The Contrary Countryman

Return to Ruralize your dreams
Country neighbors are more important than city neighbors

“If you can’t use your neighbors, what’re they good for?”
Farrell Berry, 92-year-old, self-described “hillbilly dirt farmer”

I bought my first house in Concord, California, in 1963. I was the stereotypical proud new homeowner. The first Saturday morning, as I caressed trees, admired shrubs, delighted in details missed during the house-hunting inspection, I saw my neighbor puttering in his front yard and happily hailed him. No response. Figuring his hearing might be impaired, I filled my lungs and boomed a "Good morning, neighbor!" (Think Robin Williams in "Good Morning Vietnam.") My neighbor turned, looked at me briefly, and walked around the corner of his house. I lived there five years and for five years he ignored me.

I bought my second house in a new subdivision. All fourteen families on our cul-de-sac made an effort to be neighborly. We were nearly all of a kind, young parents, and we happily introduced ourselves. Early on, even before lawns were planted and castle fences erected, we gained permission from the fire authorities, blocked the entrance to our street, set up BBQs and tables and chairs and a beer keg and a tub of soft drinks and had games and prizes for the youngsters, much food and camaraderie. "This will be an annual event!" we grinned. We had another block party the following year and then we sank into normality, waved as we drove off to work, exchanged pleasantries during weekend lawn mowing.

After I bought this old Ozarks homestead but before I had moved here, my caretaker left a smoldering campfire which later flared and started a yard fire in the dry grass she had neglected to mow—nearly burned the house, did burn the garage and about twenty acres of oak forest. The house was saved because Henderson Boatwright was returning from church, saw smoke from his house two miles away, drove here and stomped out the burning grass near the house. In his Sunday best. Then he rushed home, called the conservation department and neighbors, who all came and worked the rest of the day to kill the fire.

Two years ago our nearest neighbor, Rayma Carter, lost Mike—the epitome of a great neighbor—to a fatal heart attack while she was visiting her mother in California. By the time she was able to fly back home the house was spotless, clothes and bedding washed, food prepared. Soon relatives were being shuttled in from the airport two hours away. On learning of financial embarrassment, a handmade coffin was constructed and a handmade quilt donated to line the coffin. Small cash donations occurred. A heart-shaped memorial stone was cast and lettered in concrete. In the months that followed, groceries were picked up and delivered, firewood and kindling was dropped off, and, yes, many donations were simply hugs. All from neighbors.

In addition to helping to handle deaths and putting out fires, neighbors are good for big harvest jobs, picking up a few things in town, feeding pets and livestock during vacation, celebrating holidays, going fishing, explaining the life cycle of a bug that you’d otherwise import into your garden on grass clippings and leaves, telling jokes, sharing insight, receiving surpluses, pulling vehicles out of the ditch, borrowing and lending tools, raising rafters, discussing issues, attending summer potlucks and playing croquet and volleyball and horseshoes, commiserating over gardening losses, taking walks, bragging about the first tomato of the season, and showing where you have morels on your land in a place that you’ve been walking past for years.

Robert Frost penned the oft-quoted, "Good fences make good neighbors," but also "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." The town neighborhoods I most admire are those where yards flow one into another unobstructed, parklike, without territorial markers. When I pass such a sermon I always muse that good people must live there, confident, content, caring neighbors.

Country neighbors are more important than city neighbors. Homes are often far from sheriffs, fire departments, ambulances. City amenities such as trash pickup, delivery service and taxis are often nonexistent. Citizens are more independent of the system but more dependent on neighbors. This being an understood equation, rural neighbors tend to be civil and supportive even when there are obvious values and lifestyle differences, a ubiquitous condition in areas with large urban refugee populations. In such places, old-timers and newcomers learn from each other, but old-timers give more than they get.

You don't pick neighbors—they come with the territory—they're pot luck. And they're different from other friends because they stay close to you whether you like them or not. So dealing with neighbors is an opportunity for personal growth. If you can become an accomplished neighbor then you can become a vital part of your community.

Rayma had her auction yesterday. The tide of strangers slowly carried off tools, furniture, collectibles. The auctioneer worked on the raised front porch of the building Mike built to hold his collections, under the big sign with the brilliant rainbow swirled across it, the words "Rainbow's End" and "Mike & Rayma Jo." All the neighbors were there but I didn't see any of us buy anything.

Rayma will be leaving her house and forty acres Tuesday and moving to Utah. It's a nice house in a beautiful setting, certain to sell soon. I wonder what the new neighbors will be like.

Return to Ruralize your dreams
Return to Gene's article Table of Contents