“Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic,” William Jennings Bryan said in his famed “Cross of Gold” speech in 1896, “but destroy our farms, and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”
This quotation, we cannot help noticing in the year 2018, is perfectly sized as a tweet (186 characters, including spaces). And in line with the temper of our times, it is quite feisty in stance. Beginning a sentence with the four words, “burn down your cities,” Bryan made it clear that it was not his mission to negotiate a peace between urban and rural communities.
In the 1890s, the tensions between rural and urban America reached a peak. In the election of November 2016, according to many commentators and pundits, those tensions made another episodic surge. That surge gives little sign of subsiding.
So when you take up an assignment to “imagine a great Colorado,” you confront the priority of forging, deepening and sustaining a better relationship between the rural and urban sectors of this state.
Having arrived on the planet with a full-blown case of congenital cheerfulness, I believe we have the foundation in place to act on this priority. That foundation rests on the bedrock reality that many people move to — and stay in — the urban Front Range because of its proximity to the rural community of Colorado. They live and work in cities, and, following either a plan or an impulse, they can head for open spaces, where wide horizons will refresh their souls and restore their spirits.
Rural people will have noticed how the promise for familiarity and empathy dead-ends. Many residents of the urban Front Range are oblivious to their dependence on the enterprise, determination, hard work, tolerance and good will of rural residents, in occupations ranging from farmer to ski-lift operator, from small-town restaurant owner to river guide, from rancher to hotel maid, and from fossil-fuel producer to solar-energy entrepreneur. So we have our marching orders, directing us toward the goal of “a greater Colorado.” It’s time for urban Coloradans to reckon, in daily life, with the fact that their well-being rests on robust ties and alliances with rural Coloradans. It’s also time for rural Coloradans to pay attention to the benefits to be gained by inviting urban Coloradans into the arenas of small-town communities, and sharing the heritage of folklore and stories that could and should give grounding to all the state’s residents.
Many institutions are positioned to contribute to this cause. With its activities extended year-round, the National Western Stock Show represents an extraordinary opportunity. Many of the cultural institutions of the Denver metropolitan region already are playing a key role in hosting representatives and (one might even say) diplomatic missions from the rural parts of the state. And orchestrating a network of the state’s institutions of higher education, led by the community colleges and with a central role for the impressive Colorado Mountain College system, could build and maintain a sense of shared interests and enterprises.
And now for the under-utilized power-to-persuade carried by doggerel verse, where the exuberant and surging life force of the limerick overpowers the cramped and bitter plaint of the tweet:
Rural and urban places / Are tangled together like laces. / They’re like sister and brother; / They depend on each other; / They have never been opposite cases.
Patty Limerick is the faculty director and chair of the board of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, where she is also a professor of history.