Real country—a condition of the mind
Real country for some is the land just beyond the last urban bus stop, or the last suburb beyond the previous last suburb, or the single field of grazing cattle between two towns that have not yet grown together. For many it is the area variously called exurbs, rhuburbs, slurbs, fringe areas, the edge. For others, it is far beyond all city influence—outback, bush, boondocks, indeed, what urbanites might call wilderness.
Your concept of real country is unique to you and likely denotes not merely distance from city but certain conditions and features. Population density, size of property holdings, types of human activities and evidence of the natural world are all factors that contribute to a sense of real country.
Jack Lessinger coined the word “penturbia’ to describe the fifth area of American development, “small cities and towns, and subdivisions, homesteads, industrial and commercial districts interspersed with farms, forests, lakes and rivers.’ In regions such as the Northeastern Metropolitan Belt the interspersion has become thin. The so-called farm country in Massachusetts has a density of between 100 and 250 people per square mile, only 2.5 to 6.4 acres per person. Bostonians may consider that to be real country.
Most of us would agree that real country means an area of sparse population. Then we would debate the definition of sparse. For my wife and me, it is being surrounded by hundreds of acres of forested hills and hollows, the nearest small town 14 miles and 30 minutes away and the nearest shopping center a one-hour drive. (In addition to our garden we have a pantry, freezer and root cellar.) There is nearly a half mile of thick woods between us and our nearest neighbor’s house.
The state maps in Appendix B show the sparsely populated areas in each state. Areas indicated by shading have a population density of less than 50 people per square mile, even less in some cases, which equates to at least 12.8 acres per person. For some of us this is too crowded. For others, after living in a concrete jungle it may feel like the wild frontier.
Why did I set the limit at 50 people per square mile? Well, that’s how I found the data in America The Beautiful. How the people who produced that wonderful set of books acquired that data is a mystery to me—census takers could never create those non-county lines. I envision a wide line of trustworthy Boy Scouts dutifully marching through each county, honestly counting people. “Good morning, ma’am, you’re 87!’ “What! How impertinent!’ (Courtesy is in the mind of the oath taker.)
As urban areas have sprawled, country has become closer to more people. Real country today may be less than an hour’s drive from towns with major schools, hospitals, shopping centers, cultural facilities. Some of the best of these towns are small state capital and college towns.
Boondocks—what a wonderful word. In Tagalog, the primary Austronesian language of the Philippines, bundok means mountain. Etymologists persuade that bundok was combined with sticks (as in “out in the sticks’) to get boondocks, which now means a remote rural area. And you thought you were only going to learn geography here.
Boondocks is a challenging word to work with. Is it: boondocks are serious country, or boondocks is serious country? It’s at moments like this that I wish the girl in front of me in high school English had not been so devastating. Well, they/it are/is. In the boondocks, four-wheel-drive vehicles are appropriate, as are supplies adequate for extended periods. Water is an issue. Considerations include lack of electricity and telephone. Other than wood, energy for heating and cooking is often imported. Photovoltaic charging systems currently available can make living in the boondocks quite comfortable. Lights, refrigerators, tools, radios, even computers may now be powered by batteries recharged by the sun.
Boondocks land prices are usually very low. If you are proudly independent with a high level of country skills and your idea of adequate space is similar to that expressed by Daniel Boone: “If I can see the smoke from my neighbor’s fire, it is time to move,’ then the boondocks may be the place of your ideal home.
Unless you have lived in a primitive manner before, you might try camping in a remote area for a few weeks, better a few months, best a full year. Expect procuring potable water to be a challenge. Without a well and electric pump, water sources may be limited to springs, streams, lakes. Plan to purify. Take tools, food, a lot of books. Take a very close friend.
Abandoned small farms
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of farms has dropped every year since 1950, from 5.6 million then to 2.059 million in 1997. Regrettably, none have dropped onto politicians’ heads. In prime soil areas, extensive farm consolidation has occurred and around cities many former farms are now shopping centers and subdivisions. Still, there are thousands of old subsistence farms in real country just waiting to be discovered. The former owners were often too poor to use chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, so the land is probably clean, although the family dump site will typically be found in some low spot.
These abandoned farms are often ideal country home places. Many may be found in Michigan, northern Wisconsin, southern Missouri, northern Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and other southeastern states, particularly in hilly areas. They are often owned by city people who only occasionally visit “grandmother’s farm.’
I especially like old subsistence farms for many reasons:
• They have land too poor and/or too hilly for agribusiness operations.
• They have established water sources.
• They are in communities of small farms.
• They are often reasonably priced.
• They have a set of buildings which, even if ramshackle, can be used for temporary shelter and storage.
• They have old garden sites and fruit and nut trees.
• They have history.
• They have nostalgic surprises: remnants of stone walls or split-rail fences; family cemeteries; old-fashioned rose bushes; daffodils that in spring appear in a row where a long-ago fence protected a farm wife’s flower garden from chickens, cows, horses, hogs and dogs. Ours bloom every spring.
If all of the above is too wild for you, the next chapter on small towns and villages may include your definition of country.The new heartland can be seen