Reviving the myth of small-town America
How to happily return to dirt in the age of the internet.
Kenny Morgan knew he was dying.
So, he sent his lifelong best friend — my dad — some reflections on his life.
“One of the things that I see very wrong with the way things are going these days is the sovereign fact that we have lost our identity as a nation of small communities,“ he begins. “Let me tell you about a single morning in a small community called Jackson, Louisiana during the late 1950s. Perhaps this account will stir you into thinking how close we once were as opposed to how we are now.”
Kenny dives into a hauntingly beautiful account of the community coming together to find a naked, escaped patient from the local insane asylum.
I’ll share that story at the end. Scroll to the bottom to see that.
For now, I’m wondering why Kenny begins his letter to my dad with a complaint about small towns. Of all the things he could write on his deathbed, he reflects on the spiritual destruction of Jackson, Louisiana.
I think he knew it was the crux of everything wrong with how we live.
Why Kenny lost his powers
When you put people together, they automatically, over time, form dense networks of interconnectedness.
We’re more like neurons than we think — part of some larger cognition — our little tendrils reaching out into the void, looking for as many connections to make as possible.
I cover this process in detail in my essay “The Rebirth of God.”
Not long ago — sixty years, say — small towns littered this enormous country. If you drove to any one of them and started asking questions, you would uncover an ongoing drama so complex and interesting you could spend the rest of your life understanding it.
Now, you could drive to small town after small town, mostly hearing the same stories. Drugs. Unemployment. Walmart.
What happened to us?
This destructive process is what Kenny felt in his bones as he passed away.
See, Kenny was the storyteller in Jackson. He wrote down his turkey hunting stories because, once upon a time, people intently listened to them: During Boy Scout meets, at the local pharmacy, and when Lester came to fix his roof. The town wanted what Kenny had to offer. Like the guy who makes chairs, Kenny provided people with a service — however intangible.
But, then TV. Then, the internet. Then, social media. You know how it went.
Slowly but surely, Kenny felt his value in the community slipping away. Nobody wanted to take part in his local myths (which, for us, just means stories that unite people) when they could obsess about the myth of America, Hollywood, and the Globe. Those are designed by genius marketers to be endlessly addictive. What hope did Kenny have?
But it wasn’t just about poor old Kenny. He felt the interconnectedness of the entire town begin to decay. Instead of coming together to find an escaped insane asylum patient, people retreat into their homes, fulfilling their desire for the community by watching TV and scrolling on Facebook.
It’s a hollow substitute. So hollow, in fact, that people turn to drugs and other vices to cope with the loss of community. Thus, they drive themselves further into their hovels.
Why did we do that to ourselves?
And is there a way to fix it?
Feet in the dirt, head in the stars
The advent of communication that spans the globe was an attempt to reach for something higher. Humans naturally aim for the stars.
The same process that drives you to ask your neighbor for sugar is the one that drove humans to lay a high-speed internet cable at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean.
It’s a noble desire — to communicate with everyone on the planet in an instant. We have made ourselves more like gods in the process.
But, in our frantic reaching ever higher and higher, our toes have come off the dirt. We’ve forgotten the plot. We feel unmoored, unsafe, and with a loss of meaning. The novelty of our accomplishments has worn off.
Does that mean we should have never reached up to begin with? No.
It just means that it’s time for some balance. We need to get our feet back in the soil before we reach further into the stars.
How? Let’s get very practical here:
The rise of remote work, for example, means that we no longer have to cram ourselves in these cities with towers reaching so high. Lots of my creative friends in LA are buying land in Arizona and Montana. They feel this psychic shift, too.
More people on social media show us their lives in the soil — farming, building, and raising children on grassy lawns.
People are getting fired from Google and Twitter. We’re realizing, on some cosmic level, that not everyone can be a software engineer. Someone has to actually make things. And, as a bonus, there is enormous joy in creating with your hands.
Personally, I was drawn to LA because I sensed the same thing Kenny did. I was a storyteller like him, but I knew there was no place for us anymore. I wanted to find the source of the myths that were sucking the life from my hometown. I followed it like a moth to the flame.
I’m still here in LA. But, recently, I’ve been going to the local church on Wednesdays and handing food out to the homeless population. I’ve made deeper connections there — with other volunteers and even the spiritually lost — than in years of “hustling.”
Let’s not freak out. It’s not the end of the world.
It’s just time to get back in the dirt.
Once our roots grow a little, we can reach for the stars again.
Thanks for reading,
Jackson was a community like many thousands of others, but with its own uniqueness. You see, it housed a huge mental institution with its thousands of sprawling acres and thousands of inmates, row upon row of physical structures, and hundreds of employees. These employees made up the stock of Jackson; they were what the town was all about.
Now there was one particular inmate named Fontenot who would always get a little stirred up as spring approached with the increase in daylight hours and all; this being about the time corn was up and growing in the field, mid-March or so. Invariably on a cool dew on the ground morning, he would somehow get out of his holdings and go on his annual spree.
The Asylum had a fool proof way of alerting the community when someone got out. Miss Bonnie, the hospital switch board operator would notify the officials and call Lila Dean or Alba Claudine, the switchboard operators in town with the news of what was going on. Who was out. All the info about the escapee would be relayed to several key people within the community made up of a network of party lines. Party lines were telephone connections occupied by multiple families. Each family had its own special ring and every one on the party line was privy to the information each and every person had.
Of course the situations would vary. When an escapee dislodged himself from ‘The Criminal Building’, there would necessarily be much more to do about the precautions and protocol taken.
But on this morning, it was not someone who had murdered his mother, but just old Fontenot, who had been locked up for some reason for years. It was invariably about 5 o’clock in the morning for a number of years running that we would get a call from Wilhelmenia Palmer’s party line to our party line with the simple message, “Fontenot is out”. Mother would then call the next party line with the same info,
“Fontenot is out”. In about 15 minutes, every one in the Parish would know that Fontenot was out and likely galloping naked through the countryside.
This year, like others, they had found evidence that he had broken into the Tasty Freeze and helped himself to some ice cream before beginning his 5 mile run to the north. He would leave every stitch of his clothing neatly folded on a stool at the ice cream place.
The officials would load up a couple of old wore out blood hounds and calmy drive north out of town and stop at the Miller Road and let out the hounds. As Farrel Wilson put, “We weren’t going to catch Fontenot with the hounds; we just wanted to get him moving along so he would run off all that energy before he got to the next town.
On this frosty March morning I was in our pasture as daylight came. I could hear a far distant baying of hounds to the south followed by a strange high pitched sound coming out across hundreds of acres of woods and fields; that would be Fontenot yodeling as he ran.
And with each yodel would come responses from the woodland creatures; this being most interesting to me, especially those shrill shock gobbles coming from the wooded little creeks holding roosted turkeys. I marked them for future reference and noted how the very far away one sounded like they were falling
from the sky. There was gobbling coming from the Spillman place, the Delee place, the Nayce Haynes Place and from the back of Mr. Carpenter’s garden. All good information to have. THIS INFORMATION WOULD HAVE BEEN UNAVAILABLE TO ME WITHOUT THE COOPERATION WITHIN THE COMMUNITY. I had been given the heads up.
As Fontenot approached, I was finally able to see his glowing white, six foot four inch 250 pound body steaming across the pasture. He was at our fence before I knew it and he leaped the 5 strand barbed wire barrier with a single flat footed bound. I was amazed that he didn’t lose some of his middle aged ‘hanging parts’. He gave me a glance and let loose with an eerie Tarzan like yodeling having incredible energy. Fontenot sprinted north and it dawned on me suddenly that it might be informative to follow him.
I hustled to my bike and rode like hell up the graveled Dawson Road. I barely beat him to the bridge down there, him running up the creek and me on the road. When he crossed Dawson Road, he let out another bugle and excited more wildlife.
I then rode out to Highway 68 and finding the packed red clay of the road much easier to ride, sped north up the highway for another mile and took a position on the rim of an old gravel pit.
From there I heard him yodel again and heard a turkey gobble from Mr and Mrs Austin’s place. Mrs. Austin was my Sunday school teacher and I formulated yet another reason to get dressed for church on Sundays.
The dogs quit baying, they had been caught up in Dad’s field. Soon though, Farrell and the ambulance full of dogs drove by and pulled in at Mr Emerson Thompson’s artesian well swimming pool. There lay an exhausted Fontenot cooling off in the water.
Farrell coaxed Fontenot out of the pool and gave him a huge shot of Thorazine. Soon the dogs and Fontenot were all sleeping soundly in the ambulance. Mr. Thompson’s cook came out and served biscuits, fig preserves, and coffee to everyone. I put my bike in Mr. Thompson’s truck and he gave me a ride home. Mr. Thompson commented on how gentle the employees at the hospital were with patients.
You see, this could not have happened anywhere except in a small close knit loving caring community. Today’s society would have found someone getting hurt or killed or sued or something because some poor insane person was running naked.
As it were, I worked a 2-10pm shift at Fontenot’s ward when I was a senior in high school. Though his run through the countryside had been years before and we had only made momentary eye contact, he knew exactly who I was and upon my first visit to his ward, he jumped up and shouted, “ turkeys!”
I am pretty sure Fontenot died while incarcerated, like thousands before him, all with no one to care for them except the citizens of the small town of Jackson.
But alas, Edwards and other politicians discovered the money making schemes of privatized health care and East Louisiana State Hospital is no more.
"Someone has to actually make things. And, as a bonus, there is enormous joy in creating with your hands."
Yes please! The sooner more of us figure this out, the better.
"It’s just time to get back in the dirt." Amen. Your writing is both good soil and good seed Taylor.