My family and I are purchasing a property in the country: a ranch house with a barn surrounded by eighteen acres. Much of the acreage is cleared and flat, and will in time be put to use for horse pasture and equestrian arena, but much of it is still wooded. The previous owner was a massage therapist, a woman whose husband, whom we met one afternoon, described her practices as ‘holyistic.’ ‘She has drum circles out there,’ he said, indicating the grassy fields before us; then his face took on a slightly shy aspect and he added, ‘I join in sometimes.’ Their house is full of drums of various sizes and other paraphernalia of Native American spirituality; the bookshelves are heaped with volumes on Buddhist, Taoist and New Age thinking. There are colorful ribbons hung from branches in trees surrounding the yard. These, we learned, are all prayers of some sort. The county where this home is located is a very ‘red’ area. Driving the winding road to the house, we pass yards with signs that say things like Prayer–America’s Only Hope and God Is Pro-Life. There are signs in support of political candidates known to be not only conservative, but decidedly Evangelical. So I wonder how this woman’s New Age/Native American/Buddhist practices sit with her neighbors. But of course any neighbors reside at some distance.
We come from the suburbs. We have lived in our typical brick-fronted, vinyl-sided, two-story house since 2001; prior to that we lived in a smaller home in St. Louis City. I always liked living in the city, which I found to be diverse and vibrant and alive. I dislike the suburbs for the usual, clichéd reasons: but the thing that bothers me the most is that in the suburbs, you cannot walk to anything. In the city we could walk to the grocery store, the drug store, several restaurants, the video store (yes, this was a while ago), and even to our polling place on election day. Out here in the suburbs, one has to get in the car and drive several miles to acquire any supply or commodity. Taking a walk is a matter of pacing the pavement from one cul-de-sac to another, past a succession of homes which are remarkably like your own, the only significant difference–and thus usually the only subject of conversation–being who takes better care of their patch of grass. Walking in a suburban subdivision feels distinctly like being an inmate let out of his cell for an hour’s exercise.
You can’t walk to much of anything out here in the country either; but at least here among fields and woods, you are experiencing something already. I anticipate looking out the back windows in the morning to find deer grazing: and I understand that largely they will be grazing on my garden and landscaping. I wonder with mixed fear and excitement how we will endure the first deep snow: home-bound, baking bread, reading long Russian novels, getting on each others’ nerves. I wonder what it will look like in autumn, when all the trees start to turn. And of course, being a person who likes to write, and given this major change in lifestyle, I ask myself if I should write a journal about the experience–even start a new blog about it.
But this gets me thinking of my own theories about the seasons. I have long insisted that one need not live in the forest to experience the seasons, that people living in the middle of the biggest cities, even people living in the most sterile and sense-destroying suburbs, could find ways to be aware of natural changes and engage with the cycles of the earth.
Frank Lloyd Wright spent a career working on plans to ‘decentralize’ cities and bring more natural elements into human habitats, but all for naught. As critics of twentieth-century architecture have noted, his plans never moved forward largely because, in essence, people like living in cities–the convenience, the excitement, the vigor of them. Even Ralph Waldo Emerson observed this, noting curiously that while cities made men ‘interesting,’ they also made them ‘artificial.’
My biggest problem with the idea of leaving the city to experience nature is that so often, people move to farms, as if agriculture is some kind of re-engagement with nature. But of course it’s not. Agriculture is a way of controlling nature. Nature is wild; gardens are orderly. For hundreds of millennia, humans were nomadic hunter-gatherers: agriculture was our first technological revolution, our first move toward controlling the environment and taking ourselves out of nature.
The confusion likely originates in Genesis, where Adam and Eve are born into a paradise of ease and plenty we know as The Garden of Eden. They lost that paradise because they sinned, but even today we see returning to ‘the garden’ as synonymous with getting back to nature, to something simpler and more primal. Scores of consumer products that hope to evoke nature and simplicity slap some version of the name ‘Eden’ on their label. In reality, a garden without effort is an oxymoron. Many people who think they will find a simple life in moving to the country and keeping a garden quickly learn different.
So it’s complicated. On TV the other night David Letterman was rhapsodizing about the splendors of autumn in New York. There’s even a song on that very season in that very place. Do I need to be out in the country to really feel autumn? Or spring? Granted, I will be closer to the natural changes, but the seasons are not just about nature–they are also human cultural constructs. At this point, I can say only that in my rural adventure I will learn new things. At this point, I can say that I don’t know what those things will be.