Lately we’ve felt a pastoral urge, as yet unfocused and probably no more than a fleeting whim. Still, it’s worth remembering we tend to feel more at home and at ease in the country, where trees and water stand in for neighbors. And that’s the problem: Too many people in too small a space. Houston is big but not big enough. In 2014-15, 40,032 newcomers came to the city. I’ve lived in towns smaller than that. The population of Houston, the fourth-largest U.S. city, is roughly 2.3 million. That’s about four times as many people as live in all of Wyoming, one of the objects of our recent reveries. Traffic here is a perpetual nightmare. Grocery stores are always crowded, even late at night, and I am temperamentally unsuited for any collective, crowd-based activity, whether political rally, rock concert or freeway driving.
Verlyn Klinkenborg seems to have achieved a livable rural/urban balance in his life. He has a farm near Chatham in Columbia County, N.Y., about thirty miles southeast of Albany, where I lived for almost twenty years. In a passage dated Aug. 16 in More Scenes from Rural Life (Princeton Architectural Press, 2013), Klinkenborg cites an unimpeachable source:
“I’ve been thinking of a line by A.J. Liebling quoting the man he called his literary advisor, Whitey Bimstein, who also trained prizefighters. `I once asked him how he liked the country,’ Liebling writes. `He said, “It is a nice spot.”’ I love that line. It reduces the nonurban land surface of the planet to a single, homogenous vanishing point.”
So many New York City dwellers I’ve known, natives and transplants, live in dread of unpaved land. I once went hiking in Vermont with a native Brooklynite and lifelong New Yorker who feared the touch of anything green, which he took as a sure sign of poison ivy. Of course, all of us are provincial in some manner, mistaking the familiar for the real. Klinkenborg continues:
“Mr. Bimstein, without knowing it, was perpetuating an ancient poetic habit, singling out an idealized setting—a locus amoenus, or pleasing place—from among the chiggers and ticks. I know some of Mr. Bimstein’s rural counterparts. They’ve lived in the country their whole lives and never once been to the city.”
I’ve lived in both worlds and in their intersection (suburbia), and I’m feeling the tug of Horace and his Sabine farm. A fantasy? Of course, but a benign one. In Open Secrets/Inward Prospects: Reflections on World and Soul (Paul Dry Books, 2004), Eva Brann consoles: “Pleasant breezes, glorious vistas: The heart expands and the intellect is activated.” That's the prize.