Rural Royalty



On your next day off consider getting in your car and driving far out of the city and deep into the countryside. You’ll find some interesting things there. Some of them are funny and some are not. I do this often. It’s not hard for me because I already live outside of a small city. Whenever you drive through the country, you’ll often encounter sites that you would never see in or even on the outskirts of the city. On my drive in the country yesterday here are just a few of the things I encountered. One was a large lawn filled with about a hundred small used tractors, all lined up in tidy rows. They were old, covered in rust, and not for sale. What were they doing there? I didn’t stop to ask the owner this question as I was too deeply immersed in the CD I was listening to, but as I kept driving I couldn’t shake this question. Why would anyone do this? They were elegant in their way, or interesting anyway. Soon enough winter will be here, and those tractors will be covered in a foot of snow, adding more rust and probably more beauty to this curious scene. I’m pretty sure they were there for decoration.

A while later I came upon an old red-brick farmhouse. The owner is an antique dealer and my wife and I have visited his shop before. That house is filled to the rafters with antiques. Nothing too unusual there—a lot of antique shops look like that. What is unusual is that over the years the antiques have overgrown the house and have spread across this front lawn right up to the fence bordering the road, also beside his house and behind it as well. They also fill a couple of outbuildings on the property and a large barn. The antiques remain outside 365 days of the year. In winter they’re also covered in snow. What must his neighbors think? His neighbors are some distance away, so I’m guessing they don’t mind much and maybe enjoy living close to a landmark. It must be easy to give people directions to your house if you live close to a site like this. If you live in a twenty-first-century suburb, I often wonder, how do you give people directions to your house? That’s not a problem for this guy’s neighbors.

Sometime later I encountered an old clapboard house on the outside of which the owner had attached a large collection of things: old signs, license plates, shutters, old tools, tractor seats, snowshoes, hockey sticks, all manner of things leaning up against his house or hanging off of it. This wasn’t a store, and these things were not for sale. Again, they were there for decoration. You might have thought the whole scene an eyesore or maybe not, depending on your taste I suppose. I rather liked it. The scene made me smile anyway. I wondered who lived there and what possessed him.

Then of course there’s the classic scene of the guy with an absurdly large number of old cars on his lawn, usually in back of his house but sometimes in front too. They’re allegedly there for parts, except when is the last time you saw anyone actually working on those cars? I think they’re strictly decorative too. That guy’s a collector and, like any collector, he takes pride in his collection. They’re also elegant in their own way, at least to him. To me, they’re a bit of an eyesore but they still give me a smile.

You can encounter any number of scenes like this if you spend any time outside of the city. You’ll find poverty living right next door to ostentatious wealth. You’ll see a hodgepodge of nineteenth-century farmhouses, evidence of old-world prosperity, luxurious new houses, abandoned and boarded up buildings, mobile homes, an unpredictable blending of old and new, city commuters and farmers living at some distance from each other, close to nature yet still connected to the same virtual networks as their urban counterparts.

There is a kind of freedom out there that’s not to be had in urban areas, and it’s a freedom that extends beyond what you can put on your lawn. If you live in a city or suburb there are a thousand regulations governing everything from what you can build and how to what trees you can plant and how many, what kind of fences you can build and where, what animals you can have, how much noise you can make, what you can do with your garbage, and so on and so forth. Everyone is accustomed to these rules; there’s always some utilitarian rationale for them, and how they do pile up. How is it in rural areas? They don’t have these rules, or not nearly so many. They don’t need to worry much about neighbors’ complaints not only because they have fewer neighbors and they’re farther away but because they likely know their neighbors and maybe grew up with them.

But the kind of freedom I’m talking about goes well beyond the relative absence of those annoying and mostly unnecessary regulations that governments seem to have an endless appetite for creating. It’s a freedom of mind that I’m talking about. Out there the mind can wander endlessly. Many young people find growing up in the country very boring indeed. There is an energy in the city that the country will never have, the sense that something is always happening, and even if you don’t avail yourself of these opportunities, you know that you could. Not so in the country. There you have to fall back upon your own resources, practice some self-reliance, be resilient, make your own fun, and spend time with a usually small number of people—people you likely know well.

I’ve spoken here before about feeding the imagination. I’ve never lived in a suburb, but I would think it difficult to grow your imagination or to experience much freedom of mind in that environment. No doubt there is a lot of utility to be gained there, but I find it hard to imagine freedom being one of them, especially freedom of mind. The norm there is homogeneity: sameness of architecture, commercial development, parks, even the trees and shrubs that grow, a whole way of life. Everything is planned and exceedingly rational. One suburb looks a lot like another, and an outsider can get easily lost. There are no landmarks, few curiosities or eccentricities, not many ways to get your bearings.

What I’m speaking of is an aristocracy of the spirit. They can express themselves out there without fear. They’re uninhibited, for better or worse, and if you don’t like what you see just keep driving, although you’re likely to see more eccentricity before long, that is, until you encounter those suburbs on the outskirts of your city. I’ll tell you why he has carefully placed those tractors on his lawn: it’s because he can. You can’t and he knows it. I think he might be rubbing your nose in it. This is true country aristocracy, rural royalty, and it’s an aristocracy not of class but of freedom. Their imagination can run wild out there and often does—again for better or worse. Wide open spaces, un-safe spaces, being surrounded by nature, both cultivated and uncultivated, witnessing the change of seasons, the coming into being and passing away of things, the unplanned and unregulated, visual variety, silence, the wild and the unpredictable. It must give city councilors and inspectors nightmares, and this is a large part of its charm, also its humanity. Urban snobbery is a commonplace not only of modern but of ancient times as well, and it’s never justified. Think twice about this attitude and remember the next time you’re tempted to laugh at the guy with all those cars on his lawn he may be laughing at you too.

The German existentialist Karl Jaspers spent a good part of his childhood freely roaming the countryside of Lower Saxony, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that around the same time he developed a strong sense of freedom—an affinity for wide open spaces and, as a kind of intellectual outgrowth of that, a bold curiosity about what lies beyond the horizon and a certain kind of openness to experience. His writings would always express a love of human freedom—political freedom but, more fundamentally, the freedom to experience more, and to be more than what an individual is known as, something transcendent and idiosyncratic. He didn’t collect old cars for parts, but what he did have was an expansive mind, a sense of transcendence, a dislike of homogeneity, and a free-spiritedness that is the mark of rural royalty.

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