City people's country houses are always easy to recognize—not just by the signs of wealth. City people move to the country; it is all to them one green emptiness filling in the space between cities. Formerly most such people came fleeing the city; as many now profess a love for the country, founded in landscape paintings, movies, music, sometimes even when an eye for beauty notes that there is more beside the highway or the trail than scrolling scenery.
But once they have their piece of the country, city people set about re-creating it. They re-make it in their image of the country. They find a place, with its own character and private history, then cut and prune and saw and fertilize and plant and irrigate until they have turned it into a tableau. It is all for the eyes. Every leaf and blade and flower screams of the desperation to please critical visitors, also city people, making their visit to the country, not to this place. It goes untouched by its owners. Perhaps bare feet, perhaps a little light gardening, perhaps a little pruning; but it is the contractors, even the best of them strangers to this soil, these trees, who peform the grafts and amputations.
The wry tree and the curious outbuilding are sawn down, torn down, cut out to ensure that all is scenic and even; all ready for photographs; all in today's best taste; all a succession of prospects present but unassertive, like background music, with nothing to catch the eye or hold the fancy, nothing to draw off the trail, nothing to impress the memory except how impressed you were with the means and taste of your host—didn't we read that designer's name in a magazine somewhere; and pictures of this place will be appearing in the next issue; yes, that magazine, it's wonderful and we're so proud of this place, we'll send you a copy; of course you can have that number.
The magazine shows the designer's work, a dozen different places in a dozen different states—"We wanted to reflect the local idiom"—but the photographer didn't really capture the gingerbread curves impressed in the stucco of the northeastern house, or the smooth corners of the southwestern house. If you didn't know any better you might swear that every shot was of the same place: smooth grass you could play golf on, a touch of whimsy in that little statue, demure trees concealing the horizon in an anonymous rank, the three trees lined up by the house as an umbrella trimmed so they seem one tree with three trunks.
It is all country, not a car or a speck of concrete or asphalt, and just look at that wooden wagon with the pots in it—but it is all city. It is neat, and tame; and it is hard to understand, and tragic, how your escape from the city brings the city with you, how your love of the country creates a virtual reality, seen but not touched, too eager to please for beauty. Do you keep the prints of those old paintings, watch those movies, listen to those songs; do you ever come outside from them and realize that no one will ever paint your house, that no stories will be born or live or come there?
There are country people like you. They live what seem to them their lives, have their fun, in the city; the country is their staging and dumping ground, somewhere to sleep it off, somewhere to stash the trash, somewhere to to leave the old car for the rain to eat away—you might fix it up, or need the parts someday.
A country house is a place; to have it is not merely to own a canvas, but to be part of it, of the life which is there already. It is proper to bring order to that life; it is yours, leave your mark, show your taste; but it is absurd to ignore it and start over. It is trompery; it is the lie; it is all surface. It can delude, it can seduce, but it cannot satisfy.