Here's how to bridge Oregon's urban-rural divide

Or “DEE-vide,” as we pronounce it east of, oh, I don’t know, Hood River — but not in Bend — and south of, say, Eugene, but not in Bandon.

 

I was standing in line at OHSU — Oregon Health and Science University, Oregon’s premier medical facility — when I overheard the clerk ask a patient ahead of me, “Do you want your pronouns added to your chart this morning?”

The country boy in me raised his eyebrows and stifled a smirk, because what could be more Woke, more Portland, more urban lib, than brandishing your preferred pronouns? (Mine are singular.)

Right there, standing at ground level in OHSU’s Center for Health and Healing complex in Portland’s South Waterfront, with the famous trams zizzing overhead and free valet parking for your bike — that’s Oregon’s urban-rural divide right there, isn’t it?

I’ll bet they don’t ask about your pronouns when you show up at the Asher Community Health Center in Fossil. I was there once when two cowboys burst in the clinic door, one of them carrying a 10-year-old girl who was wearing a western shirt, jeans, and boots. The guy who carried her in hollered that she’d been showing her 4-H steer at the Wheeler County Fairgrounds next door when the darn bumbly thing stepped on her foot! Hope it didn’t break her toe!

“She was doing real good, too,” showing her steer, before that happened, he hollered back over his shoulder.

There’s that divide again. It’s a real thing: There is a geographic, cultural, social, political, and economic difference between the two Oregons.

The checker who helped me with my coupons at my Portland grocery store the other day had long dangly earrings, eye makeup, a pink swoosh in his long hair, and wore a lacy skirt.

But a guy I talked to, Jim Johnson, the land-use expert at the state Department of Agriculture, asked a really good question about such encounters.

“So what?” he asked.

You’re not required to declare your preferred pronouns at OHSU, for example, but you can if you want. It’s important to some people but not to others. It’s certainly more common among businesses and institutions in urban Oregon than in rural Oregon, but so what?

But the divide seems so wide, doesn’t it? We’ve got Eastern Oregon counties mumbling about joining Idaho and knuckleheads jumping into rural school board races so they can ban books they think are pushed by anti-American Woke Folk drag queens, or something. We’ve got urban snoots who think people living Out There are uneducated bigots who couldn’t make it in a city. We’ve got disdainful urbanites who treat scenic rural areas like literal Bike Through country — places to pedal through and pity the people.

But a woman I talked to, Associate Professor Lauren Gwin at Oregon State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences, asked another really good question.

“Who benefits?” she asked. Who benefits from the discord?

Fringe politicians and outrage manufacturers, maybe? But not most of us, I’ll bet.

Instead, there is a big middle ground sitting unoccupied, and I think most of us wouldn’t mind meeting there and solving some problems in this state. I hear people posing some questions and making some points we all ought to consider before we jump into urban vs. rural arguments.

I talked to Therese Bottomly, the editor and vice president of content for The Oregonian and its website, OregonLive. I’ll bet many rural residents would be surprised to learn that the boss of Mainstream Media in this state is a native Oregonian who grew up in Portland and played varsity soccer at the University of Oregon.

She presides over a news organization that shrank, reduced statewide coverage, and shed a generation of experienced journalists in order to cut costs and stay in business.

My reading of the reporters remaining in the profession is that many of them are young, bright, idealistic, eager as hell, and technologically skilled, but lacking the life experience that might help them understand rural Oregon, in particular.

But you know what Therese tells her young chargers these days?

She says, “Slow down and listen.”

And that is good advice for urban people. Because rural Oregonians will tell you they are more familiar with urban reality than the other way around. They go to Portland, Salem or Eugene for specialized medical care, to catch a flight, to shop, see a show, do business and find services they can’t get in Hooterville. They see the homeless camps, the traffic and the bizarre street people in addition to the attorneys, bureaucrats, bankers, executives, politicians, professors and other power brokers who make the state go. It’s not the life for them, but they get it. They aren’t so sure that urban Oregon gets them, however, or even thinks about them much.

It seems to me that much of rural Oregon is standing at the edge of common ground, and would welcome some company from the cities. So how do you get there? Recognizing some basic truisms would be a good first step.

First, people in rural areas have to be able to make a living, and much of the economy out there is linked to the land and the water. Urban Oregon has to be careful about imposing laws, limits, taxes, values, and beliefs that make that more difficult.

Urban people ought to recognize that Oregon’s farmers, ranchers, and other rural landowners are the first line of defense against environmental degradation. “We live there,” as one exasperated Eastern Oregon blueberry grower put it to me a few years ago. “We’re not going to poison where we live.”

If nothing else, city people ought to go visit rural Oregon and sprinkle around some tourism money. There’s more to see in Oregon than Multnomah Falls, Mount Hood, Crater Lake and the Coast. If you haven’t visited Wallowa Lake, the Steens, and the units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, you don’t know this state.

Worried about running into rednecks out there? Say hello. Be courteous.

Flipping the viewpoint, rural Oregon should recognize it’s important that cities work. Portland in particular is cranking up its housing density, packing more people into less space and devoting less room for cars. Urban life isn’t for everyone, but dense development staves off or at least slows sprawl, and preserves farm and forest land.

How about we celebrate and sustain the things we have in common? Food is a great starting point. You can go anywhere in this state and find excellent local beer, wine, cider, or spirits to go with your burger or salmon filet. When I was a reporter, I reveled in stories like the Hood River orchardist who held the contract to supply apples and pears to Portland Public Schools, and the Wallowa County rancher who sold grass-fed beef to OHSU’s food service.

Urban-rural partnerships can take on many forms. Gilliam County, in North Central Oregon, has been burying Portland’s garbage in its Columbia Ridge landfill for more than 30 years — taking in about 550,000 tons per year. A “host fee” collected by the county helps pay for local services.

Gilliam — pronounced “GILL-um,” should you venture out there — is a major electricity producer, too. It has seven wind farms — those giant turbines — and this spring brought online the state’s largest solar farm. The 1,200-acre facility has more than 470,000 solar panels and can generate enough electricity to power 40,000 homes.

“My county in particular has a long history of being in partnership with urban Oregon, to the betterment of both,” said Elizabeth Farrar, the Gilliam County judge. Incidentally, she’s from a fifth-generation farm family in the county but worked in Congress and on political campaigns before coming home.

Yes, the urban-rural divide is a real thing, but it doesn’t have to keep us separated. We can all do things to bridge it. First, go see for yourself. Then, ask so what. Ask who benefits. And slow down and listen.

Eric Mortenson is a Pacific Northwest writer who spent 37 wondrous years at Oregon newspapers. He’s a self-described husband to one wife, a dad to four kids, and a useful human to two dogs and two cats.

 

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