When my grandfather built his house north of Baton Rouge along the Mississippi, he had no neighbors except an old man who lived across Tucker Wood, where he raised hogs. The old man had been in the Fifth Infantry in World War I. Before the war he wanted to be a lawyer, but when the war ended, he came back and built a shack of oak and virgin cabin cedar. On summer nights he would cross the wood and help my grandfather split logs, mend fences and tend the field. They would talk about the place in France where his life changed forever, and where he dreamed not of the law but of the river and the mountains. The old man is dead. Tucker Wood is gone; now it's part of an immense cotton farm run by computers in Little Rock and Memphis. The farmer in charge of the place wears three-piece suits. The land along the river has become crowded, but few of those who have moved in have come to live on the land, to be with it. The new rural man is looking for escape, not involvement.
Nowadays, a lot of men behave as if they want to get back to the country, even if they never intend leaving their back porches. Of course, most of them don't actually want to lead the rural life—a risky, nervous, rattled and ominous life at best. What they desire is a country setting with city conveniences, evenings spent around a cozy wood fire thumbing through outdoor catalogues.
A city man rushes to the country, puts a down payment on something usually called a farmstead or ranchette, parks a tractor in the front yard, buys a chain saw, orders a pair of L.L. Bean duck shoes and expects an immediate dissipation of his anxieties and phobias, an ease of conscience, safety from crime, government, foul air, insurance agents and elevators. Instead, he ends up with an acre of crabgrass, a stolen tractor, mice nibbling at his catalogues, raccoons sampling his hot tub, a seedy local criminal who steals stone fences, trail bikes in the summer and snowmobiles in the winter.
Which is why the new country man is determined to get as much of the city into the barnyard as he can. He wants his nature with an alarm system and French restaurants. No woodchucks under the boathouse; no spiders in the barn loft; no fox at the wood's edge; no field mice under the wood stove. Such is the look of the new country man, ax in one hand, opera tickets in the other.
"The country will take itself many qualities of the city," H.G. Wells warned years ago. "The old antithesis will cease, the boundary lines will altogether disappear." And so they have, as Americans hurry to the country at the staggering rate of 350,000 a year. When they arrive they invariably find that the life they seek—certain, secure, simple—is as elusive as the glow of fox fire in a deep Southern night. The road back from polyester to calluses, to personal independence, to the genuine interdependence of man and nature is hazardous and demanding. It can't be traveled quickly, on a whim. Owning land cannot save a man's soul or heal his spirit. A man is not of the land until his life is soaked in it, and the two are inseparable. The country isn't simply a change of life but a separate and different way of living. The hard part isn't getting to a place but once there to be really part of it, fit it as snugly as a shell fits a nut. Otherwise, the country is only the city with more trees and no place for the cows to cross.