Most of us feel pretty confident that we know who we are. In fact we proudly disclose ourselves to the world--to total strangers we meet in stores, bars and especially at parties. Less willingly we reveal all (well, nearly all) to employment agencies, credit agencies and the I.R.S. Extended city living dampens such enthusiasm. In the city world of crime and incessant, aggressive marketing we retreat behind security doors and answering machines. From a state of willingly proclaiming ourselves to all who ask, we have evolved to using defensive screening techniques. "Who are you with?" "How do you know her?" "What is your business with him?" "I'm very busy; is this important?"
Knowing who we are and acknowledging the truth, if only to ourselves, is of critical value in determining which country conditions will make us happiest. People who move from city to country generally fall into definable groups, rather like subspecies. For some, moving from city to country is like mutating--for others, simply reverting to type. I don't particularly like labels but in this case using them will be helpful to our quest. Categories of those repotting themselves in country soil, in no particular order, are back-to-the-landers/homesteaders, boomer burnouts/urban refugees, concerned parents, retirees and cashing outers, environmentalists, and survivalists.
The back-to-the-land movement is correctly named only in that all of our ancestors once lived on the land. (If Eve and the snake had not collaborated on the apple thing we all might still be living--tightly--in the original garden.) Some writers label all who move from city to country as back-to-the-landers. This is a gross generalization. True BTTLs--who may or may not be rock 'n' rollers--are those who were born in country, moved to bright lights for fun, fame and futures fortunes, burned out on city heat, remembered rural serenity, and moved back--typically either to their growing-up place or another like it. Those who desperately desire to belong to this group but were city reared are hereby allowed ancestral exemption, the grandfather clause for BTTLs. Reach back as far as necessary.
Back-to-the-landers and homesteaders lead very similar lifestyles. Homesteading is a self-reliant way of life on the land. There is tremendous satisfaction and security to be derived from eating homegrown food, staying warm with our own wood fuel and building and maintaining buildings and support systems.
It is not possible to be entirely self-sufficient and still live a high-quality life--such an effort quickly becomes long-hour drudgery. It does make sense, however, to become self-reliant. Using current technology, it is now possible to enjoy long-term, secure, lower-cost living largely independent of public systems. A wind or photovoltaic system with generator backup provides independence from the electric company. A ram pump will supply gravity-fed water. Freezers and canners extend homegrown food availability year-round. An energy-efficient house, owner-built and maintained, can keep us winter-warm with only solar gain, a stove and (homegrown) wood for heat. We can even cook with wood--new wood-burning kitchen stoves are available (but, boy, are they hot; an alternative stove for summertime use is indicated). All of these things and more are possible right now.
One factor against being totally self-sufficient is that most of us want to use as many labor-saving devices as we can afford. My father taught me to make firewood with an axe and a crosscut saw; trust me when I say that a chainsaw is more humane. Abe Lincoln is but the most well-known of those who quickly tired of working wood with an axe.
As with rearing children, there is one area--home food production--where the results are worth almost any effort. Growing food takes more time than earning dollars and buying it. But the quality of homegrown food far surpasses the best food in the best stores of the best food-growing regions in the country. Homegrown vegetables and fruits are fresher, more nutritious and are safe from chemical residue. Eating poisoned food is courting an early demise--we might as well take up do-it-yourself bungee jumping. Home gardeners can look their potatoes in the eyes and feel good about what they see there.
Homesteading with modern tools and technology can be a very high-quality lifestyle. Becoming self-reliant and independent from "the system" are worthwhile and enriching goals. Our body, our family and our planet benefit.
Boomer burnouts/urban refugees
"Solitude is impracticable, and society fatal.
We must keep our head in the one and our hands in the other.
The conditions are met, if we keep our independence,
yet do not lose our sympathy."
Ralph Waldo Emerson
America's baby-boomers have met middle age--and they are not ecstatic about the introduction, never mind the relationship. Boomer burnouts are rejecting corporate ladders and choosing fruit-picking ladders. They're talking health, longevity, ecology, sustainability. They're reconsidering family, community, safety, security, the purpose of life. Many of the 76 million boomers have boarded the wagon train leaving metropolis for the boondocks.
Urban refugees are moving to the country as well as away from the city. Often unequipped with country skills, many move to fringe areas and small towns rather than real country. In the aftermath of mass layoffs many have redefined their work ethic. Working to live is accepted--living to work is passé.
This group's collective profile is: married, above-average education, affluent, zero-to-two children, homeowner, long-distance commuter, 60-hour workweeks, fantasizer of better quality life with more time to spend with family. Those couples who have ever thought, "We just had sex, so it must be Saturday," may fit into this group.
Plummeting academic standards and achievements, schoolyard drug dealers, guns, graffiti and hoodlumism pervade all but the top city schools. Concerned parents are homeschooling or moving to carefully selected rural school districts with high standards. The introduction to rural school discipline can be shocking to ex-city kids accustomed to rowdy classrooms.
If you fit into this category, be aware that many rural school boards have budget challenges as serious as their city counterparts. Also, not all country communities place a premium on education. Identify several areas you like, then contact school principals with questions regarding class sizes, curriculum, gifted and special education programs, percentage of dropouts and percentage of graduates who go on to college. Query county clerks on voter response to school bonds and taxes. Shorten your list, then visit schools and observe the attitudes of teachers and students. Don't be put off by modest physical facilities; although few one-room schools still exist, they often do a superior job of educating up to high school level. No wonder--by the time students reach the eighth grade, they've already heard the material seven times!
"Seventy-six percent of all Americans describe themselves as environmentalists. There is precious little else about which we so thoroughly agree."
Conservationists, ecologists, environmentalists, Greens--however we label ourselves--constitute the surging swell of citizens who understand that Spaceship Earth is suffering from bad management. We are informed people who believe in taking greater responsibility for our conduct, who understand that we are in fact "all in this together."
Environmentalists cite cities as inefficient and wasteful of energy resources, generators of greenhouse gasses, acid rain, toxic waste and enormous accumulations of garbage. Some stay in the city to effect change from within. Many move to the country to lead simpler lives in tune with natural laws.
This group has the greatest age spread, the highest idealism and perhaps the greatest potential for rural life disaster. If you identify most strongly with this group, I recommend you spend substantial time in your chosen area before buying. Rent or caretake for a year. Learn country skills. Live with farm families, perhaps with alternative communities. And do not expect to change the attitudes of the natives. Show beliefs by actions, not words. You will find similar souls who have preceded you.
Retirees and cashing outers
Once the gold encircles the wrist (what--they don't do that anymore?) and the long-dreamed-about check appears in the mailbox, there is the challenge of what to do between naps. There is also the freedom to live wherever that check will cover expenses. The usual scenario is to sell the city house for big bucks, buy a country cottage for a third as much, then fish, golf, garden and entertain city friends who come to vacation rent-free. Today, many retirees are breaking the Sunbelt syndrome and moving to the so-called Cloudbelt--places of spectacular scenery with moderate-to-cold winters where they find low prices and taxes, no crowding and satisfying lifestyles.
Retirement destinations are no longer limited to the popular stereotypes of Florida and the Southwest. Widespread in-migration has occurred
in the Ozarks, the New England coast, the southern Blue Ridge, the Texas Hill Country, the Puget Sound area, the Upper Great Lakes,
the Sierra Nevada foothills, western Oregon, east Texas, and the Tidewater areas of Maryland and Virginia. All of these locations involve
dispersed settlement, and not merely aggregations of people in towns.
Cashing outers was coined by Faith Popcorn, who wrote that cashing out "is a dream as old as America itself: give me a piece of land to call my own, a little town where everyone knows my name. It's a dream we are dreaming with a new heart-and-gut-felt urgency. More than the romance of the country, it's a promise of safety, of comfort, and of old-fashioned values." Cashing outers buy or create bed-and-breakfast inns, ink small-town newspapers, mix goat-milk ice cream, raise sheep and weave wool products, operate fishing resorts, throw pottery, craft furniture, consult. They often work harder than they did for the corporate cats, but they don't commute, they don't wear suits, they don't lug briefcases, and they call their own shots.
So-called survivalists (aren't we all?) deserve better press. While a few seem to suffer from a Rambo complex, most are level-headed citizens, many are sincere passivists. What all share is a fear that senseless crime, riots, bombings and the fragility of urban food and utility systems are precursors to chaos--and that when city systems collapse there will be a mob exodus to the countryside. Alvin Toffler wrote in Future Shock that "Great cities are paralyzed by strikes, power failures, riots." The New York garbage collectors' strike, the 1965 Watts riots, the 1992 L.A. riots, the 1994 L.A. earthquake, and the Blizzard of '96 were examples of near paralysis that illustrated the dependence and vulnerability of city dwellers when systems break down. It is at such times that the social condition of a place is magnified and clarified. In the first 30 minutes of the 1977 New York power blackout, looters had stolen $150 million in goods.
A dramatic example of a national paralysis began November 24, 1995, in France with a strike by civil servants. Railroad workers, mass-transit workers, mail sorters and utilities workers nearly shut down the country for a week. Cities were choked with traffic jams and millions of people were forced to walk, bicycle or hitchhike to work. The economic cost was hundreds of millions of dollars per day (Time, 12-11-95).
Survivalists buy land far from highways, strive for self-sufficiency, often homeschool. The more militant arm themselves heavily, but they usually make peaceful neighbors. Their complaints typically focus on federal and state government, not on locally-elected officials.
In addition to one or more of the above you may find yourself labeled urban dropout, urban flighter, rat race escapee, yupneck, or new American pioneer. The diversity of labels shows that the wagon train is composed of diverse, unique types. The common quest is high-quality life. Welcome aboard.
So now, do you know who you are? Did you quickly identify with one of the above groups or, more likely, did you find something of yourself in two or more? That's fine, of course. You pass. What this chapter is about is getting you thinking about your basic and vital motivations, your needs and your wants.
Country living is conducive to fresh thinking about values. Donald McCaig, in An American Homeplace, quotes Scott Nearing: "The only thing more cowardly than a million dollars is two million dollars." Nearing lived his words: he and wife Helen refused inheritances and when they left Vermont for less-crowded Maine they sold their homestead for only the value of the cash and labor they had invested in it, one-fourth of its market value. That says a lot for who they were.