In Praise of Country Living
These poor rootless urbanites don't know what they long for.
Recently some of our church families got together at my friend Matt’s farm. We bagged a couple of squirrels, fried the legs, and ate them with our pizza for supper. Little did I know that dead rodents can be a politically charged issue.
The night after our squirrel fry, I came across an article called “Wild Apples” in the Paris Review. Its authoress is the hip young novelist Lauren Groff. Ms. Goff tells us how she decided to pack her kids into the car and ride out the Covid pandemic at her parents’ farm in New Hampshire. (She left her hubby behind in Gainesville, Florida, so he could work.) Once there, her father even built her a writing shed.
Every morning, Groff would leave her children with their grandparents. The kiddos would do chores around the farm like weeding and picking up sticks, leaving Groff free with her shed. There, she’d put in her daily hour of work—“the bare minimum I tend to make myself attempt to write”—before (she says) “I released myself to reading.” So I guess it was more of a reading shed.
Anyway, if you think writing for an hour a day is tough, get a load of this:
Once, over a long weekend, I forgot to check the traps, and came up through the dawn to find a stiff, gutted mouse magically moving itself across the floor. I had to sit down in the hammock chair on the porch outside until I stopped shaking, and when I had calmed myself and tried to sweep the mouse into the dustpan, I uncovered vivid black-and-yellow beetles working to bear the gutted mouse away. If murdered mice awaited me, my guilt and revulsion made it hard for me to focus on the imaginary characters of my fiction; but even if the night hadn’t proved me a murderer, I was of very little use to my work.
Whew. A dead mouse…on a farm…in New England! I smell a Pulitzer.
“Wild Apples” reminded me of another article about city folk riding out Covid in the countryside. It’s called “From Away” and it appeared in Yankee magazine this past February. Its author, a Boston journalist named Rachel Slade, makes Groff look like Bear Grylls.
Slade recounts her escape from Boston to the family’s summer home in Maine. They’re later joined by her brother Dan, who flees Manhattan. Before the article gets really underway, though, she takes a few pot-shots at the natives. As she recalls: “I’d read on the porch while listening to dragsters racing down country roads and rounds of shotgun blasts echoing through the woods on Sunday afternoons.” And that’s only the beginning:
Less easy to ignore, though, were the racist slogans that had recently appeared on sides of barns and road signs, and the Confederate flags that seemed to crawl out of the ground like cicadas during the 2016 election…In August 2019, after enjoying the local fair for 40 straight years, we decided to skip it. We’d seen enough “Beer, Guns, and God” t-shirts, flags, and hats the year before.
It was all very disappointing for Ms. Slade.
Oh, also, Dan caught Covid before leaving New York and caused a small outbreak on the island.
The local sheriff asked Slade, “Why did your brother come up here, anyway?” Now, I believe she’s a decent person. I have to assume that, in the moment, she offered the sheriff her heartfelt apologies for breaking the law and endangering his neighbors. But that wouldn’t make for good copy. So, instead, she writes,
I wanted to say it was because Maine had always been our refuge. Because Maine had a magic that made us whole. Because if my brother had stayed in New York at the height of the pandemic when the hospitals were overwhelmed, he might have died. I wanted to say that Maine was home.
But I said none of that. He wouldn’t understand. And at that moment, I wasn’t sure I did either.
Let’s be clear now: Maine is not her home. Home isn’t just a place. It’s where you lay down your roots. It’s a way of life and the people you share it with.
Last April, Maine was struck by a massive storm that left nearly 200,000 people without power. So, Slade packed up and went back to Boston. Maine was no longer convenient for them. Having infected the locals with Covid, she went back to the city to write articles about how tacky and racist they are.
Slade didn’t want or need the Mainers. Which is good, because the Mainers didn’t want or need Slade. And they don’t have the luxury of packing up their Subarus and moving when the going gets tough. That’s what home is. It’s where you go when you’ve got nowhere else.
What’s sad is that these urban progressives will never experience (much less understand) the sort of simple, rustic existence to which they feel so drawn. Groff writes,
In the lengthening dawns, the roosters woke us with their ever more competent crowing; until one day the renderer came and beheaded all twenty-seven chickens one by one, bleeding them, gutting them, scalding their feathers of, packing them in plastic. So it goes for all of us: from fluffy chick-hood we advance to a crowing, flapping, squabbling prime, then with swift violence we are made meat.
It’s the kind of pseudo-wisdom you might nod along to if your only experience with chickens comes from a petting zoo.
One day, my friend Matt went to feed his hens and found them torn to pieces by a fox. I happened to call him about an hour later, and I could hear that he was on the verge of tears. Of course, he was going to eat them himself. We’d killed one of his roosters a few days before because it was harassing his one-year-old. But foxes kill more than they can eat, and the hens’ senseless death broke Matt’s heart.
Unless you live close to nature—one creature in the midst of Creation—it’s just filth and gore. Sure, after a while, you might become desensitized. But you’ll never understand it. The death of a chicken will never be anything more than an act of violence. It will never be a tragedy, much less a sacrifice.
Above all, though, I think, they crave a sense of belonging.
Think about Groff’s children tromping through the fields with her own sainted parents. If you’ve ever done manual labor with small children, you know it’s a hoot. Kids love it. They get really quiet and serious, and they start trying to talk like grown-ups. “Nothing like a cherry tomatah fresh off the vine,” Billy will say, having just eaten his very first cherry tomato.
And there’s Mama up in her reading shed, literally shaking because she found a dead mouse. How sad.
Or imagine Slade wagging her finger at the good ol’ boys firing off rounds in the woods. Do you know what they’re doing? They’re hunting. They set out an hour or two before sunrise with a couple of shotguns and a flask of Old Grand-Dad. Pretty soon they’ll be running fresh meat through the grinder and making venison burgers for their wives and kids.
I like reading, too. But it sounds like Ms. Slade is jealous she didn’t get an invite. I don’t blame her.
Thoreau once said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” If he was wrong then, I think he’s right now. They spend their days being scared to death by CNN and chasing approval from strangers on Instagram. But every now and then they catch a peek through the veil of the Almighty Screen and see the world as God made it.
Follow your gut, folks. Ditch the screen. Sell your condo and buy a little shack in the foothills. Get yourself a MAGA hat and a shotgun. Let the clean air make you whole again. It’s hard work, but it’s honest.
Just don’t try to have it all on your own terms. If you want to lay some claim on the country, you have to let the country lay its claim on you. That’s what it means to be at home. Once you’ve had a taste of it, you’ll never go roaming again.