One on one with D.G. Martin

Reynolds Price wouldn’t like what the 2010 census reveals about North Carolina. The great writer and Duke professor, who died in January, had a thing about our state's small towns.

His last book, Ardent Spirits, was a memoir about his time as a Rhodes scholar in England and his early years teaching at Duke. But even far removed from his childhood in Macon, a town in rural Warren County, Price reached back there to help define who he was and to give him the setting for his first and best-known novel, A Long and Happy Life, published in 1962.

The new census numbers show that North Carolina's urban counties are eating up the surrounding rural areas. The formerly rural Union County has traded its small-town character for intense suburban development that makes it indistinguishable from adjoining Mecklenburg. Much of Johnston County now looks like the Wake County suburbs of Raleigh.

Price got me thinking about the importance of small towns back in 1989, when he gave a talk about the key role memories play in good writing. Memories develop alongside the connections of extended families and stable communities.

To drive his point home, Price said, "That couldn't happen if you moved every three years."

Here’s what I wrote in response:

Our memories are our treasures; they are who we are. Looking backward, some of us see our parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, cousins, longtime friends, teachers, preachers and the places where we knew them: home, church, school, stores and fields. Those people and places where we grew up define us. They’re our anchors, our foundations, our roots. At least they are if we retain those memories — if we remember where we grew up.

But sadly, fewer and fewer of us know where we’re from. The average American now moves every three years. You can't let your roots grow too deep on that kind of timeline.

If you’re continually relocating to new neighborhoods where everybody else is also newly arrived, said Price, you’re not going to have the same kind of memories as people who grew up in one stable place with a history.

Does it make a difference? I think it does. I can't prove it, but look around at the people who are making a difference in North Carolina — our best business and political leaders, our premier teachers and writers. Don't a disproportionate number of them come from small towns and farms?

What explains these areas’ success in developing leaders for the rest of us?

Some big-city snobs would say these exceptional individuals have had to overcome their culturally deprived backgrounds. Look at the small towns, they say: nothing happening. Backward schools, no theaters, no big libraries, no bigtime sports.

Nothing there? Nothing except the stable nurturing that creates the kind of self-defining memories Price talked about.

North Carolina's small towns and rural communities are the state's "people estuaries."

Estuaries are those protected, brackish waters along our coast that, together with the marshes, swamps and backwaters, are the most efficient food producers in the state. They’re a critical link in our food chain. We often think of those areas as underdeveloped swamps, but in fact, they are irreplaceable treasures where the richness and stability of life makes for one of the earth's most productive ecosystems.

Reynolds Price was right. Those nurturing memories that the small towns make possible are important in giving people a sense of who they are. People who have a sense of who they are become better equipped to lead — which may explain why small towns have been so fruitful in producing North Carolina’s leaders.

These small towns are our "people estuaries."

— D.G. Martin hosts UNC-TV's North Carolina Bookwatch.

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