Uncommon Ground

Rural Life

It’s good to see manufacturing making a small comeback

We walked on the shore. The sand near the salty water was rolled into tiny balls where small crabs had burrowed out from the dime-sized holes in the beach. A little claw was visible in many of the openings.

As we rounded the bend egrets flew into the air, circled about, and again landed in the marsh like they were playing musical chairs. The white herons seemed graceful, out of place in a modern world.

Down the shoreline, seagulls congregated upon a fallen tree. They perched on one leg on the bare root log that was polished over time by water and wind.

I’d forgotten why many of the wooden seabirds that my father’s uncle carved and now rested on the household mantle stood on a single dowel. Viewing the live seagulls again, all facing the evening water, reminded me how fishermen of my father’s days must have mused about the gulls.

Our Montana seagull experience is mostly in the fall as Flathead gulls circle far above the farm on hot thermals of the sky. Down in the waters of northwestern Florida, gulls are an everyday sight.

Upon retirement my parents moved to the sunshine. They chose the least wealthy county, not from necessity, rather drawn to the rural lifestyle that they’d enjoyed throughout their latter life.

My mom was once adventurously urban, now she’d grown accustomed to rural America while my dad relished in the everyday lifestyle. Life was good, slower, and clearly enjoyable.

We’ve been visiting the South for decades.

Each holiday, I gasped at how the lumber mill doors were shuttered. The buildings stood as a meager ghost of a time past, when fast-growing trees were processed into American lumber for tradespeople to build homes out of the soft whitewood.

Yet this trip, the mill was open. Stacks of lumber awaited delivery to far-away places. Something changed. Was rural America making a comeback?

I credited some of this progress to national trade policy that overtaxes the import of Canadian lumber crossing into the U.S. Nationally, we overlook the effect of cheap imports flooding the marketplace, yet here in rural Florida some people were back working.

Owners may pay significantly more for a finished home, but timber jobs matter. The economy is not great in rural Florida. Many people are unemployed in an area where the median price of a home is well below $100,000. That amount is unbelievable to those of us who live in the Flathead.

The short block where my parents live has a dozen pickup trucks parked in the driveways of modest homes. The trucks are all nice, in good repair, and mostly newer models.

This year my nephew arrived in his Ram truck with its Cummins diesel engine and jet-black paintjob. I felt at ease riding around town. We looked like we lived here, we weren’t just tourists. I felt good, like a local.

We headed to a small timber operation to get some firewood scraps for my parents’ small woodstove. It was a family operation, which used band saws and homemade hydraulic lifts to move about the heavy hardwood logs.

I toured the yard with the owner, marveling at the cribbed planks of cherry, maple, oak, and cypress. They’re incredibly hard, heavy, and crazy beautiful.

The owner spoke fondly of his youngsters, one of whom was going to college, another about to become a correctional officer. The proud old man carved out a living for himself and his family in an area plagued by chronic underemployment.

Most people in this Florida county work in health care, education, or public administration. It’s good to see manufacturing making a small comeback. Work is a vital part of America, whether we live in Florida or Montana.