Work and Life in a Rural Setting
“Must be nice,” I hear from different people in cities when I tell them I work in the heart of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The natural beauty, the serenity, the peacefulness, all must be nice they say. Yet it is hard not to note that the population of Plumas County, where the Sierra Institute is located, is roughly 18,800 in an area just over 2,600 square miles. By comparison, 228 miles away in San Francisco, the population per square mile is also just over 18,800. If Plumas County had the same population density we’d have about 49 million people living in the area. So why does everyone seem to daydream about the mountain life but few actually take the plunge? It is, afterall, pretty darn nice out in the mountains.
There are, of course, a million factors that determine where people live and work. From availability of jobs, to amenities, to wanting to be close to family and friends, to the weather, to educational opportunities and on and on. It is an open question, though, as to what brings people out to rural living, and one that I’ve been asking the wonderful staff members of the Sierra Institute to help me elaborate upon.
There is “less emphasis on status and material possessions and more emphasis on relationships and activities.”Tracy Hruska
A common theme that emerged from my discussions was one of simplicity. Tracy Hruska, a brand new social scientist at the Institute, noted that there is “less emphasis on status and material possessions and more emphasis on relationships and activities.” Ivy Kostick, one of our forest stewards, pointed out that “people are nice to each other and know each other, there is a stronger sense of community.” Camille Swezy, head of the wood utilization projects, also emphasized the community, saying that part of what she loves about living here are the “familiar faces” and “having friends everywhere.” Having lived in a city myself for many years before moving to Plumas County I can relate with what they are saying, though I was constantly surrounded by people in cities I never felt like part of a community. The first day I arrived and walked my dog through the neighborhood people waved and said hello like I’d been here my whole life. Perhaps that is because of the different pace of life, or as Renee Sanders, one of our new Natural Resource Specialists, put it “the ‘rat race’ pace of life commonly attributed to urban living falls away in a serene rural setting.”
That serene rural setting is a big part of the draw of places like Plumas County. Taylorsville, with a population of 154, is absolutely gorgeous year round and is surrounded by mountains and farmland and rivers and lakes. The Sierra Institute sits at the heart of Taylorsville “downtown,” which consists of a market, a pie shop, a tavern, a church, a post office, and two small schools. Take a job at the Sierra Institute and the whole town will likely know your name and what you do at the Sierra Institute within the first week. For those that enjoy the relative anonymity of big cities, that probably sounds a little terrifying. Yet it never feels like you are closed in, rather it feels like your world is always expanding. Moorea Stout, the Development Director, says one of the best things about being in Plumas is “knowing your neighbors” and she enjoys “the way that people help each other.” Your neighbors, even the ones that don’t know you well, will volunteer to help shovel snow, fix a fence, watch your dog or your child, drive you to work if your car breaks down. They care about what happens to people in their community, and they care about their community. Plus, living here does come with challenges, and we all help each other because eventually we will be the one that needs help with something ourselves, because there are challenges that come to this sort of life.
One factor that has come up again and again in conversations is the lack of connectivity, technologically speaking. It is 2019 everywhere, not just in the cities, and people in rural communities want to be online and have working cell phones just like anyone else. Many of us like that bit of disconnect, but it can make working a challenge. Ivy notes that she likes when she can “go places at work and my cell phone does not work,” but also lamented that “sometimes I wish my phone worked better in town.” Another Sierra Institute staff member, when asked about the harder parts of living in this rural setting, was the “poorer internet connectivity and cell phone reception,” something I think everyone living here can relate to.
“The soul-nourishing beauty of the surrounding landscape… I love, love, love it up here.”Moorea Stout
A problem that is faced by many in moving to rural settings is less to do with connectivity, though, and really a matter of basic needs. Housing is a big factor, especially for renters, as Sophie Castleton, another Natural Resource Specialist, remarked that it is “difficult to find housing in a tight rental market that is impacted by a student housing shortage and recent nearby wildfires.” A part of that is that housing is spread out over a vast area, and some people move here to get a little bit of open space around themselves. Yet that leads to other difficulties, like the “solitude of winter time,” as Camille so eloquently put it. Or as Moorea put it, “if you do have to go to a city, it’s a loooooooong drive.” And though that may be part of the appeal, it also leads to a lack of access to health services and other options available to people in cities, even grocery shopping has its own set of challenges with stores closing earlier and being more spread out. Renee summed it up nicely when she said that “I do miss having a Whole Foods near me!”
If one where to focus only on the harder parts of rural life one might never want to leave a city, but of course we take on these challenges because those of us that live here love it here. “Living here is the best,” Ivy said, “I love the fresh air and birds every morning, and watching the seasons change.” Sophie greatly enjoys “being surrounded by birdsong and being able to exercise in a beautiful setting.” Another staff member likes “the tranquility, easy access to nature recreation” and “views unspoiled by development.” For Camille living here is fantastic as there is “access to recreation, but not being amidst a Tahoe-like wealthy recreation driven community,” adding that “it’s just more fun!” The world around us in this rural-setting is full of astonishing beauty and remarkable natural resources. Those living in the cities and daydreaming of this sort of life are likely picturing the scenery and thinking what it would be like to live among it and to feel a part of it. There is an almost magical draw of the wild out here, or as Moorea put it we always have “the soul-nourishing beauty of the surrounding landscape,” adding that she “I love, love, love it up here.”
“Your opportunities for beautiful scenery, various recreation options, and a slower, peaceful pace of life are endless”Renee Sanders
Life in rural California is different, and there are challenges, but if you value being in nature, if you value community, if you want to start “harnessing your independence,” as Camille so succinctly said, it is a perfect place to live. Those that move up here learn to embrace the challenges and make them part of their lives, they grow, they find themselves, and they find how much of a positive effect peaceful solitude can have on a person. If you are thinking of moving to a rural setting from a city, the staff members I spoke to recommend spending time in the town you want to live, getting to know if you can get by without the extra amenities, and learning how to deal with the unique challenges that come from living and working in a place so full of natural beauty.If you do want to move from, ‘it must be nice,’ to ‘it is nice.’ Or, as Renee put it, “your opportunities for beautiful scenery, various recreation options, and a slower, peaceful pace of life are endless.”