A New Exodus to the Countryside Could Be Fun

Cows graze in a field at sunset in Vilonia, Ark., in 2014. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
The health and economic crisis will see some people leaving the city. Are we prepared for the radical change?

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I was born into a generation of kids who grew up watching Donald Duck, which is probably why I love the countryside, grandma’s cakes, squirrels, and talking to ducks. The countryside has always been my favorite holiday spot, but this coronavirus crisis has got me wondering what would happen if I were to pack my bags tomorrow, settle down somewhere in the middle of a forest, and start growing eggplants for me to eat as soon as they come of age.

Let’s be honest. Modern cities have become a hornet’s nest buzzing with the coronavirus, where social distancing is so complicated that the only alternative is to stay home, live surrounded by cats, and order online from some guy who then visits you dressed up like an astronaut. However, be it due to this health crisis or to the ensuing economic one, it seems likely that many of us will have to seek exile in the countryside, retracing the footsteps of our forefathers. It’s really not so bad, unless you’re of the sort who faints at the sight of a spider. And even then, given that the rural world has been the last stronghold of traditional values for centuries, perhaps you could find it in yourself to overlook the itty-bitty spider’s negligible sins. It’s not a question of Tolstoy-like extremism either. He gave up aristocracy to mingle with the peasants of Yasnaya Polyana, and history is still undecided as to whether this was heroic or, on the contrary, his acts sparked the hippie movement and he’s to blame for its disastrous side effects; and by “disastrous side effects” I mean things like Paolo Coelho.

We know from the writings of Daniel Defoe and Samuel Pepys that when the great plague broke out in London during the 17th century, hundreds of rich people fled the city and went to the countryside, albeit for reasons different from Tolstoy’s. I can imagine the spectacle it must have been for the peasants as the erstwhile urban dwellers tried to learn the ways of agricultural life, sowing birdseed on the lettuces every morning, clumsily attempting to hunt their own Christmas turkey with a harpoon, and planting jars of chocolate spread in fertile soil. After a while, however, their scale of values shifted, and they lost any sort of interest in the world beyond their fields.

Then we convinced ourselves that exodus to the city was tantamount to progress. We put progress on a pedestal, ignoring the fact that the word is devoid of meaning unless used in relation to something else. In fact, part of the problem with the left wing is that they believe that progress is god and, quite frankly, if all of this god’s miracles are like the autofill function on my smartphone, then as far as deities go it’s nothing but a monumental fraud, comparable only to the Egyptian god Ra, who, being the great and immense god of the sun, almost kicked the bucket when he was bitten by a snake molded by the goddess Isis with a drop of his own drool. It’s best not to dwell on what Isis was doing walking around ancient Egypt collecting Ra’s drool to mold snakes . . .

If we live in the city, it’s only because the walk from TV to bed is shorter and because, unless you work in humanities, the paycheck each month makes up for not being able to eat raspberry jam with no artificial preservatives for breakfast. Even so, many of the families that moved to the city in the 19th and 20th centuries left their grandmother in the countryside so that they could keep on eating raspberry jam with no artificial preservatives for breakfast. There were no fancy shops for hipsters back then.

Most of us have ancestors who swapped fields for the cement at some point. Very few of us were preceded by 20 generations of tarmac treaders. It may be that the history of mankind is the story of a two-way closed circuit between the countryside and the city. It’s no coincidence that since medieval times, it’s been fashionable for the wealthy to retire to a little countryside cottage, to enjoy a calm and peaceful way of life, as did French humanists John of Montreuil, Nicholas of Clémanges, and Gontier Col.

But today’s countryside is not what it was. Technological and economic wealth has made small rural villages places where one can live without having to endure poverty or isolation. Perhaps the big difference between the countryside and the city is a question of authority: knowing who is in charge. In the city, it’s normally the mayor, while in the countryside normally no one is in charge, but don’t you go thinking that it’s Hayek’s paradise. It’s not freedom we’re talking about, but a degree of anarchy that often degenerates into tyranny: the tyranny of the harvest, which demands superhuman efforts by the farmer; the tyranny of poisonous insects, which are oblivious to the Geneva Convention; the tyranny of the climate, which imposes its hardships mercilessly; or the tyranny of foxes, free to choose whenever they want, to breakfast on your chickens, and reasoning with them is all but impossible without the aid of a good shotgun and a lack of scruples relating to animal welfare.

The prospect of returning to the countryside may sound like failure to Millennial urbanites, who have known it only as a place of leisure and a romantic pursuit. The truth is that this countryside, of such bucolic nature, attracts us only until we discover that weeds have no respect for private property, that it’s infested with insects almost as dangerous as tax inspectors in the city, and that milk does not miraculously travel from the cow to the breakfast bowl. It’s obvious that cities have made life easier for us, but it has come with a price: If you add up the traffic fines, the rush hour protests downtown, the time wasted queuing at the supermarket, and now the coronavirus pandemic, you might prefer to go to the barn and milk a cow, although to do so you’ll need to know something about mammaries, and not the Playboy kind.

The divine mandate to rule over nature is much better understood in the countryside than in the city. This is probably why most of the apostles of new environmentalist religions live in luxurious cities and have never even set foot in the countryside. The countryside is often an arena for a duel in which only one can remain. That’s why one of the first virtues the countryside imprints is courage, followed closely by determination.

However, all said and done, the countryside is not as hard as it used to be. I was there recently and farmers now use futuristic technologies that allow them to cultivate huge areas of land with half the effort I use to squeeze myself an orange juice at home in the center of town. The tractors have GPS, the animals send smartphone alerts if they leave their pastures, and seeds are the result of clever biological engineering. It’s true that handling all this requires training, but in the digital age, training is easier than before, and you can do it from anywhere. Even I could become a farmer if being able to pay for my Internet connection depended on my getting up at the crack of dawn to harvest. There is a lot of literature on how to do it. You can even learn something from Sue Hubbell’s books — if you can stand the author’s moral-superiority complex — about how to get out into nature, befriend poisonous spiders, start a bee farm, brag about being poor, and insult everyone who isn’t an eco-Communist. Incredible as it may seem, there are plenty of people willing to find something ideological in the way a squirrel devours an acorn.

Fortunately we also have poets and bohemian nature observers. In 1951, the Spaniard Jose A. Muñoz Rojas wrote Las cosas del campo (Countryside things), with unparalleled beauty and simplicity, and which unfortunately no one has published in English. “There are many abandoned farmhouses falling down. The countryside has been left more alone than ever,” writes Muñoz Rojas, “but the countryside persistently shows us its hidden beauties” and “warns us with its restful silence that only by returning to it will men find the best of themselves. Woe to those who forget it!” These days, when the city feels like a prison, the words of old Hilaire Belloc in On Nothing sound different: “The great mass of men love companionship so much that nothing seems of any worth compared with it. Human communion is their meat and drink, and so they use the railways to make bigger and bigger hives for themselves.”

A return to the countryside doesn’t just mean changing where we work. In rural life our ancestors cultivated a much healthier family life than we do today. The family, the larger the better, is the cornerstone of life in the countryside. Things work because there is an authority, the hierarchy is obeyed, which also means that elders are respected above all. Many hands and teamwork are needed, and that’s incompatible with the anthropological selfishness inherent in digital leisure.

The chances of a plague or a meteorological disaster ruining your harvest and your economy and emptying your pantry are much greater in the countryside — before the appearance of this pandemic, at least — and that has resulted in country folk cultivating gratitude, humility, and faith. In the countryside, they respect nature even more than ecologists from Stockholm, no matter how much the latter congratulate themselves on crossing the Atlantic in a non-motorized catamaran. On the other hand, a humble outlook results in farmers having great respect for tradition, seeing it as a source of wisdom, experience, and a moral beacon.

For centuries, the countryside economy was based on bartering. Today’s modern economy has also extended into the rural world, increasing its wealth, but it’s interesting how bartering remains with those who live there. In the end, neighbors can’t be strangers in a place where you often need them to help chase away some sort of danger. You have to be self-sufficient in the countryside, but not completely.

Okay, urban life is addictive. And I won’t be the one to deny the pleasure of walking around a big city, strolling through gardens where nature is under control and the ground is freshly vacuumed, going into a shopping center and coming out with a bunch of bags full of books and clothes, or spending hours drinking liters of beer in some pub with the music blaring and surrounded by pretty girls. I’m just trying to say that if this way of life collapses, even just a bit, the city will cease to be a liberation and could turn into a crazy prison full of depressed people wearing muzzles and gloves, walking around yesterday’s promenades like zombies among “For Sale” signs and shrouded in dense melancholy.

If we were to reach that point, starting from scratch far from the city wouldn’t be such a drama. It’s just another option. And it might even be fun. Besides, there is Wi-Fi in the countryside now, so we can watch agro-YouTubers. Gone are the days when we had to ask our cat how the hell to milk a cow.

Translated from Spanish by Joel Dalmau.

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