Oh, How I Hate the Country
NINETY PER CENT of the middle-aged men in North America dream and drool over an imaginary dozen acres of land where they will retire some day and ledad the easy life. Happily they never get past the dream-and-drool stage.
Ten per cent, more daring and insane, retreat to the country, sink into the earth, are swallowed up and forgotten. They never have a day of ease thereafter. This I know for I am one of them. And just look at me. No, better not. It would only embarrass both of us.
For the unknown victims of the great North American Dream I propose to speak out here as no one has ever dared to speak before. I am doubly equipped for this harrowing personal confession by experience and perfidy.
First, after a quarter of a century of the dream life, I am broke, friendless, ignorant, insular, prejudiced, calloused, cantankerous, prematurely aged, and my feet hurt. I have mildew, rust, root rot, black spot, wireworm, cutworm, aphis, weevil, earwig and a cardiac condition. And I hate my fellow man.
Second, I am personally responsible for dragging down countless others with me, breaking up marriages and blighting the lives of little children.
This I have done by writing and selling for sordid profit innumerable sweet and soggy articles on the joys of the country. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of contented city folk have read and believed me and moved to the country and lived to curse my
At the start I wrote in all innocence, before the country had clutched me in its long green tentacles and squeezed out my last drop of humanity. Then I wrote to support my farm and thus earn the privilege of laboring, without wages, some 12 hours a day.
Finally I wrote out of sheer malice (and, I will say, with a horrid craftiness and a fine lyrical swing) because by now I drew a cold, sardonic pleasure from the sight of my companions in exile.
That, briefly, is how I became the tired monster you now behold.
It was great fun the first year or so—nature baits her trap with devilish ingenuity before the kill.
The first thing a city man does in the country is to plant trees as if they were a new invention. They are quite old really and any fool can plant them. Any fool does. Like all people who had seen them only through a car window I used to wax very sentimental and sloppy about trees. I used
to write purple and gooey pieces pointing out the fairly obvious fact that only God can make a tree.
But when I found myself writhing in a tropical jungle which I had planted, slashing out blindly in all directions with an axe, the sap of slaughter dripping from my hands, then I began to take a more practical view of trees. I stopped writing about God.
It sobers a man, I can tell you, when he is drenched three times a year in lime and sulphur spray, his skin breaks out in azalea-colored blisters, he smells like an over-aged egg, he is not allowed in his own kitchen and the dog walks away with his tail between his legs.
Please don’t tell me that only God can make a tree. It only turns me to blasphemy when every winter, hanging like an ill-made spider above the earth, I have to prune five tons of branches and pile them and burn them, with inflamed cheeks and singed eyebrows, wasting enough heat to warm the winter population of Toronto and enough energy to make an honest living.
Don’t start me talking about God and trees or I’ll forget that I was raised in a good Christian home.
And then the precious little acorns that grow
into mighty oaks, the fluttering, long-distance propellers of maple seeds and the wild, tasteless, caterpillar-infested apples that spring up on the fence lines. I wrote a lot of sickly, oozing stuff about the breeding habits of vegetable life and more of my city friends itched for the feel of a shovel, resigned their jobs and drove their wives into the wilderness.
I wrote thus, for I needed the money, but I knew by now that the acorn was my deadly enemy. A seed of any sort aroused the beast in míe. They grow, that is the trouble with seeds, they grow. Everything grows except me and I have shrunk two full inches in my 25 years of the easy country life.
There were touches of rough humor in those early days, when one could still laugh, and in my poverty I exploited them in the newspapers until people thought I was having a hell of a time.
There was our first crop when I carefully stored my choice tulip bulbs in the root cellar and my wife cooked them, being a city girl who took them for onions, and fed them to our infant daughter and came screaming down the road to ask the neighbors if tulips were poisonous; whereat Miss Snape suggested bread poultices, Mrs. Noggins urged a stomach pump as used on her Uncle Herbert (an alcoholic), Mrs. Shipley said it would certainly prove fatal and began to cry, and George Pud bury laughed so hard he fell off his manure spreader.
They weren’t poisonous, as it turned out, but they cost nearly $1 each.
•CT wrote that story in several papers, but I couldn’t afford new tulip bulbs. By then I was
bankrupt paying for fence posts, shovels, hoes, saws, fertilizers, liniment and painkiller which the real - estate advertisements never mention. After that we had to eat onions.
It was fun, too, before the illusion wore off, and it gave us a quaint sense of peasantry to join in the frolics of the countryside. Especially to drink Pudbury’s homemade beer which he had to open over the sink because of its explosive qualities— the secret origin of the atom bomb. Most of it escaped into the sink but a fraction escaped into Pudbury who, after a few good explosions, would sometimes give an imitation of a one-armed Frenchman reciting “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”
But you grow tired of explosions and “The Light Brigade” after a while. There is much to be said for a sanitary liquor store, nonexplosive, where the bottles are reliably labeled.
I made a few dishonest dollars—though seldom enough to afford a bottle of good stuff—writing about Pudbury’s beer and Mrs. Noggins’ parsnip wine. The latter was very good for lubricating a wheelbarrow, but in the papers I always presented it as a shimmering amber essence, compounded of sunshine, wind and autumn frost, which made my city friends’ tongues hang out. Mine did, too, after one gulp.
I once earned enough to buy a secondhand cultivator by recounting the literary adventures of Alfred Beake, who bought an encyclopedia on the installment plan from a traveling salesman because his thirst for learning had been aroused by pictures of a Turkish harem, but was compelled to return the books and lost
Unhappy Hutchison comes clean with the real dirt about bucolic bliss. After 25 years on 12 acres he just hates himself — and us
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his deposit because his wife thought his morals were being undermined, and anyway she wanted money to buy a load of natural fertilizer for her asparagus bed. She was a practical woman who didn’t go along with fertilizing the
You could eat asparagus, she pointed out, but what could you do with a Turkish harem? Beake could have answered that but thought it wise not to.
It all seemed funny at the time before the country soured us. It doesn’t seem funny any more. Nothing seems funny any more. It takes more than a glass of parsnip or an explosion at the sink to arouse me these days.
Besides, my neighbors didn’t like to be made fools of in print. Country people are odd that way. City people are willingly made fools of by every radio program, movie and parliamentary debate, but country people don’t like it. They began to slink up side roads and hide in the barn at my approach. I became a rustic pariah.
I haven’t the heart to write about my neighbors any more. I am a reformed character and tell the truth and no editor will buy it.
All editors love the country as long as they can observe it in colored photographs and they publish expert hints on horticulture written by a halfwitted old maid inhabiting a garret on Third Avenue, New York.
Any editor will fall for you if you come into his office with shabby clothes, the aroma of horses and a proper look of shyness. The sight of you makes him apologetic for his own wealth, makes him feel like a parasite.
Murmuring about his wasted life he will take you out to lunch and exhibit
you to his friends as an unspoiled child : of nature and all their eyes will light up with The Old Dream. The lights go out, though, when they see your cracked hands and haggard cheeks and remember when you were a prosperous, well-fed citizen.
While I was new to the country and still retained a few decent instincts it was a pleasure to give my produce to visitors from the city. This charity with my crops got to be a bore. Presently my friends stopped coming for my handouts. They now expect me to pick the vegetables and fruit, grade them according to government regulations, package them in new boxes and deliver them at the door, for nothing, of course. They resent it bitterly if the delivery is a little late and sometimes they compare my stuff unfavorably with the expensive goods of the chain
I kept a strict accounting one year and found that, reckoning my wages at $5 a day—and even I ought to be worth that much, though I grow weaker every season—each squash I gave away cost me $150.75. No squash is really worth that. No city friend is worth that. Nowadays I don’t raise many squashes and I have no friends. That way I save a lot of money and adrenalin.
A Slave to a Cucumber
So don’t talk to me about vegetables.
It only irritates my cardiac condition. And most especially don’t come driving gaily by here in your new car, with the trunk cleared out to take home your loot, and tell me how wonderful I am to be able to grow such luscious produce when you try so hard and never get a crop.
Don’t tell me for I know you were lying on the beach all summer while I was slaving with a hoe under the merciless country sun. I know you were lolling beside your steam radiator in the bitter days of March when I was turning the soil with my shovel and
praying for the time when somebody will dig me under.
Don’t talk to me about vegetables when I am stranghng in blackberry vines, a slave carrying water to a cucumber, a valet to a marrow, a prisoner locked behind the bars of a com patch. I know vegetables because I have become one. Please just stay away from here, let me decay in peace and buy your goods at the chain store.
What drove me from the city was its nervous strain, the hour-by-hour schedule starting at 9.30 a.m., coffee at 11, lunch from 12 to 2, tea at 4 and dinner at 6—never a moment of relaxation. The human animal, I said, was never built for such a load. In the country, I said, a man can take his time.
The first thing I bought in the country was an alarm clock to rouse me at 5.30 and from that hour to darkness every moment was scheduled like a radio program, with 15 minutes for meals, with hardly a word to my family because I didn’t trust myself to speak, and a curt nod to any passer-by lest he lean over the fence and interrupt the schedule by passing the time of
I have found no peace but I have found isolation all right. I have become a better isolationist than Senator Borah. I can read nothing except seed catalogues and cures for hog cholera and advertisements for the latest garden poisons, over which I pore with the gibbering delight of a ghoul.
I read nothing and I know nothing, and just outside a sizeable city I might as well be in the middle of the Gobi Desert swinging a prayer wheel. Would that I were.
When my wife shouted from the back steps that the Japs had bombed Pearl Harbor I was pruning an apple tree but I didn’t stop pruning, not for a second, because I had a whole overgrown orchard ahead of me and, Japs or no Japs, it will keep growing. I shall still be pruning on the same tree, no doubt, when the explosion of atom bombs at last brings me happy release.
Manure in the Abstract
The advertisements for real estate and annuities always show the country cottage heaped up with fruit, blossom, vegetables and honey, but the only product I ever traded profitably was manure. In exchange for my hay Pudbury gives me a big load of manure and if you know how to use manure you can make money on it.
I guess I wrote 10 pieces a year about manure and, in the abstract, so long as I handled it in the concrete, the city readers loved it. There’s something wonderfully wistful and nostalgic about manure that moves the urban heart and sets tycoons sniveling about their grandfather’s farm in Bruce County. You can always set a whole city dreaming with a column of good barnyard stuff. There’s big money in manum j if you dress it up right.
Still, you can’t go on writing about manure forever. The thing has its limitations like everything else. I think I’ve exhausted my only sure source of income.
In the same fashion I used to write an annual ode to the falling leaves every autumn. Many hardened captains of industry, reading it in their club, would break down over their highballs and cry for their lost childhood, and sometimes I felt a little tearful myself. Not for long. When you have to rake, lift, carry and dump 70 cartloads of oak leaves you can’t afford to break down, which is a luxury reserved for the rich.
I used to describe in print the leaves
rustling under your feet with the sound of waves on a sandy beach; I used to paint such vivid pictures of my compost pile slowly decomposing into the rich black stuff of fertility, the ultimate substance of growth, the true elixir of life that you would think it edible. Just dirt, that’s all, just dirt. You might as well know that now.
It’s All Just Utter Rot!
And it was a sure-fire tear jerker when I told how, digging down into the compost after five years of the maturing process, digging down through the vintage years as through a wine cellar, I would exhume, layer on layer, each year telling its separate story, the lost and broken toys of my children’s vanished childhood. The only things I ever found, in point of fact, were a pair of false teeth and an old rubber girdle.
At the moment compost is extremely fashionable in America. Every gardening and woman’s magazine is piled high with compost. Technical writers who never lifted a spoonful of earth in their lives explain mysteriously and in loathsome detail how to make a compost heap. No God-fearing family must be without one.
There is no mystery in it really. You just pile up the stuff and the bacteria do the rest. The writers, though of the same species, really contribute nothing. This decomposition of vegetable matter into new soil has been going on a long while and will continue after the decomposition of the writers. Pay no attention to their mysteries. It’s rot, that’s all, plain rot. The essential material for gardeners and writing men.
You have read somewhere, perhaps, my essay on the fine old British pleasure of growing walnuts. It was a touching thing.
I omitted to mention, however, that in picking walnuts a man’s fingers are stained a deep African brown for
six weeks every fall, during which time he must wear gloves in church and keep his hands under the table if anyone comes to dinner. I failed also to point out that no one would eat my walnuts merely because the shells are covered with a bluish mold, slimy like a wet fish to the touch and, inside, a peculiarly revolting species of worm has taken up residence.
Even my defenseless children could not escape the fury of my battle with the land. To support my farm—12 acres being more expensive than the 12 wives of Mr. Beake’s harem and much less productive—I had to write all night as I toiled outside all day, and the children, so long as they were too young to read, offered abundant copy of a whimsy-whamsy sort.
It was a kind of legal method of eating your young. No family can survive the carefree country life.
When my son and daughter could read what I had written about them they began to regard themselves as freaks, to quail before visitors and to consider their father a cockatrice. As soon as they were old enough they fled from the country. There are two youhg Canadians who will never fall for The Dream.
“I Have Become a Killer”
I have said enough to show that I came to the country a man cf normal impulses, not too bright or I wouldn’t have come, but with kindly feelings toward everybody. After the fierce competition of the city I expected to settle down in tune with dear old Mother Nature.
After this quarter century of pain, deceit and poverty I know nature for what she is—a ruthless destroyer, concentrating all her craft against the only species which she cannot abide, which is man. To survive I had to become a destroyer too.
Beside the incalculable billions of innocent lives I have destroyed with my hoe, my axe, my poisons and even my fingers (for you must learn to squash an earwig as thoughtlessly as a city man picks an olive from a Martini) —beside the heaped-up hordes of my victims the crimes of Genghis Khan, Hitler and Stalin combined are hardly good enough for amateur night.
I used to be a nice guy. I have become a killer. I sharpen my lethal blades. I gloat over my secret store of arsenic—a killer and a poisoner.
Next time you see in the advertisements for real estate and annuities the faces of a jolly old couple who have retired to the country on their savings look beyond these pleasant exteriors.
Behind the smiling masks are the leering visages of death and poison and behind them is me.
Yet, despite all these warnings you will probably go on dreaming of a vinecovered bungalow where you can smell the flowers in summer and in winter hear the clean country winds beside your fire of crackling wood, cut by your own hands. I still have my dreams, too.
I am dreaming of a two-room flat, somewhere in a nice high concrete tower, where I can smell the perfume of automobile engines and listen to the sweet whir of traffic outside, the soft whisper of steam in the radiator and the click of an electric thermostat. ★