Culture and Community

Published March 26, 2019

Human culture involves a set of beliefs and expectations informally transmitted across generations. Some of these become traditions that help define a community. Here is one to celebrate, visiting and bringing food and treats to “shut-ins”.

This term refers to people house bound by illness or injury.  Ramona is now in the “shut-in” category. She skis a lot and falls about once a year. People know that skiers over 40 (60 in Bozeman) should stay away from, and surely not play on the “bumps”. These are the mounds, the icy moguls*, that develop on steep ski slopes.

Alas, Ramona was tempted by Bridger Bowl’s bumps. She fell, and her left ski binding failed to release. Result, broken leg.  Injuries are a predictable consequence of mogul skiing.  Of course, she should have known better. But still, friends sympathized with her plight and visited. Many brought excellent food for me to reheat and serve.

This is a cultural tradition that lives on. It surely adds to our community. Wholesome, sustainable, and comfortable communities normally share a common culture, a package of beliefs and values leading to constructive actions. In this example friends respond to serious but non-deadly injuries.

Culture can also enforce ethical and legal norms without attorneys, litigation or appeals to armed authority. Here are two clear and easy examples from my life as a Montana rancher.

The first involves enforcing norms against littering on a beautiful stretch of Gooch Hill Road in Gallatin county, Montana.  My wife Ramona (my lifetime achievement award) and I live on a ranch near the mouth of the Gallatin Canyon some ten miles SW of Bozeman, Montana. Together we had over three score and ten years of university teaching and each was twice tenured. Conflicts in our personal or professional lives have been rare indeed.  But into even the most idyllic life, some conflict is inevitable.

One summer Sunday afternoon, we were driving my Yukon home from church via Gooch Hill. Grain, hay, and grazing fields graced both sides with mountains distant in three directions and nary a building in sight. We were just heading up the hill when a large four door sedan holding four young men passed. They were throwing beer bottles – not cans – onto the roadside. Glass bottles fly far better than empty cans.  Some landed in the hay field, one we had baled years ago.

It was one of those moments when we just act, possible risk ignored. I passed the car and then blocked the narrow country road.  No traffic for miles. I walked over to the car and faced the four astonished guys, older than college kids, but less than half my age.

Imagine their surprise when a calm, retirement aged man wearing a jacket and tie ordered the driver: “Go back and pick up the bottles.” The driver recovered some of his swagger and said, “No way — and what’s it to you?”

“It’s my road home”, I explained, “and you’ll clean up your mess.”

“We’ll get it on the way back from Big Sky,” he claimed.

“No, you’ll do it now”, I explained.  After short discussion in the car, three guys got out and began picking up bottles.

My presence surely wasn’t intimidating. I am well into retirement age, only five feet, ten inches tall, and legally handicapped by a right artificial ankle and a left one held together with screws, pins, and rods. I enjoy walking our ranch roads, rowing my Concept II, and fly fishing. While I can still operate many ag, construction and logging machines, I’m surely no physical threat.

They obeyed my demand for a simple reason, they knew they were in the wrong.  Their ingrained culture told them so.  I just called the transgressions to their attention. The litterers weren’t yet drunk and probably remember the lesson.

The second case involved five Harley riders who carelessly parked their bikes. One was across the only handicapped slot at the Buffalo Jump bar and grill near Gallatin Gateway. I was just off crutches (again) and still in a boot.

When experiencing a serious disability, one appreciates a Handicapped Parking spot. It can be a major convenience—and big annoyance if poached.

We were meeting friends for dinner. We had the proper hang tag but had no parking spot because the Harleys had taken it.   We were forced to park across the lot and well away from the grill’s west entry door. It was a slow and uncomfortable hobble.

We joined our friends and sat down. After ordering drinks and dinners, I approached the bikers at the bar. The bikers stood out while sitting down, the only customers wearing black leather and boots.

“Who’s the handicapped guy riding a Harley?” They looked at one another and one said: “Not us.” Five guys, five bikes. Small place.

I pulled out my iPhone and just said, “I’ll check.” The bikes were parked toward the entryway, so the license plates were obvious. As was the “Handicapped Only” sign, blue on white.

A guy in leathers followed me out and said, “Didn’t see the sign,” started his bike, and moved it to a proper place. I had enforced cultural and legal norms, handling the situation informally. I surely didn’t scare the tough looking bikers; the miscreants knew they were in the wrong.  I just reminded them and implied with the threat of an iPhone picture.

Culture can be a force for positive good, bringing food and cheer to a shut-in. It is also useful for deterring bad behavior, littering or violating handicapped parking. Cultural standards can help produce pleasant and wholesome communities.

Culture also can generate mischief, misunderstandings, and grief. This is a natural consequence of social and economic change. This can easily happen when different generations hold different expectations and have been conditioned to perceive threats when none exist.

Feeling “comfortable” is not a right guaranteed by our constitution. Some naïve souls, even managers, occasionally act as though it is. Expensive behavior for all involved.

[Originally Published at the Foundation for Research on Economics & the Environment]