Ontological Reflections on the Quest for Rural Sustainability

Woody Crenshaw is an organic produce farmer and founding board member of the nonprofit Sustain Floyd. Crenshaw and his wife Jackie moved to Floyd, Virginia in the 1970s to, as he proudly recalls, “get back to the land.” He is a passionate and visionary leader who is responsible, with Jackie, for reopening the Floyd Country Store, which celebrates the region’s culture, music and community by holding Friday night Jamborees—an Appalachian dance party—that attracts a variety of participants, including local residents, Virginia Tech students and international visitors. The Country Store also serves as a meeting place for community groups and collaborates with multiple local businesses and initiatives across Floyd County and beyond. Although the Crenshaws sold the store last year, the new owners are pursuing similar aims, so the Store’s role as a festive community-gathering place is likely to endure. Meanwhile, the Crenshaws continue to be very involved in Floyd in initiatives to preserve the rural way of life that both the town and its surrounding landscape represent.

In 2012, the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance Community Voices (CV) group invited Woody Crenshaw to speak on the many efforts he has launched and/or supported to sustain the Floyd area (Crenshaw, 2012). In his remarks, Crenshaw explored the question of how small, rural communities can prove resilient in our open, globalized society. He did so by reflecting on the spiritual and communal value of spaces such as the Floyd Country Store.

I seek to expand on Crenshaw’s observations in this essay by proposing an ontological perspective through which to consider his questions. The Floyd farmer and entrepreneur grounded his CV reflection in his appreciation of his community’s landscape and cultural assets. Like Crenshaw, I wish to preserve communal spaces that promote the sustainability of the environment and culture of rural areas and peoples. However, I depart from his argument by contending that small communities need to reconceptualize what it means to be small and local in our globalized society. Using Doreen Massey’s (2013) ontological argument that space is not defined geographically, but through social connectivity, I sketch a forward-thinking vision of space and place that is representative of the racial and cultural diversity that currently marks the American way of life. I sought a conceptualization of space that maintains the attachments, or social and economic experiences, that many enjoy at the local level, while likewise ensuring that all who live in or likely will reside in our rural communities are able to participate in those possibilities.

 Place-based programs aimed at securing social and ecological justice have become popular as parts of campaigns for rural revival during the last decade, especially in regions such as Appalachia, that have experienced brain drain as well as the related phenomena of relocation or shuttering of textile and extractive industries. Many justice-oriented place-based campaigns organize around communitarian theories that contend that more equitable social conditions are created through agreements and shared purposes reached via sustained dialogue. Some proponents of local movements have argued that this sort of broad process for sustainable change can be encouraged, if not accomplished, by community members agreeing to consume foods produced within their foodshed, purchasing goods from local businesses to the degree they can and by celebrating traditional culture(s).

Still other analysts have demonstrated that although our Gross Domestic Product has grown significantly in the last sixty years, our citizenry’s reported happiness has stabilized and begun to decline during that period. Similarly, many activists argue that in our nation, small, rural communities are among the last places where social relations are not completely embedded in the market and where we can collectively begin to rebuild the social capital that our country needs. Indeed, as Crenshaw demonstrated in his Community Voices presentation, spaces like the Floyd Country Store allow people to be with others and to share a sense of common aspiration and social bonds. Other communal spaces that create this possibility include farmers markets, music halls and locations at which people can cook and enjoy meals together.

But for all of the potential these sorts of possibilities represent, they can be compromised and commodified. For example, during the last ten to fifteen years, many small communities have been working hard to preserve and reinvigorate themselves by embracing programs focused on sentimental imaginaries of agrarian America. Although these place-based efforts have often funneled consumer and state support to rural communities, these sorts of initiatives also run the risk of essentializing local populations and reinforcing fear-based protectionist attitudes towards land, peoples and culture.

There is absolutely no evidence that Floyd, at least not the Floyd Community Store, is such a fear-based, protectionist community. However, when one looks into the nooks and crannies of many communities like Floyd, one is very likely to find a diverse array of cultural backgrounds and ethnicities that are often ignored in campaigns to “bring back” rural life. For example, when speaking of what sustains his region’s local economy, Crenshaw acknowledged Floyd County’s Christmas tree industry, but he did not note how globalized that local industry is. Every year, counties in Appalachia recruit workers, largely from Mexico, to work on Christmas tree farms; thus, this driver of the local economy is actually profoundly embedded in a globalized labor network. Floyd County’s Christmas tree industry participates in this network and when you spend time in Floyd on Friday nights, you are likely to encounter many Latino people enjoying the Country Store and Market.

Moreover, and as this example illustrates, while local consumer transactions may feel personal, those purchases are nonetheless typically embedded in an economic system that spans the globe. Likewise, many place-based economic campaigns rely on tourists to provide community stability and growth. In others words, even though these initiatives are based on place, the transactions and mechanisms for sustaining local farmers, vendors, musicians and artists rely on systems that reach, both socially and economically, far beyond the geographically bound community such campaigns purportedly support.

An ontological approach to place that understands space as socially created and not simply geographically defined can recognize the globalized nature of small, local economic ventures. Furthermore, planning with this approach can assist in creating more sustainable and resilient ventures, for the long term. It is thus important not only to retain democratic spaces, but also to maintain and plan them with the understanding that they must change and will inevitably reflect a much more diverse cultural and ethnic landscape than in the past. In many ways, Crenshaw seemed already to be sensitized to this necessary ontological shift in his description of the Floyd Country Store as a place that hosts people from different nations, races, classes, political ideologies and educational backgrounds. A globalized response to Crenshaw’s interest in how a sustainable future can be constructed for a rural way of life does not lie with building four-lane roads, faster trains or more big box stores, all of which Floyd, Virginia now does not have in any case, but with recognition of the cultural and social diversity that American society now embodies and with efforts to create spaces that reflect that heterogeneity, in which people can feel at home, whatever their economic, social or cultural pursuits.

Efforts to secure a future for our rural areas should surely also include infrastructure projects, such as ensuring widespread broadband Internet connection opportunities, so that rural residents and children can have the same opportunities as those living in larger metropolitan areas. Planning based on the ontological shift I have outlined here would celebrate the rural and the local while rejecting fear-based, protectionist claims. I argue that to chart new paths for the future, citizens of towns like Floyd need to cooperate with other similar communities struggling to be resilient in a globalized world. They must proceed with open minds that support traditional culture and the natural landscape, while remaining grounded in the reality of the present and open to the possibilities represented by the future.             



Crenshaw, W. (2012). The Floyd Country Store: A Place for Community. Community Voices. Blacksburg, VA: The Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance, http://communityvoices.info/past-speakers/woody-crenshaw/  Accessed, October 25, 2015.

Massey, D. (2013). Space, place and gender. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons.

Polanyi, K. (1944). The great transformation: The political and economic origins of our time. Boston: Beacon Press.


Anna Erwin PicAnna Erwin is a PhD student in the Planning, Governance, and Globalization program. Her research focuses on questions of labor, justice, participation, and the alternative agri-food movement. Anna received her Bachelor’s Degree in English and a Master’s Degree in Appropriate Technology, both from Appalachian State University. She is currently a graduate assistant in the School of Public and International Affairs where she is assisting with distance learning curriculum development and program creation for the School. She has also taught courses in the departments of Political Science and Urban Affairs and Planning at Virginia Tech and the Department of Technology and Environmental Design at Appalachian State University. 



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