwards place lacking in culture, education, and economic vitality.
For those who don’t know people from rural America in real life, these caricatures dominate the social imagination, standing in as the only examples from which to create limited and problematic assumptions. For rural people themselves, the cost of these negative portrayals can be self-loathing and shame.
Rooted in my attempt to reframe the narrative on rural America is a desire to dissolve these stereotypes so they don’t have so much of a hold on rural-raised people. Without the shame attached, my hope is that we can be proud of where we’re from, maintain our accents, and hopefully help create a more harmonious relationship between the big city and small town.
Now considering policy, I’m by no means an expert, but in that Seattle University classroom, I was introduced to the possibility that my life and the future of people living in rural America was directly connected to public policy. It’s not just a question of individual will power, or a culture that venerates mobility and encourages rural youth to leave their small towns in order to “make something of their lives.” There are also regulatory measures, laws, and funding priorities in place that influence the fate of our rural community members. Rural Idaho native Grace Olmstead tackles this in her memoir Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind, where she writes “many rural towns are considered interchangeable and expendable, valuable not for their own sake but because their resources—lumber, paper, coal, minerals, gemstones, oil, gas, produce, dairy, meat, and grains to name a few—have for many decades been exported to other places by large corporations. These towns’ worth (or lack thereof) is contingent on what other spaces think of them, take from them, or offer them. This extraction of worth, hope, and resources is something farmer and essayist Wendell Berry and economist John Ikerd have both referred to as ‘the economic colonization of rural America.’” She continues, “It’s easy to exploit places we don’t know about, places we believe to be unimportant.”
These aren’t just hypothetical places for me, and they may not be for you either. The places and people impacted by actions like the federal “get big or get out” policy that’s become a cultural ethos since the Nixon administration are my dad, my cousin, my uncle, my neighbors, people featured in my podcast Reframing Rural’s first season. They’re the reason I want to add color and complexity to the larger cultural narrative, to push back against the notion that rural America is culturally and politically homogenous, that it’s unimportant.
The impact of policies that devalue a place in order to exploit it is fewer and fewer farmers farming larger and larger tracts of land. It’s a dwindling and aging population, a fifth grade class with four kids in it, and the shuttering of the Lady’s Aid group that sewed my favorite quilt.
When I first got the idea for Reframing Rural, I was finding a lot of comfort in my patchwork quilt. It was the fall of 2016 and I had just moved 2,700 miles across the country from Portland, Oregon, to Asheville, North Carolina. Smoke from the Gatlinburg fires in East Tennessee was barreling over the Great Smoky Mountains into the Swannanoa Valley. This was the same time rural America was being held responsible for voting in the most polarizing candidate for presidency in modern history. The term “flyover country” was swapped for “Trump country,” and a divisive narrative quickly took hold. In the 2020 report Revealing Rural Realities: What Fuels Inaccurate and Incomplete Coverage of Rural Issues, the Aspen Institute and Center for Rural Strategies reported that after the 2016 election local journalists were being constantly contacted for “stereotypical ‘rural’ sources such as the farmer, coal miner, or Trump supporter, even when these people may not have reflected the zeitgeist of the community. Many interviewees expressed that quick-turnaround stories from national outlets ignored the diversity and nuance of rural America.”
As I watched this happen from my new home base in the Blue Ridge mountains, I grieved how my home state of Montana and rural Americans across the country were being portrayed. This overly politicized narrative on rural America had come to be a single story that didn’t allow for the nuance and timbre of an individual’s voice. Less than a year later, in an application to Seattle University’s Arts Leadership MFA program, I wrote that if accepted I’d like to provide a platform for rural people to reclaim their stories, celebrate their culture, and connect with a broader community. The following year I returned to the Northwest to do just that.
There was a time during college when I hadn’t return to the farm for almost three years. Later I was brought home by a string of memorial services. When I launched Reframing Rural, I had the opportunity to go home and get to know my community again without the tinge of loss. When I first returned to record interviews for my podcast, I had the privilege of thanking Margaret and David, the lay ministers who orchestrated my grandparents’ memorial services. I sat across the table from Ralph, our mailman who shared the value of neighbors and what it means to have faith. I spoke to my family friend Kay who detailed for me her time working in a two-room country schoolhouse. I had a long conversation with my friend Eddie who expressed his spiritual connection to the land and animals on the high plains. I conversed with my neighbor Thomas about the investment risks of agriculture. And I shared stories and created new ones with my parents Renny and Russ.
Thanks to the generosity and openness of these people I knit together a series of stories that I hope elicits the diversity of thought, the wisdom, and the hardiness of my small Northeastern Montana community. I hope I’ve made the case for why we should think about people, not headlines or statistics, when we think about rural America. And I hope I can compel you, whether you live in Plentywood, Montana or Seattle, Washington, to pay attention to the human experiences that unite us, not just what’s keeping us from getting to know one another.
In the 2018 documentary hillbilly, filmmaker and Kentucky native Ashley York says “sometimes you need to leave where you come from to find your voice. And other times you have to return to that same place to listen for a deeper understanding.”When I return to Dagmar, I listen for the wind, the crickets, and the coyotes. I listen for the space between people’s thoughts, how they’re making it through another hot and dry summer and an unpredictable economy. I listen for the joy or the fatigue in their voices and see if there’s something I can do to help while I’m there.
As I write this, I’m packing my work boots, field recorder, and camera for the 1,000 mile pilgrimage back to the farm. I’m revisiting where it all started for me, putting the time in to continue getting to know the place where it all began.
When I get there, I’m going to hop in Dad’s Chevy pickup and instead of watching the grasslands disappear in my rearview mirror, I’m going to embrace my roots and succumb to the vastness of the Northern Great Plains.
This essay was adapted from the podcast Reframing Rural.
Megan Torgerson is the creator and host of Reframing Rural, a podcast that aims to reframe the narrative on rural America. She holds an MFA in arts leadership from Seattle University, and was an inaugural Humanities Washington Public Humanities Fellow in 2022.