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A House in the Country

City people’s country houses are easy to recognize – not just by the signs of wealth. City people move to the country as if it were a place; to them it is all one green emptiness filling the spaces between cities. Formerly such people came fleeing the city; as many now profess a love for the country, founded in landscape paintings, movies, music, or sometimes even when an eye for beauty, lifted for a moment from the road or the screen, notices 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 an image of the country from magazines and movies. They take a place, with its own character and private history, and cut and prune and saw and fertilize and plant and irrigate until they have turned it into a picture. It is all for the eye. 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. The sense of place vanishes. It goes untouched by its owners. Bare feet, a little light gardening, a little pruning; but it is the contractors, even the best of them strangers to this soil, these trees, who perform 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 up-to-date; unassertive prospects, 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 look at that wooden wagon with the empty 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?

In the city, in the suburbs, we dwell lightly. Others have been and gone as we are and must go. There is no connection except sequence. But a country house is not just a property. To have it is not merely to own something, but to become part of something, of the life which is there already – an ecology, a history, a place. It is proper to bring order to that life – it is yours, leave your mark – but you also have responsibilities: to nature, to the past, and to the future.