Wednesday, November 5, 2008


My college roommate from Seattle used to talk to me about culture.

It seems she found me lacking in that area after living in close quarters with me for around a month. This judgment was apparently based on criteria including the size of my wardrobe, the number of museums visited within a five-year period, and the identification of the music of several alternative bands.

In all three categories, I was a miserable failure.

My wardrobe consisted of blue jeans, t-shirts and a pair of scuffed-up boots. On special occasions, I wore black jeans. I didn’t see the catastrophe of buying the t-shirts and jeans at K-Mart.

The only museum I could remember visiting in my 17 years of life was a small facility on Main Street in Harlowton, and the highlight of the displays was a two-headed calf.

My roommate’s final category in the culture test is the one in which I completely obliterated any hope of being deemed “cultured.” Growing up near a town with a population of about 120, I thought “alternative” music meant anything besides country, and I thought that “grunge” was that stuff under your fingernails that your mother always spotted at the dinner table.

Trying to redeem myself, I took my roommate to my hometown over a three-day weekend. As we drove into town, she giggled and said, “Oh, look! It’s just like ‘Little House on the Prairie!’”

As the weekend progressed, her derogatory comments hit home. I began to even feel a little bit ashamed of my roots. I was suddenly conscious of the ancient school, the tiny gymnasium, the unpaved streets of town, the smell of manure wafting through the backyard of my folks’ place . . .

Now, I have always been tremendously proud of my heritage, and my parents had raised me to be a self-confident and independent person, but it still irritated me that this Seattle native thought herself superior to me based on my country roots. I kept looking for a way to prove to her that, in spite of my cultural deficits, I was not intellectually impaired.

I scrutinized the dictionary definition of culture, and suddenly the answer seemed clear to me.
The first entry in the dictionary said, “Development of the intellect through education and training.”

Well, we didn’t exactly have art appreciation or foreign languages offered in my high school, but I received a sound education. And no one can dispute that a ranch is one of the best places in the world to develop one’s intellect.

One of my most memorable lessons occurred as I was given the command, “Don’t let anything go through that door until I tell you it’s okay.”

As a 90-pound girl, that order is a bit difficult to fulfill, especially when you have a couple of hundred ewes charging around the barn and you’re standing in their only exit. But Dad’s words rung in my ears as the feistiest ewe came straight at me, and I stared at her defiantly as she lowered her head and charged. As I lay on the ground with a splitting headache and a sprained thumb, I learned an intellectual, profound lesson; never stand in the way of someone who is determined.

The next entry under “culture” in the dictionary read, “The arts, beliefs, customs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought created by a people or group at a particular time.”

Looking around at my ancestors’ handiwork on our ranch, it was difficult for me to find anything culturally lacking if this definition was followed. The sturdy buildings that have stood the fiercest blizzards of Montana, the grove of trees sheltering the place from the howling winds, the fences, the roads, the crops, the grass . . . all had been lovingly tended by a family quite concerned with its “products of human work and thought.”

The next definition brought a smile to my face. It all fit together now. “The raising of animals or the growing of crops, especially to improve stock; cultivation of the soil,” said the dictionary.

The dictionary never mentioned visiting museums, listening to a certain type of music, or wearing certain clothes.

Since that episode of my life, I have learned that culture requires three things. First, you must understand your roots and how they have shaped you. Second, you must keep an open mind about the roots of others and understand how those roots have shaped those people. Third, you must realize that culture isn’t stagnant.

Under those circumstances, you will understand what training and education you need to further your intellectual development. You will understand why people have developed the beliefs they hold. Finally, you will know how to grow . . . your crops, your livestock, your kids, and yourself.

I’m awfully proud of my roots. I’m not ashamed that I graduated in a class of seven. I’m glad our town’s phone numbers only take up one page in a very small book. I’d like to see more museums someday, but I’d rather just visit with my grandparents. That’s about all the culture I need.


Ashlee said...

You are a very intelligent lady. My parents were both from very small towns. When they were married they moved to "the big city" for jobs. They were insistant that I be raised with a small town attitude and I have often referred to myself as a transplant. I grew up with my grandmother's cross stich adorning every wall and some of the most beautiful quilts anyone has ever seen. How can you not find culture in that?

Dawn said...

Very well written!!!

My graduating class had 36 in it and my small college felt large at around 4,000 students. My son's high school has that many students!

I'm doing fall laundry today and I'll think of you (and our culture) as I lovingly wash the quilts and hand embroidered pillowcases passed down to me by my grandmothers. It will remind me that I had culture long before I moved to the 'burbs!


Anonymous said...

Erin, you need to write a book. seriously. I never experienced that whole "you're a hick" type of mentality because I've always stayed close to small towns. The biggest one was when we moved when I was 15. My class went from 14 to 509. THAT was culture shock for me, but nobody knew where I came from. I must've not stuck out. lol
Thanks for your insight.
Robin in MN

DayPhoto said...



Jenni said...

Oops! I clicked over here and then went off to do my morning chores. I'm not stalking you. I swear!

This is an excellent lesson in culture, tolerance, and being proud of who you are. I'd take your version of culture over your Seattle roommate's any day.

Jenni said...

BTW, I can't believe your graduating class was smaller than mine! Everyone laughs when I say my class was just 28 people including 2 foreign exchange students. Ohio is a wee bit more densely populated than Montana, though.

Jenny said...

The only museum I'd be interested in going to is history or natural (rocks, snakes, etc). I could care less about art.

"Culture" is overrated.

Anonymous said...

I too once attempted to heed the command of my father and found out a painful lesson as you did.

As far as not being ashamed by only gradating with seven in your class... You've got it all wrong sweet. Looking back in time; if I was giving choice of going to a school of seven or fifteen-hundred, I would have taken the seven. You have something others, as myself, could only dream of.

In the words of my father who commanded me astray one or twice… “We all desire want we don’t have, but must find peace in want we do have.”

He’s been gone a while now, so he hopefully won’t hear me say, “I wish I could have grown up in a super small town.”

~ Straight Shooter ~ said...

Have you ever noticed the more cultured and enlightened a person claims to be, the more closed-minded they seem to be?
My father and his wife live in Conneticut...need I say anththing else?
I hear ya Girl. I grew up in So. Idaho on a farm.

Suz said...

Erin~I am curious if you have had any contact with this college roommate and if she has changed her thoughts any?

Anonymous said...

I think that's my favorite post of yours. Loved it. But I grew up in a bigger city than you -- my class had 12! lol.

Marissa said...

Erin, very well put!!! Sidenote: Thanks for updating white background -- I can now read site without highlighting the text! I love your blog -- I read every day!

Stacie said...

I love this. :)

I too had a roommate from a small town. I don't think our excitement over each other really had to do with the size of our respective towns, though.

I was charmed by her sweet draw and her inability to use curse words. She was thrilled that I was Catholic. I was the first Catholic she had ever met. Lol -- we were a pair!

ZenPanda said...

Being from anywhere in Montana gets you referred to as a 'hick'... I grew up in Great Falls getting frowned upon by the airmen at the base and people I met when vacationing around the world with my family.
Then I met my husband. He is from the backwoods of North Carolina.
Now I am a hick married to a hillbilly & very proud of both!!

Keep up the wonderful writing! I love to discover your next post!

Farm Fresh Jessica said...

I'd choose your lifestyle over city life any time!

I'm sure country people are happier and more fulfilled than "city folk"--at least that's been my experience.

Gina said...

Erin, I forget how beautiful and engaging your writing is. And, because I just found your website and there's so much to investigate, I'm going to have to dig up some serious willpower in order to resist the urge to set aside my giant stack of files in favor of settling in to revel in your rich prose.

Star said...

I have one foot on both (good) sides of what seems in these comments to be The Great Culture Divide. On the one hand, I *really* miss what I call "My Montana Fix"...time there with a marvelous aunt, who passed away a few years ago, too young, too soon. I really relished my time with her and her friends, who opened up, when they realized I didn't have "Big City" preconceptions. On the other hand, I always have lived in big cities, and I really love them, too, for their ease, for the variety of lively activities and for...ahem...the museums, where I have ended up working ("mine" is great, of course!). There's so much beauty and fascination in so many things around us, that I think we all just have to find the kind of museum that's right for us (and, hopefully, your college roommate was just still too immature to appreciate all the great experiences that small towns can offer).

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