On my way to deciding to move to the country, I slowly began to do 'country' things at my city home. I use the word city here only as a comparison to the rural home I live in now. Our nearest city is a university town, which ensures a lively mixture of people from diverse backgrounds and with diverse expectations and assumptions of what life is all about. These expectations and assumptions lent great interest to our gradual transition to the country.
Our first house in the city was on the not-very-fashionable, really-run-down-falling-apart west side. You know, the area of the city where people pause and say, "Oh, Walker St. Now where IS that? Oh, yes, the WEST side." Like we speak another language on the west side. Our neighborhood was old and many of the people there grew up in the same area and remember when our house was built, in the 1920s during the depression. While remodeling and ripping out wall plaster, we found that they had used what looked like horse hair in the plaster to help it go farther. The insulation in the oldest parts of the house was either wool or cotton; it was black with years of dust and the mice had loved whatever it was. The house had no foundation, but was built up on old limestone piers and blocks. My husband said some of them had been carved on and looked like old used tombstones. Since the crawlspace was about eighteen inches high, I took his word for it. Our closest neighbor had lived right down the street when she was a child and remembered when our house had been one large square with four rooms, one room to a corner, each with a connecting door to the adjacent rooms. She had come to play with the children living in our house and they used to run circles in the house from one room to the next, around and around until they were banished outdoors.
Because of the neighborhood’s working class roots, our neighbors were mostly older retired people with little money. As the older people died, their houses were purchased by investors who converted them to rental houses for students, or they were purchased by young families, like us, looking for an affordable first home. All in all it was a very low-key, non-pretentious place to begin practicing 'country' things.
For the record, I really hated that house and the only reason I even considered buying the place was the yard. The yard was big enough to put a really nice garden in and there were already several large shade trees in the front yard, a large rose bush, a persimmon tree, wisteria vines all over the fence and a grape arbor. We bought. The house turned out to be a good practice house. It was there that we learned to be plumbers, electricians, framers and drywallers. I must say that our swearing became more colorful, too.
The first spring I dug up the entire back yard. I made a plan. Then we staked and roped off each bed to see how it would feel and then we had to borrow a tiller to break the sod. My husband, bless his heart, tilled and tilled and tilled. The neighbors were fascinated and I think they were posting bets on just exactly what it was that we were up to. My friends assumed that graduate school had finally finished off my sanity.
Because we had not yet discovered mulch, the beds sat. Because we had not yet purchased a lawn mower, the lawn sat. Picture this: Tall grass in all the narrow paths between thirteen rectangular dirt beds of various sizes. Our neighbors said, "Are you going to build something? No? That's your GARDEN??" Keep in mind that ‘garden’ to my neighbors meant vegetables. I meant flowers and herbs - and vegetables only where I needed temporary fillers. My friends politely changed the subject when I began talking about how wonderful gardening was. Then the maple beans fell. We now had thirteen beds of maple trees surrounded and mostly hidden by rivers of tall grass. One evening I went outside to see a neighbor couple leaning over the fence pointing at the baby maples. They already knew that I was planning to plant herbs and flowers and asked me what herbs these were that looked so much like maple trees and wasn't that amazing. I told them the truth. Fred, an avowed grass grower, looked at me, grunted and asked when we were going to cut the grass. I knew then that I had better make the vision in my yard look more like the vision in my head soon.
Our first lawn mower came from the Salvation Army Thrift Store and was one of those mechanical, no-engine, push things. We learned that one cannot push mow a lawn that is already two feet high. I don't even want to think about what the neighbors were thinking while they watched us try to do that. Our second mower came from my father, a mechanical genius, who had put a bunch of spare parts together and made us a mower, with an engine and which shrugged slightly at the height of the lawn and munched contentedly until the lawn was reduced to a more acceptable height. Fred and the other grass growers heaved a perceptible sigh of relief and settled down to see what we would actually plant in the now visible beds.
We planted flowers, and herbs and the neighbors gave us leftovers of their vegetable starts and by the end of the first year, we had a quite passable, though not yet beautiful garden. Most importantly, the neighbors were getting used to us. The second spring the garden looked quite pretty. The perennials were larger, blooming, and beginning to spread. We dug up the entire front yard and put in ferns and flowers. Friends of friends were giving us extras from their gardens and our neighbors began to ask questions about the plants that appealed to them. By the third year, things in my garden were large enough to share and a real swap party started in the neighborhood and continued for the next two years until we moved. Although our old was torn down after we sold it, many of the plants will survive in the gardens, around the doors and under the windows of my old neighbors. Eventually I became known as the garden lady, easily recognizable around the neighborhood because of the large straw hat I always wear in the garden. People down the street started digging up sections of their yards and planting all sorts of things. I learned a couple of good things about that whole experience. Beauty begets beauty, so don't be afraid to be first to do something beautiful in the neighborhood. And I learned that mulch and a good lawn mower are wonderful tools to appease close neighbors uncertain about the loss of all that wonderful grass.
As my interest in gardening grew, and as more of my friends and acquaintances came to see my garden, I began to see why more people don’t plant yards full of flowers instead of grass. One woman said again and again how she wished she could plant flowers in her yard. I asked why she didn't, since all she had to do was remove some grass and put the flowers in. She gave me a look of utter disbelief at my naiveté and told me that I just didn't understand what it was like to live in a subdivision.
Now, what confused me at that moment was that I did indeed live in a subdivision; it was old, but it was very definitely a subdivision. Yes, I think I can say with complete certainty that there was no doubt that we were in a subdivision. Our lots were about one sixth of an acre with little teeny houses somewhere toward the middle of the lot. My friend also lived in a subdivision, a new subdivision, with half acre lots and huge houses and garages that make their yards seem the sizes of postage stamps. All of the houses are picture perfect and all of the yards are full of America's favorite herb: grass. All of the residents seem caught in the conflict experienced by ninety-nine percent of our teenagers: the need to be individual (and therefore different) and the need to belong (and therefore, not different or stick out in any way). Perhaps these almost identical houses in almost identical subdivisions in almost identical cities meet an important need. They are comfortable places for people who have not yet resolved the basic conflict of how to be individuals and yet still find a place within a community. Or perhaps these subdivisions are the resolution.
At any rate, my friend spent some time that day trying to explain to me how planting the flowers that she would enjoy so much more than the grass would decrease the value of her house and how could they possibly resell it then if they had to?... and what would the neighbors think if she took out her whole front yard, I mean everybody has grass. There's just no way she could take it out and put flowers there. She wanted to do something different, but didn't dare make herself stick out. I think she eventually ripped out the generic shrubs that the developers had planted and put in mums and some early spring bulbs. Compromise is a wonderful thing.
When we moved to the country we, in part, were rejecting the sort of attitudes that allow people to judge each other based on the neighborhoods they live in or the cars that they drive or the salary they get or the height of the grass in their yards. We found a place to buy that was so big that even if we were offended by our neighbor's eyesore barn, which was unlikely, we wouldn't have to look at it anyway. There is enough distance between neighbors out here that we aren't constantly peering over each other's fences looking for things we don't like or agree with. Maybe that's one of the blessings of having lots of space. We don't invade each others'. It's easier to let people do their own things when their things aren't visible to us.
Of course, to find this Mecca of neighborly tolerance we had to go out of town. When we told people where we were moving, some of them actually said, "You know that's a forty-five minute drive." Like we hadn't figured that out when we went to look at the place. And like that was a bad thing. The unspoken assumption was that it was better to be in a so-so (and that's optimistic) house in town, than it was to find the space and privacy we needed in a place we could afford out of town.
People asked me if I'd be afraid so far out there on that dirt road. I wondered, "Afraid of what? The crime? The deer? The wind? The silence?" Now I wonder if what they were asking was more basic than that. Not was I afraid that something would get me when I was alone, but was I afraid to be alone. By myself. Just me. With no one peering over my fence to remind me of what was expected and what everyone else was doing, just in case I forgot. No rules. We could carve out our own 'restrictive covenants' and decide what was right for our barn and our house and our garden and in what order things needed to be done. We could let our kitchen have see-through two by four walls for three years and not put a decent foundation under the house (nope, this house didn't have one either) until we got the garden going and re-fenced the pasture and dug the new septic system and dug a new well and maybe built a greenhouse. Or we could tear the old barn down and leave a huge pile of rubble to scavenge for lumber and let the lambs climb on until we felt like burning it. Or we could build the most beautiful terraced herb garden in the county and keep it a secret from everyone except the neighbors going home past our house every night. We even could let the grass get really high and then bring the sheep in to trim it down if we wanted to or we could rip out every blade of grass in a fifty foot radius of the house and plant poison ivy.
In the country, you see, if people look at all, all they might do is shrug and say, "That's the healthiest doggone patch of poison ivy I've ever seen. I'll have to see whether they're fertilizing it and what with. I wonder if they're using sheep m’nure." This is the attitude we have seen as our neighbors react to the people who live in the teepee up the road, and the people whose calves escape into the road and have to be driven in a small cattle drive up to their place with our cars on the way to work, and the people whose goose is so protective of their two ducks that he'll chase your car, and the people who have fifteen or more (really) dog houses on their hill and six immobile vehicles as lawn ornaments, and the people who for no apparent reason ripped down a perfectly good white fence around their house to put up an electric one. Our neighbors are mildly curious, that's all. And because they are so willing to see things through each others' eyes, they may ask you why you've done something and when you've explained it to them, they'll say that makes sense and do you want some more poison ivy, I've got some out by my barn that my wife would love to get rid of.
So here’s my theory: The city is about fitting in because the assumption is that we're different enough. Good heavens, we live right next to each other; it’s our responsibility to conform.
The country is about being different because the assumption is that we belong enough. After all, we sort of live close to each other.