He came bounding down out of the cab of the septic truck in a much-worn jumpsuit , shaggy gray hair and a beard. He may have been a sort of rugged hippy type when he was younger—bright working class kid with a good sense of humor and a will to try anything. I knew more than a couple of them, so I can easily imagine nights of tavern shuffleboard and pool, and driving and laughing, and the unforeseen reality when the day job that paid enough for a moment became a full-on septic tank career. He is now missing a few teeth, but he listened to my circumstances and answered me with energy and directness and it was clear we had a rapport.
He followed me around the corner and we hunkered down around the septic tank together to diagnose my problem, and as he was digging out the drain line he shared some political philosophy and I listened, and I made some further observations about the issues of my septic system and he listened, and as we went on like that, for some reason I began to reflect on the many reasons people live out here.
Among other unspoken ironies in the US, we fiercely insist we believe in individualism, then we spin around to generalize wildly, imagining uniformly shared values and ideals. True enough, everyone wants to be safe and happy, and most people want to raise families and see them do well. But what does that really tell us about anyone? The same thing can be said about flocks of crows.
In the Romantic Vision, people move out beyond the city because we want to toss off the intensity and reconnect with nature—it is an aesthetic choice for beauty and quietude. Obviously that’s true in some cases; it’s also true, though, that some people just don’t like being physically close to other people, and they’re edging away from the group because it’s spooky having all those others looking over their shoulders. Some live in the country because they’ve discovered their housing dollars go farther out here, so they’re willing to make the other differences less of a hassle—they’ll put up with the commuting, for instance, the lack of city sewers and the absence of regular trash pick-up.
There is also the almost folk-belief that the country is somehow more wholesome and healthy. My yoga teacher used to regularly rave about the air quality. I didn’t want to correct him, mention that research consistently shows the county has much worse air pollution than the city due to the prevalence of wood-burning stoves and the lack of emissions inspection on automobiles. As for wholesome youth, let’s not touch on the farming chemicals that go into meth labs and the amount of time it takes before the sheriffs discover what anybody is doing.
These sorts of areas can also appeal to the Gracious Retirees—wealthy, educated, open-minded graying couples walking their dogs or their grandchildren. In the block of my community that leads up to the post office and general store there are several such couples, their homes flanking one guy who has a rusty wreck of a bread truck parked next to his house—which, by the way, is finally getting a new roof I see, after having blue tarps on it through the last several winters. A block up toward my direction is a small house painted purple, home to yet another yoga instructor, then several properties further a yuppie couple who both work in the city who allow their dogs to roam free during the day, which often sleep in the middle of the street. Up the road from them is a lovely place where last summer the family woke up to find in their front yard the carcass of a deer killed by a cougar earlier that morning, apparently. Alongside their property is a very fine deep-woods lane, connecting the waterfront back to my road. I noticed over the summer that someone has strung tarps about thirty feet off the path; they’re still there, and I’ll bet they stay there at least part of the winter. No one I’ve met has mentioned the camp at all.
How should we read each other, then? Is it an outlaw mentality that brings us out to the county, keeps us here–living out here so that we’re not discovered for the misanthropists we really are?
The question may better be asked about why people live in cities: the comfort of common human noise and scent, the security of believing the efforts of humankind are the most important actions on the planet, the stories we tell ourselves that prove to us that our achievements are certainly more lasting and more significant than the patterns of the crows.
As my septic tank date shoveled away, sharing with me his theory wherein the US government was responsible for 9/11, I was charmed that he felt fine telling me this. I am a writer and English teacher who came out here from twenty-five years of city living, possibly for some of every reason I’ve mentioned thus far. I’m not part of the slightly paranoid libertarian group a mere, few clicks away from unibomber status, though I have lived all over the map in terms of breaking rules and having serious difficulty believing that any city government has any right to tell me what to do (“Rules and regulations, who needs them?”) I have no children or family, though I was happy to share my home with my niece when she was in college an hour away. And I can indeed live better here financially than in the city, though it’s more the space and the quiet and proximity to other species that has been the most tremendously healing.