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Friday, September 04, 2009

Country Life

When we decided to move from California to the Frozen North (the south shore of Nova Scotia), it seemed like a wise proposition. For one thing, the bang for the household buck was increased by about 300%; house prices were that approachable. The water lapping at the cove, apple trees filled with blossom and then fruit, and the added piquancy of seeing porcupines playing in our moonlit driveway made the transition less frightening: it was our own Wind in the Willows moment, and we loved it.

And we still love it, though it has its drawbacks. For one thing, dim sum is an hour and a half away by car; so is Thai food, and Vietnamese. But the wind does howl dramatically down the chimney at night and the pheasants strut bronzily and shout to each other, followed by a signature beating of wings, in the backyard. The night sky is black blueness pierced by a million carats of stars—and if our neighbors seem unnaturally attached to the world’s brightest porchlight—well, nothing’s perfect.

The move from City to Country is scary: if you’re a born-and-bred City person, the sounds of nature will horrify you at first. The hoofbeats and humid nighttime snuffle of a deer send you scuttling for the safety of your house: even chipmunks can seem menacing. At night, you lie awake convinced you are dying because, for the first time in your life, you can hear your own heart beating. From experience, I can tell you it takes about six months to get used to the noise.

Out here, we spend a lot of time admiring nature. I think that’s the reason everyone talks about the weather—in the country, you spend a lot of time out in it. Should I bring in two loads of firewood today, in case a storm blows up tomorrow, making the trip to the barn a slog through the bog? Is this a good day for working indoors on the computer because the black flies are out and if I go weed the garden now, they’ll eat my face off? In the city, I headed for Starbucks when the weather was abominable: in Port Medway I sit at the arched window on the second floor and watch the storms roll in across the harbor. Not a bad trade-off.

I don’t worry anymore about getting robbed at the ATM (or the sushi bar, but that’s another story). I worry about country things—how does one estimate the capacity of a septic tank before it gets too full and embarrasses us in front of the neighbors? How dirty can a chimney get before it actually bursts into flame? And I’m grateful for odd things: our drilled well, with sweet, clean, mineralized water. The wild asparagus plant I found down at Bees Cove, a single, purple and white spire hidden under the eel grass. The porcupines snuffling drowsily up saplings along the road, where they hang and sway from delicate, breeze-blown branches like ridiculous, overstuffed Christmas tree ornaments just about to slip off and hit the ground. If you’ve never seen a porcupine hanging on for dear life to a slender birch sapling, you’ve got something to look forward to. That dedication to his art; the persistence in the face of obstacles. The sheer singlemindedness of purpose. It’s inspiring, that’s what it is.

When you live in the sticks, you find yourself delighted by sticks—and stones, leaves and nests. You can rebuild a stone wall or pick chokecherries for jelly or haul seaweed from the cove to the tomato plants. There are just so many things to play with—it’s hard to get bored, even if you start out a jaded, nerveless city dweller. If you’ve ever been berry picking (or rock-hounding or bird-watching) you know how you start out seeing nothing, absolutely nothing of what you’re looking for, but after twenty minutes, you start to find things, and then suddenly you realize the spot you’ve been standing in, screaming “I’m bored!” and, “Let’s go hoooome!” is actually littered with berries (or mushrooms or fiddlehead ferns or beach glass) and for some unknowable neurological reason you’re only just seeing them now. Living in the country is just like that moment—when you realize that all this time, while you’ve been peering about in disappointment, you’ve actually been surrounded by the very thing you’ve been searching for.

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