Seems I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and discussing the importance of living locally, supporting local economies, shoring up local culture this past year. Being a cheerleader of all things local is part of my job as an advocate for the downtown district in our small town. But I deeply believe this stuff too. I believe that if we invest our energies where we live and make sure we pay attention to the things that are closest to us, it makes a difference that ripples out into the world. If our local culture is strong, we have a foundation that can and will support us through just about anything.
Yet identifying what local culture really IS rather than imposing some philosophical wish for what we think community and culture SHOULD BE is something to continually balance, especially in a world where people move about so much. “What is a community?” Mark Mitchell asks in his in-depth article Wendell Berry and the New Urbanism: Agrarian Remedies, Urban Prospects. Can an ever-changing melting pot of a society like America even have “local cultures?”
After a detailed trek through the pitfalls of a society centered on specialization, Mitchell concludes that community, true community that “facilitates human flourishing rather than urban efficiency,” is precisely the preservation of all that is “local.” Mitchell says, “If we hope to create a context within which human lives can be lived with dignity and joy, then we must turn our attention to preserving local culture, local customs, local beauty, local economies, families, and memories.”
So to answer my own question, local culture is not something we need to describe, and it’s definitely not something to impose. It’s something you FEEL when you’re in it. It’s history and family and politics and landscape and art and music and values and people melded into a sense of place that feels vibrant and cohesive and firmly rooted. Local culture is where and how one is connected to life and each other; it’s the soil from which everything grows. It can BE just about anything. We don’t need to define it, we just need to connect to it and keep it alive. Local culture is the collective memory of a community.
Perhaps Wendell Berry himself says it best…
“A human community, too, must collect leaves and stories, and turn them to account. It must build soil, and build that memory of itself–in lore and story and song–and that will be its culture. These two kinds of accumulation, of local soil and local culture, are intimately related.” –Wendell Berry, “The Work of Local Culture”