The Attractions of the California Outback
There are drawbacks of living in the country in general, and never more so now in rural California in particular. You country readers know all the normal trivial concerns. You must pump your own water. That means monitoring the pump and pressure tank. Your sewage, is, well, your sewage. Whether you like it or not, you will eventually master cesspools, septic tanks, leach lines — and gophers, grease, roots (and everything from visitors’ flushed children’s toys to tampons). At fifty, I gave up fixing my own clogged lines and tried calling the septic service.
At night, you are on your own. (Just last night, copper thieves returned and stole again the conduit from my 15-horsepower ag pump, which had just been replaced after the last theft). But how odd to say that in 2012, as if it is 1890. At dusk, you sort of batten down the hatches against the small nocturnal stuff, like the intrusive coyotes who creep into the driveway. Or you watch for the occasional motorist who runs out of gas, sees a night light, and tries to bang on your gate at 1:00 a.m. (people who bang on gates at 1:00 a.m. usually do not belong out on the road at 1:00 a.m. and want more than gas).
The “big stuff”: well, that’s a different story altogether in the age of these copper wire thieves, meth labs, illegal immigration, and gangbangers. The outback is to California’s criminal what the back nine is to coastal golfers. Most of us cannot rely much on the “sheriff” (I wish the “Constable” Iver Johannson from the 1950s was still alive, who kept things quiet out here), and assume the degree to which we will survive a rare break-in hinges on the degree to which we have sharp-toothed dogs and access (as in quick access) to firearms. So at dark, gates are locked, dogs are out, and motion lights come on, like the medieval city gate bolted shut at dusk. Read Aeneas Tacticus for theories of defending your walls.
Then there are the “neighbors” and “associates.” I don’t mean the farmers whose ancestors reclaimed the ground from scrub in the 1880s and still man the barricades, so to speak. But a certain different sort, who likes the rural space mostly because one can do whatever one wishes with veritable impunity. That “whatever” usually means something lawless. As far as the misdemeanors, of course, who sweats them (e.g., nearby packs of pit bulls without shots or licenses, illegal trailer parks, outhouses popping up again as if it were 1920, dumping trash on the roadside in lieu of paying for garbage pickup, shooting guns behind the shed without knowledge that .22 long rifle bullets travel quite a distance, traveling fencers of stolen goods [“Hey, I’ll give you a good deal on a hydraulic ram”], etc.)?
But there are more serious miscreants who migrate outside the city to build drug labs, grow pot, run crack houses, or just visit at night to shoot up things, beat up their girlfriends without worry about the neighbors, or throw out fellow gangbangers into peach orchards rather than lighted city street corners. Over the years, I have seen all of the above in these environs.
Living in the countryside of California has become sort of a gamble. Stop signs do not mean “Stop!” any more out here in rural California, but “Kinda Slow Down.” I’ve seen dozens of motorists run them.
In politically-incorrect fashion, these days I just assume there are about two or three million rural Californians who drive but have learned to do so only very recently and pilot used huge (cheap) and dangerous gas-guzzlers. At some point, the odds run out and you have a rendezvous with one. They do not speak or read English well, if at all, and often have no (official) driver’s license, no insurance, no registration, and no exact knowledge of U.S. traffic laws (I know all this politically insensitive information because five drivers have ended up in my vineyard, fled, and left their wrecked cars behind). So the navigating of rural California intersections about 6:00 p.m. when the sun sets, especially on a Friday or Saturday night, is a bit like Russian roulette. When I drive home on a Thursday or Friday evening from Palo Alto, coming off I-5 onto Manning Avenue, I expect at least to see one stop sign “ignored” — and am usually not disappointed.
I could go on, so where is the punch line of why anyone would stay out here? As one ages, one asks that question more and more.
Now, Wait a Minute …
The Roman lyric poet Horace wrote a fantasy satire about the urban mouse (urbanus mus) and his rural counterpart (rusticus mus), a morality tale about clearing your head from the flotsam and jetsam that ultimately don’t matter. Junvenal’s Third Satire too is a rant about the urban disease, the noise, and the crowds. In fact, the entire genre of pastoralism, from Theocritus onward, is a sort of romance of what was lost by moving to town, however contrived and artificial becomes the metered poetry.
The agrarian tradition from Hesiod to I’ll Take My Stand by the “twelve southern agrarians” has always made the argument that farming, the country, rural life in general, is the fabric of civilization. I tried to suggest that too in The Other Greeks, Fields Without Dreams, and The Land Was Everything. But here I’m not arguing for either political utility or moral guidance from the land.
Autonomy is a reason to live out here. In the old days I used to dream of the promised day when the nearby town’s sewage and water might send a line this way, or perhaps the gas company might install a lateral that would end the need for the ugly propane tank. Not now.
In short, I am not so confident of today’s unionized city employee to guarantee steady water, gas, or sewage service as I was forty years ago (e.g., the local town’s manhole cover plates were recently stolen by its own city workers). I’d prefer to do it myself. My fears of high speed rail (the first rail leg to Charles Manson’s home in Corcoran is routed about eight miles from here) are not just the waste, the destruction of farmland, spiraling costs, and probable low ridership, but the specter of text-messaging unionized drivers at the helm (cf. the light rail wreck in Los Angeles). I’m not a survivalist nut, but just prefer to curb as much as possible reliance on what used to be unimpeachable utilities. (But when the power goes out, I’ve noticed that with an outdoor grill, fireplace, a well, and a hand pump providing plenty of water for the toilets, one can survive a few hours in ease without electricity.)
It’s still quiet and not so bright out here. There are no spats between neighbors over drifting leaves, no glaring city lights, no screaming domestic arguments, no 3:00 a.m. party next door. I don’t know whether listening to birds rather than people is healthier or not, but I feel a lot better writing while watching a Cooper’s hawk build a nest in my redwood tree than listening to Stanford students during the week talk next to me at the campus coffee shops (“you know, like, uh, hello, whatever, cool, etc.”)
I can still monitor the day by the direction of the wind, the speed by which the clouds pass, the dew in the morning, the frost or absence of it in the early evening. I note spring by plum blossom time, gopher mounds popping up everywhere, doves breaking into the sheds to build nests, and the sprouting of weeds in the vineyard. All that might sound a bit artificial, given that my livelihood no longer rests, as it once did, on whether the frost takes the grape crop, but one does what one can in this age.
I like the human dinosaurs I still occasionally bump into. They are mostly gone from the scene, but every once in a while you cross paths with the caterpillar mechanic, the orchard topper, and the pipeline installer who never quite got on the modern bus and took a “different”path so to speak. They also talk differently and look at the world as if they expect it to run like it did in 1961. They are independent sorts, these in their late sixties and beyond. The only other time I see them is on visits to the cemetery when I walk among the graves and usually am startled into muttering to myself something like: “My god, I had no idea that old Clarence Anderson is in here,” as I see a familiar name from my childhood on the headstone at my feet.
Hiding out is not to be despised. Even when strangers drive in you can be out in the shed or barn or on an alleyway. It’s certainly not like being in the living room in a suburb when someone knocks on the front door. That safety valve eliminates all sorts of sales people, proselytizers, and strangers who just want “to talk.” (And rural salesmen in general are a weirder, more interesting sort, and their wares likewise occasionally odd, from snap-on tools to a year’s supply of frozen steaks.) Rural life is close enough to town for convenience and the avoidance of hermitage, but not so close as to be easily accessed.
I like dogs. And they are much more easily raised, fed, and their waste taken care of out in the country, and outside the house. Ditto cats. I think I have three, but don’t really know, since two, three, four or more turn up at feeding time in the morning. The dogs take care of themselves, and to the degree they chew on birds, cottontails, and gophers as relish to their dog food, I’m fine with it. I suppose the raw, uncooked meat, ears and all, is better for them than the processed dry and canned supplements.
Out here is also a refuge for a few hours per week from the nonsense of the modern age, the lectures to buy a Volt from the non-car owning Steven Chu, the calls for civility from “punish our enemies” Barack Obama, the warning about carbon footprints from private-jetting Al Gore, our “downright mean country” bookended with Costa del Sol, Aspen, and Vail, the “two Americas” paralleled with “John’s Room,” the New York Times editorials berating the 1% coupled with a $24 million payout to its own departing CEO. How pleasant to be far distant from that bunch, and their nonstop scolding, whining, and lecturing that serves as a pathetic projection of their own elite tastes and guilty desires.
One final thought. As we age (I’m 58), the conventional wisdom is to “downsize.” Sell the large house. Move into a condo. Travel more. Give up the lawn mower and chainsaw. Relax.
I prefer the opposite. Keep busier — more limbs to prune, add some more lawn, expect to spend three weeks hauling out leaves, and each spring to cut up a huge fallen oak or liquid amber limb. I saw that with my grandfather. At 80, his tasks multiplied while his ability to meet them diminished. If farming 120 acres was a challenge at 50 for him, mowing just a fifth of his lawn was even more so at 86. If the house I live in seemed from pictures in pristine condition at 60 (1930), when he was 40, it aged into the house on the hill in Psycho at 100 (1970) when he was 80. Still, he got up every day to do what he could, until he finally just ran out of gas, and one morning did not wake up. Living in the country ensures that the need to work keeps expanding as you diminish.
All this helps to adopt a similar outlook about America, not to tolerate the acceptance of a shrinking world commensurate with your own decline. I’d prefer America to take on ever more — pay down the debt, run surpluses in five — not fifty — years, build more dams and freeways, drill anywhere there is recoverable oil, beef up the military, require citizens to do more, not less for themselves, even as the bowing, apologizing, qualifying, sermonizing, editorializing, and nearly nonstop whining president seems to welcome our senility and wishes to retire the U.S. into a sort of permanent European condo with lounges on the tiny sixth-floor balcony.
Non hic porcus.