Sunday Scribblings: City and Country
My ancestral city: From About.com:Colombia in Pictures
We are city people. We have always been city people. So my parents have never understood the allure of living off the land, of trading civilization for a log cabin in the middle of the forest. They would listen to Americans gush enthusiastically “going camping” and living “a mile from the nearest neighbor.” My mother would say, “maybe our campo is different from their country.”
Campesinos were not rugged individualists, sucking the marrow out of life ala Thoreau. No, they were merely subsistance farmers who lived in small, rural villages, and had always done so. People who were routinely the butt of jokes, seen as illiterate, ignorant of citified sophistication.
For a time, I became fascinated with the idea of being a country person—a sort of more resourceful, shadow self. Even the word resonates like music, describing people who were intertwined with the campo, the woods. I imagined these people possessed a sort of mystical knowledge of how to survive.
I knew that I would not last ten minutes in the campo by myself.
Reading Laura Ingalls Wilder books fed my interest. These people could do seemingly ANYTHING—could tell apart plants, discover which ones were poisonous or edible; could build houses with their bare hands; knew the seasons for sowing and harvesting, and how to sew a dress. Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family faced incredible hardship, but even the daily chores seemed difficult and exotic. Living in a dug out by a creek? Sleeping in the hay? Playing with the pig’s bladder after a slaughter? Amazing.
While I devoured these books about prairie living, I didn’t really notice my parents adjusting to their own version of the frontier—U.S. life. People probably assumed my parents were like “campesinos,"not commanding and glamorous the way they seemed to me. None of the knowledge that had served them so well in their homeland seemed to have any currency here. Although they had lived in a beautiful city in Colombia, no one here had ever heard of it. They spoke haltingly, using small words that must have felt like going back to childhood.
Despite everything, they managed to survive and thrive here. Perhaps that’s why “roughing it” never appealed to them. They spent years roughing it—between jobs and paychecks, sometimes without health insurance, apart from their families.
I’ve lived a pretty privileged life, so I’m wary of the country for a different reason. I’ve always lived in the noisy friendliness of the city, surrounded on all sides by teeming, overabundant life. I love the sound of music trailing loud and flat behind a car, the sound of teen girl giggles down the street. I know how to survive here—when to smile back and when to avert my eyes. How to walk down the street in that easy alertness that marks the citydweller.
The country would throw me back on myself—force me to face my deficiencies. I can’t really see myself in nature; I don’t know enough about it. I am afraid of what I might discover if I take the time to step away from the endless distraction of city living. Here, like it or not, I can always get a reaction. I always know that I exist. In the country, in the middle of the woods, the trees would grow impassively around me. The animals would whisper in their own languages. Plants would be food or foe; I certainly wouldn’t know. I’d be forced to make decisions, over and over again, without any direction.
Is it possible to die of uncertainty?
So, I stay in my life, and try to ignore the reckless allure of the dark woods that lurk just ahead. And I try to ignore the persistent question of my life. My parents were able to forge ahead and clear a trail in a new, incomprehensible land. So why is it that I cannot?
Why am I so sure I wouldn't survive in the dark unknown?
For more explorations of the city and the country, go here.
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