Back to the (urban) land

Living in the city is a compromise for me. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – I’m not really a city person. I don’t go to shows or movies or bars. I don’t go out to eat often, and wouldn’t miss it if I didn’t at all. I don’t like traffic (especially when I’m on my bike in it). I don’t like strangers and loud noise much.
What I like are plants, forests, mountains, a small constant social group, clean air, animals, gardens, bikes, walking, spaces devoid of people, etc.
But what I really don’t like is regular car commuting. Part of this is carbon guilt, part of it is monotony. I did OK carpooling 30 min each way in LA for a year, but that was getting old. I have road-tripped across the breadth and height of North America, but that was mostly fueled on novelty and the good company I was with. I have always been a bit of a homebody, despite my traveling and love of new experiences, and often find no good reason to leave the property I live on during a weekend. This probably rules out rural living for me.
I dream of going back to the land – living in a very small rural community (intentional or otherwise) and only getting out virtually with the internet and very occasional travel. While there are situations where living rurally may not mean a lot of driving, generally that is not the case with our global cash culture. Generally goods frequently enter or leave the community, and cities, at least, are generally good about keeping some of the sources and many of the sinks in one, compact place. I dream of being a farmer, or at least a market gardener, but I do not hold any illusion of being self-sufficient. I envision that living rurally for me would mean many trips into a neighboring city by car, to hold a job to make money or to sell things or to buy things. Not least on the reasons why is that my other family members are more into the things cities have to offer than I profess to be.
One of my favorite living situations was in a small tent-frame with a roommate in a small cluster of employee housing in the middle of Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park. I was an interpretive ranger there for 3 summers, and all in all it was wonderful. I got to hike and read and talk to small groups of people for work, which required no commute at all (after the original plane flights in). On my off time I got to climb mountains and fish and kayak and backpack. I was surrounded with a small group of mostly friendly like-minded people. There was a lodge with a bar, and almost no other exchange of money took place for those 4 months of the summer. But it was not truly sustainable – barge shipments of diesel ran the generators to power our lights and washing machines, hot water, and heaters (yes, electric space heaters – in the summer! It is often 50 degrees F or less even in the summer and the cabins and other buildings had very little passive solar gain). We shipped in big boxes of canned and dried food at the beginning of the summer, and no gardening was allowed with the bears hanging out everywhere. Some wild foraged foods were available – fiddle heads and fireweed shoots, berries and salmon, but not a large percentage of the diet.
At the other end, I also dream fondly of my distorted image of the English countryside, a la Jane Austin’s era. London may have been barely tolerable, but I imagine the rural villages to be just about my speed – some social opportunities, small, concentrated populations, no cars, living with the seasons. This romantic version comes mostly from the view of the upper class, but I’m not convinced your average farmer didn’t have a decent crack at happiness too. Improvements would include bikes, equal rights for all classes and minorities including women, possibly the internet to learn and explore, probably a few other freedoms and things I take for granted.
Here I am though, in this era and committed to the city. My family wants to be here. It allows me to not own a car. My friends live here. Libraries and greenbelts, the chugach mountains and farmers markets all exist within a reasonable radius. This is where I own a home. It’s not so bad. I have a backyard that is plenty big enough to stretch my gardening muscles in, and the true wilderness is really not that far away here – with time and motivation I could even walk to it. And this seems to be the route most thinking environmentalists are taking these days – urban gardening, urban greening, urban ecovillages, urban permaculture. Heck, this is the route most people are taking these days, with population everywhere shifting to the cities. This pull may not be resistible, so certainly the cities need to be greened. For those of us already there, there is quite a bit to be said for sending the roots down where you are and doing what you can with what you already have. I’m just not totally convinced that getting back to the land is so bad if it can be done better, with fewer fossil fuels. There is a lot to be said for growing our food in or near the cities that eat it, but I champion the small hamlets surrounded by sustainable small farms, and stretched off in between the bigger cultural center of the cities. I just don’t champion them by living there, at least not at this point. Perhaps the grass is green enough where I am, and perhaps it is too green and needs me to cover it over with diverse sheet mulch garden beds!

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5 responses to “Back to the (urban) land

  1. How quickly the mop flops, the worm turns – etc etc. Your immediate ancestor fought tooth & nail to escape your dream. No electrity (until I was 10), no running water (except running to get it) or indoor plumbing. At least 75% total independent for all our food. Isolated – no swimming lessons because of chores and distance from town, no travel – your ideal life and my nightmare 🙂

  2. I am the first to admit that I want the best of all worlds – and I’m not sure rural Kansas is my dream either unless there is a liberal, eco-community there I am not aware of! While there are many modern conveniences I can very well do without, there are some I’d certainly be loathe to give up! And all things, urban or otherwise, are made better by a tolerable and tolerant group of people nearby that you really like to be around. This can be much easier to find in a city with its higher density and variety of folks.

  3. I agree that the cities we have today are deeply flawed in a lot of ways (as were their Victorian predecessors), but I think that I can imagine a city I would love to live in, with the social, environmental, and economics benefits of density, but without a lot of the noise, pollution, alienation, and dangers that cities today have. The biggest difference between the cities we have, and the cities I can imagine loving wholeheartedly is the latter has no cars.

  4. um… yeah, Victorian London was so polluted you literally couldn’t see the sky (read some Dickens) nasty stuff. Cities have come a long way (and have a long way to go). But think of the economies of scale that urban living provides… just think how much less energy apartment expend than if each family in a unit had their whole farmhouse to heat and cool…

    No idea where I’m going with this– and dad– you gotta rant more. I’m expecting rants. I want urban rants. I’m all eager for your blog and there is just one posting– now how is it that Michelle has more time to blog than you do? Honestly!

  5. Pingback: Biking to the mountains « ecolandlord’s blog

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