The Country Life, ca. 1938

Several years ago I was on a camping trip in West Virginia and we got stuck in a storm.  Since it wasn’t pleasant staying in our water-logged tent, and we couldn’t do much in the way of hiking, we decided to go to “town” where there was an old warehouse that rented its space to a variety of antique and junk dealers.  Browsing, I figured I might as well have some reading material to take back to my tent, so I bought some old Life Magazines from the 1940s (which, thrillingly, pictured the LCI ships that my father had commanded in the South Pacific during WWII) and some Readers Digests from the 1930s which provided a fascinating read about various uprisings and aggressions by Soviets (the evils of communism and Stalin terror), Germans (the occupation and annexation of Austria) and the Japanese (horrific accounts of the Rape of Nanking) which had not yet been officially declared “war.”  While the writing style is “chatty” as only Readers Digest can be, the contrast between the quality of writing from those days and the present is shocking.  If you ever need proof we’ve dumbed ourselves down over the years, read the common man’s journal of the 1930s versus the present!

Included in the October 1938 issue (“$.25 a copy, $3 a year”) is an essay entitled”Week-End Pioneers” by Ralph Haley, originally condensed from The Forum.  Mr. Haley and his wife were dreamers living in New York City, who bought some land in New England which included a derelict, rotting farmhouse.  For the next seven years, he would travel there every weekend and holiday in a never-ending quest of blood, sweat and tears, “painting and scraping and carpentering and digging and still have nothing but a decrepit old house and a few uncertain vegetables.”   What, Mr. Haley asks, “is the driving urge behind us back-to-the-landers?”  He writes:

In most cases it is the idea that, with a few acres and some sort of habitation, one’s future is somehow more secure.  If you had to, you could raise vegetables, keep a cow, . . .  and some chickens, and cut your fuel.  You could “get along” like the pioneers, without money.

This might be termed the grand delusion.  For in the state of not having money, you can starve and freeze and die of appendicitis in the country quite as effectively as anywhere else.

. . . There are, nevertheless, compensations and genuine satisfactions to offset the illusions.  For one thing, you have more room in the country, and space inevitably brings an expansion of the spirit.  You are more of an individual here among the broad, quiet fields; you develop curious ambitions and skills, become mildly eccentric, and enjoy the process very much.

. . . Of course in the country there is water to be pumped, wood to cut and carry, the stove to be cleaned and intricately adjusted, the garbage to be buried.  None of these tasks is pleasant in itself; yet it is not a misstatement to say that pleasure comes from doing them.

In our urban existence we have few real “chores” left; but we make up for it in mental strain.   Household tasks in the country are hard on muscles but easy on the mind.  Somehow, substituting a certain amount of muscle strain for mental strain seems to add up to happier living.

That, after all, is the secret bewitchment of rustic living.  You work with simple understandable things, which you can master, or you deal with the great natural forces of sun and rain and wind, which no man can master and before which it is a joy to be humble.  In either case there is enjoyment and self-realization.

What was true about Mr. Haley’s experience in 1938 is still applicable today.  Even 75 years later, I guess certain things have not changed.

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