Dreams And Reality

Adapting to a Changing World

March 2001

 We all have dreams about the way we'd like our lives to be. Maybe your dream has to do with a job: to do what your father did, or to do something entirely different. Maybe it's about staying in your home town, or maybe it's about going somewhere else. Some dreams are realistic; some are not. Whatever they are, they shape the way we live our lives.

My occupational dream was to work outdoors and to work with birds. I studied to become a wildlife biologist, with the expectation that I could make a living that way. Still, very early in my life, I can remember a discussion I and some of my classmates had about the future, and about what we would do if we couldn't make a living the way we wanted. I still remember the thought I expressed - and in probably pretty close to the exact words I used at that time some forty years ago:

"If at some point there is no longer a need for wildlife biologists, I hope that I am smart enough to figure out some other way to make a living."

I was fortunate to be able to work my dream into a thirty-four year career as a wildlife biologist. Still, the dream changed a lot from its beginning. Over the years, my work changed from mostly outdoor to mostly indoor. Although my work was always "about wildlife," it changed drastically over the years from working closely with birds to working more with people, and budgets, and management plans. Some of the changes were of my own doing: I wanted to make more money, I wanted more authority or responsibility, or I just wanted a change. Some were thrust upon me: sometimes my bosses wanted to move me or change my job when I didn't want to, and sometimes the particular job I had been working on just came to an end and I had no choice but to move on. Some of the changes that I made on purpose turned out not as good as I'd hoped; some of the changes other people and circumstances forced me to make turned out better than I could have imagined. All in all, I think I can say that I did live my dream - even if the dream itself had to change with changing times.

So, what does my life story have to do with "saving small towns?" Just this: in small towns and rural communities across our country, I am hearing people who seem to be saying that they are NOT smart enough to figure out some other way of making a living when their particular occupational dream is no longer in demand.

I don't mean to say that we don't need people to fish, or to farm, or to mine, or to cut timber, or to manage livestock, or to work in a paper mill. I am saying that the basic problem in many small communities is that, even if the work hasn't completely GONE, it has already drastically CHANGED or is about to change, and no one seems willing to do anything about it. People are suffering, and their communities are suffering with them, because few seem to have the will to modify the dream and go forward.

It seems to me that the biggest problem associated with "change" - with modifying the dream - is that our minds usually seem to present us with only one option: COMPLETE CHANGE. "I can no longer make my living doing [ you fill in the blank], so I have to change my life completely." Occasionally, that is true. More often than not, there is some modification that can be made that will preserve those parts of your previous livelihood that were most important to you, while opening new possibilities for keeping bread on the table and maintaining your quality of life. Consider the types of actions that might be possible in your circumstance:

· The mainstay factory or mill is being closed down - the workers find a way to buy it, and keep it open. Not only do they keep their chosen work, but they regain local control of their business.

· A new Wal-mart [or Rite-Aid, or some other big store] is putting local shops out of business - the local businesses band together to form a cooperative. Working together, they are able to provide more of the goods and services that the community desires, so they can better compete with the big outsiders. Moreover, they keep more of their money re-circulating in the local area, rather than sending the majority of it out of state.

· A ranch family finds that they cannot make their full living on livestock, alone - they establish a bed-and-breakfast to supplement their income during the summer months. Having visitors in the ranch setting also gives an opportunity to explain the ranching way of life to others who may not understand it.

· A maple syrup producer, or a producer of perennial plants, or a bookshop owner, can't get enough local business to make continuing in the business profitable - any of them may be able to increase their market significantly by selling over the Internet. [Don't think this is an impossibility for someone who is not an expert with computers. I was barely computer-literate when I set up my own website - and did it in a couple days' time.]

I don't want to imply that any of this is easy. It isn't, and sometimes it is damned hard. Still, there may be ways to keep the dream alive - or bring it back to life - that don't involve moving away, or re-training for some job completely different than what you have been doing. If so, it has to be good for both you and your community.

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