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Originally appeared in Issue No. 7



View from the Summit
by Catherine Cunningham : Editor, Terrain.org


I may as well start at the beginning.

This was the big city, the city wild! I mean huge, wide streets with lanes and lanes of traffic. I remember wondering, in my five-or-so-year-old mind, "How can my mother possibly know where she is going. with all the criss-cross concrete slabs and pulses of chrome bumpers and white-wall tires."

From this experience, I formed my first definition of a city: traffic lights. I suppose this was a reasonable conclusion since there was nothing more elaborate than boring, metal stop- and yield-signs in my own tiny hometown, except for the red-blinking train crossing at the corner of 4th and Garfield.

When I was older, maybe eight, I visited a really big city, Minneapolis. From this trip, I don't remember if my thoughts ever turned to traffic lights. But I do remember seeing a lot of people and tall buildings-so tall that it seemed the sun was setting all day long. I remember going to a Twins game and thinking that all the people and the action right next to us in the stands was far more interesting than what those guys in funny pants were doing on that big green lawn a mile from our seats.

I admit my thoughts have changed only slightly regarding baseball, as well as my original traffic-light definition of the city. It seems that population is the driver-the more heads counted, the more city-esque the place. That first big city I referenced, the biggest in my home state, was one of about 100,000 people. Folks from REALLY big cities would often jeer that their single city held X times more people than the combined population of my entire state. I proceeded to visit some of those gargantuan cities and friends from cities would occasionally venture into the "boondocks" to visit my family and me. Nearly every time the comparison came up, the "city slicker" would politely (or not) say to the "country bumpkin," "Well this is a nice place to visit but I just couldn't live here.

Oddly enough, we country folks were thinking the very same thing about the city.

Several years ago I asked a city person, "Is it difficult to raise your children in Manhattan? Is it safe? It doesn't seem like there would be anything for kids to do."

While I asked the question, I envisioned a typical day in my childhood summer: play with the kittens in their various hiding places, see what Dad was building in the shop, come in for dinner (noon meal), saddle up one of the horses and meet up with the neighbor kids (also on horseback) to race across an alfalfa field or up the giant sand piles at the gravel pit or mosey over the pasture en route to swim the horses across the stock pond, finally venturing back home for supper (not dinner). Our boundaries were the surrounding miles of farm and pasture land. The rules were to do our assigned chores before we were allowed to play, be back in time for meals, and don't swim the horses across the stock pond.

Looking back on my childhood it seems that a rural setting was the ideal place to raise a kid, and I thought myself lucky to have had that opportunity. The drawbacks were having to ride our bikes on the impossibly bumpy gravel roads and the fact that it usually took a quorum of siblings and/or neighbor kids to get a parent to drive us all the way to the town swimming pool. We kids talked endlessly of how cool it would be to live in town so we could go swimming every day! Not surprisingly, we didn't ride bikes or swim that much.

As it turns out, my question about raising a child in the city gave my city friend some offense. She replied that she wouldn't think of raising a child anywhere else because there was so much more for children to do and see in the city than.well, anywhere else.

While she may have thought of the country setting as boring and lacking social necessities, I thought of the city as dangerous and lacking spatial necessities. I suspect we were both correct to some degree. It would seem that both places, the big city and the rural setting, are both endearing and ensnaring at the same time. When it comes down to it, each one of us has an ideal of that space that feels just right.

Still, my perspective as a small-town girl has given way to a love of the city. I realize that many of the things I love about a rural setting are the same things I love about the big city. I love the interesting people, the corner grocery store, and the unique restaurants. I love the architecture, history, and artwork. I love the natural environments the city can offer, whether filled with grass and trees or rock lawns and cacti. I love catching a glimpse of the unexpected flower growing through cracks in a sidewalk, or the furry and feathered critters dodging us humans in their quest for food and shelter. I love the buzz of excitement in finding a new place to explore. While both big city and small town proudly hold claim to all of these assets, their differences reside in their relative proportions.

I like to think I invented the word "de-hickification". It means the process of learning about the world outside of my rural upbringing. It means being exposed to diversity, change, history, and new ideas. While I treasure my rural roots, I have found great satisfaction in expanding my experiences, seeing new places, and meeting new people. What makes a city special to me? No doubt, it is the bazillions of lights, taxicabs, shadow-casting skyscrapers, and bustling pace that incite my heart to pump a little faster. But it is the treasures of place and a community's personality that make me crave more.


Catherine Cunningham is an environmental specialist with the U.S. Department of Energy's Western Area Power Administration, a federal agency responsible for marketing hydroelectricity produced at large dams throughout the West. She is also a planning commissioner for her mountain town.
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