Was Marx right? Is rural life inherently inferior to its urban counterpart?
This question always strikes me when I return home to the little town in Connecticut where I grew up. I have lived in Washington, D.C. since 1980 and clearly have made my choice, although I cherish my visits here. I returned to rural Connecticut for extended stays only twice, once to work on a campaign and once to care for my parents after they were in a car accident. Each time, I was relieved to return to the imperial city.
I wonder, however, if I would have moved back if I had children. Growing up in the country is a great blessing. Our little town is completely safe. My mother never arranged “play dates,” she just opened the back door and said “Go out and play!” We could play in the forest, or walk down to the wooden school house in the winter where they had a good hill for sledding and tobogganing. (I have since encountered situational ethics, which is sort of like riding on a toboggan.) We could walk along what was once the village green to the General Store where friends might be hanging out. There were chores to do, weeding the garden, picking the vegetables, shoveling snow, and while I detested them at the time, I recognize how those chores taught me responsibility and, whenever I complained about them, my mother taught me about not whining.
Most of all, in the country, you really do depend upon your neighbors and forge a different relationship with them and with your fellow townspeople. There is a house in our town called “The House the Women Built.” In the 1770s, a family was building its house and got as far as putting in the stone foundation and cutting the wood for the house when the American Revolution broke out and, being from the more radical side of the state, most of the men in the town went up to Massachusetts to join the Continental Army outside Boston. The women of the village got together and, with the help of some older men who had raised houses before, they built the house. That spirit lives on in our town’s volunteer ambulance corps and fire department, the way my Dad drives a neighbor to dialysis, the Burelle clan’s “party barn” where one and all are welcomed for Christmas dinner.
In the city, we are usually protected from giving a second thought to the fury of nature. Here, nature remains a more formidable force. My Dad had told me, and I had seen on the news, about the freak October snowstorm they had here in Connecticut this autumn. I remember reading that after eight days, some parts of the state were still without power, and I figured that the power companies were simply caught off-guard. Not so. The devastation from that storm was like nothing I remember. Because the snow was heavy and sticky, and the leaves were still on the trees, it caused havoc even among many usually sturdy trees. Our backyard looks like a tornado went through it with the weeping cherry tree reduced to four ungainly branches, the maple looking like it was sheered in two, and branches everywhere. I made a walk through the state forest yesterday and there are trees down everywhere. In the city, we may be protected from such natural incidents, but such protection may give us a false sense of domination over nature of the kind that comes back to bite us in the behind, e.g., global warming.
Rural life is not now what is was in Marx’s time. He could not jump in the car and drive to the shore for dinner, as my Dad and I did last night. There were no supermarkets close by. You could not drive up to Boston for the day to visit friends, museums and bookstores in Cambridge, although you could have taken a train and gotten there without the onerous task of parking. There were no electric radio fences to keep the dogs from running into the street but, then again, there were no cars to hit dogs in the street. There was no internet which, even with all the slowness of a dial-up connection, allows me to continue posting. There was no cable television to watch the UConn Huskies, although if they had basketball in nineteenth century, you could have taken a train there from my hometown. Of course, there was no UConn until 1881.
Six years ago, I moved to the suburbs of DC and can assert with moral certainty that the suburbs get the worst of both rural and urban worlds. I like my little suburb in Maryland, to be sure, but it has none of the benefits of the country and, unlike the city, you still have to drive to get anywhere.
There is an old saying about how some people would, if they could, live in a palace and others would only want to live in a cottage. I think some of us have our palace moments and our cottage moments. And, that is how I feel about the differences between urban and rural living. Both have their benefits and the secret is to spend time in both. I think if I had children and lived in the city, I would try and find a summer place in the country, not in a resort area, but in rural America, where we could spend the summer months. If I lived here in Connecticut year-round, I would look for a pied-a-terre in the city where I could spend the summer months.
So, back to the question about Marx. Yes, there is a type of idiocy that may be unique to rural life but there are types of idiocy unique to urban life too. In his time, rural life was associated with backwardness and superstition, but I could bring Mr. Marx to some fancy D.C. salons and show him how certain highly sophisticated superstitions maintain themselves in cosmopolitan surroundings and also how forward-thinking isn’t always what it is cracked up to be. On the other hand, I miss having the Washington Post at my door in the morning, the butcher at Eastern Market a short drive away, and good Mexican, Puerto Rican, French and Italian food all nearby. Idiocy is not a rural nor an urban phenomenon, it is a human phenomenon, and we bring it with us wherever we go. And, I know how blessed I am to be able to experience both rural and urban idiocies – and delights – with some regularity.