When they chose the site for their new home, they were careful to pick a lot that sat on the edge of the development. They didn’t want to be completely surrounded by a sea of homes that all looked like a variation on their own. In mornings to come, they would look out from their second floor bedroom windows, out over the privacy fence that bordered the backyard and the swimming pool, and they would see tractors working the earth in the farmers fields that lie just beyond.
And for a time, they did just that. Waking to a view of golden fields stretching out before them to meet the shadow of the distant trees which rose up on the horizon.
A year passed…, perhaps two.
The tractors came less frequently.
The once carefully tilled rows lay fallow.
And then the earth-moving equipment arrived and the fields were consumed by streets and yards and houses that all looked very much like their own.
And the young couple lamented the passing of something beautiful, and they thought to themselves, “maybe someday we’ll move to the country.”
Do you know this couple?
Because I’ve known at least a dozen of them, and all with the same story.
And it’s a story that I’ve heard told by others, about people I’ve never known, living through the same cliché. There are so many of them out there, and I wonder if, when they all wake up each morning, do they pull back the curtains of their bedroom window and look out over row upon row of nearly identical rooftops, shingles glowing gold in the morning sun?
My family moved into the country when I was still in the Fourth Grade. The house they built, on a Farm-to-Market road, west of Waxahachie Texas, sat upon a five-acre plot of land which was bordered on three sides by a cattle ranch and farmers fields.
I spent hours roaming those fields as a boy.
There were hills, and rocky ledges, and creeks that seemed to spit up fossil choked clumps of limestone at every twist and turn. There was a giant fallen tree, which had been hollowed out by a swarm of bees and transformed into the largest natural hive I have ever seen. There were snakes (rattlers and copperheads, along with many harmless species), skunks, opossums, armadillos, and at least one wandering bobcat who made random nighttime appearances.
Sometimes, in the earliest part of the morning, you could see deer moving silently by in the mist.
It only took a few weeks living there before the cries of the coyotes became a sound of comfort, rather than trepidation.
My parents were great travelers, and by the time we moved into the country, I had already visited many of the most spectacular natural environments in North America. They taught me, early on, to love the natural world.
But it was living there, on a little patch of land surrounded by ranch and farm and wild, that I first began to learn about the cycles of birth and death and rebirth that are the heart of the human relationship with nature, and the thread upon which our survival rests. And it was there that I first began to hear the spirits that lived and moved within the land.
And what other harvest could we have hoped for, from a five-acre plot of land?
We raised chickens, who produced enough eggs to keep us in omelets. There were a few rabbits, who quickly became pets. A couple goats, who quickly became pets. A pair of sheep…, pets. And occasionally a garden – tomatoes, okra, string beans, radishes, pumpkins, and a few stalks of corn, on a plot maybe 30ft square.
Oh and we had a pear tree which produced more fruit than we could eat, and an apple, that never produced any.
Meanwhile the rest of the acreage was dedicated to a yearly crop of prairie grass, bluebonnets, and chiggers.
Our land had no other purpose, than to be a place where we lived, a refuge away from the city.
If our only purpose in living in a place, is to avoid living in another place, what kind of relationship can we hope to have with the land? As individuals? As a people?
Today, I live in an old house, on a small lot, in a neighborhood that has been around since the early days of the 1950’s. There are beautiful trees, and gardens, and the houses all have character to them, and no two of them look exactly alike. The elderly lady next door grows a few vegetables in her little backyard garden, and the people at the end of the block have chickens – but it’s too bright here, and the roosters crow through the whole night.
I chose this area specifically, because even though it’s a little rough around the edges, it’s an older, very lived-in community, and still just a 10-minute drive from a thriving downtown.
I do miss the country, sometimes. I miss the clear night skies and the nearby sounds of wildlife.
Occasionally, I imagine myself living in some rustic mountain cabin.
Or maybe I could find some rough and tumble little patch in the west of Ireland…,
…someplace to set down roots, at last.
The days are slipping by quickly now, and Lughnasadh is upon me again.
The ancient Irish Festival of the First Harvest is a remembrance of a time when people lived their lives in preparation for that first harvest. This holy day must seem like a relic, in a time when every crop is available, year round, in the local grocery, and the land has become this thing we live on but never speak to.
We need a better harvest.
We need a generation of people who will listen to the voices in the earth.
We need to discover our purpose in the land.
I need to discover its purpose in me.