In the south central Ozarks lies the town of Alton, Missouri. With a population of around 600 souls, give or take a few depending on the year, Alton’s main attraction is a quaint but thriving downtown square that hems a modest county courthouse. As is often the case in the Ozarks, most of Oregon County’s rural residents are farmers and modern-day homesteaders. But for these folks, being rural doesn’t mean they are out of touch with modern ideas and progressive momentum – just the opposite is true. And with the help of a woman living in the nearby town of Couch, this sleepy little hamlet is about to witness what happens when sustainability and cultural heritage meet face to face.
Rachel Reynolds Luster is a wife, mother, fiddler and textile artist living in Couch. A native Arkansan and fervent Ozarker, Luster is a woman on a mission. Currently a graduate assistant working towards her Ph. D. in Heritage Studies at Arkansas State University, Luster lives a seemingly dualistic life. As a graduate assistant, she works processing historical documents in the ASU archives and attends to her studies. But as Luster puts it, “…part of what I’m trying to promote, and this is certainly reflected in the work I’m doing in Oregon County, is a shift in the field of public folklore, one that gets away from placing so much importance on the collection and display of culture and moves toward a practice of actively engaging with communities to ensure the sustainability of their cultural traditions and one that affects positive change.”
The term “sustainability” has become one of today’s hottest catch phrases. Used by multi-national corporations and non-profit organizations alike, it is often used to promote progressive systems, methods and ideas. Yet as popular as the word has become its definition is a little more ambiguous. Sustainability is a generational concept idealized by a lifestyle that is both comfortable and productive without being destructive. In fact, issues surrounding the “sustainability movement” include alternative energy, food production, local economics, resource management, conservation and cultural heritage all working together in a symbiotic way to improve our lives while still leaving a healthy world behind so that future generations can do the same.
And while the term “sustainability” has been overused and little understood, the term “cultural heritage” is generally understood but more often overlooked in terms of improving our lifestyles. Basically, cultural heritage can be defined as the history of a place and its people and can be expressed through the dress, customs, beliefs, architecture, art, music and books of those who came before us. However, when one speaks of sustainability and cultural heritage in the same breath, the conversation often focuses on the practical skills used by those who came before. These skills include blacksmithing, seed saving, quilting, canning, weaving, basket making, herbal medicine, soap making and many other crafts associated with self-sufficiency.
When the ideas and concepts of sustainability and cultural heritage meet, cultural sustainability is born. This term is most easily defined as individuals and communities striving to preserve and enhance traditional ways of life while living well in the present and working improving conditions for future generations. And in a December 2009 online forum, Luster was asked how she would go about the practice of cultural sustainability and she replied, “…I like to work with communities and cultural groups as a facilitator in perpetuating cultural traditions.” And if recent events are to bear witness to her desires, she’s doing just that.
With two years left before achieving her doctorate, Luster has implemented several programs aimed at promoting cultural sustainability. One of these programs is the Couch School Garden Project which, Luster explains, “…seeks to collect locally-saved seeds and passed-along plants, plant them on school grounds, and have them used both in the school lunchroom and as educational tools for students and teachers.”[i]
She continues, “Through this project, I seek to contribute to the holistic health of the community by promoting regional biodiversity, reconnecting the youth of the community with its waning traditions associated with subsistence agriculture, providing a garden space that can be utilized by teachers and students as an educational laboratory for math and science, and by working with school administrators, students, staff, and other community partners to provide a healthful and environmentally friendly supplement to the school’s existing lunch program.”[ii]
Her latest project, the Oregon County Food Producers’ and Artisan Co-Op is just getting off the ground, but already it is receiving much community support and a growing group of interested local producers. In her paper, entitled, Growing Community: School Gardens, Community Markets, and Restoring Rural Food Economies Luster writes, “I’m thinking of it, and the school garden project for that matter, as a sort of alternative economic development. A return from thinking of successful communities as growth economies to one emphasizing a healthy land-based economy that encourages sustainability of the community at large. The concept is to re-enforce the possibility of the place by centralizing the wonderful things that are being raised, created, and shared there. Rather than seeking to draw tourists or build on regional tourist destinations, this project seeks to build on community relationships and serves to strengthen those bonds.”
She goes on to say, “It’s a partnership between the land, people, and their shared and individual knowledge. In many ways I think we in Oregon County, and the surrounding region, are in the perfect place at the perfect time to encourage this sort of thought and action. In a time of national economic upheaval and unarguable evidence for the economic and environmental retreat from corporate and industrial abuse of resources and with many self-sufficiency and Slow movements entering the mainstream, discussions and initiatives toward sustainability are palatable to most. Ozarkers have a long tradition of providing for themselves, living on and from the land, and having the will and means to somehow survive in the good times and the bad. Those families who have spanned the generations have welcomed community-minded newcomers and the spirit of cooperation is evident.
“Ideally, we can all work together to strengthen the community we are all a part of and which we love. If we don’t know we are a part of it, or if we don’t care, well that’s part of what I’m working to change. No matter the outcome, I owe my set of skills to my community, because I am a member. I share responsibility for it. I offer whatever I have, gladly and am thankful for the many gifts it offers me.”
And while the Co-Op is still in its infancy stage, one thing is for certain: Rachel Reynolds Luster has taken her love of the past and turned it into a vision for the future.
Learn more about the Oregon County Food Producers’ and Artisan Co-Op by visiting them on Facebook.
Jill Henderson is an artist, author and the editor of Show Me Oz
[i] Growing Community: School Gardens, Community Markets, and Restoring Rural Food Economies