The Geography of Nowhere: Country Living

In his 1993 book  “The Geography of Nowhere”, James Howard Kunstler explores how America became so ugly. Not politically and spiritually, just visually….ugly. I have read some of his other books such as “The Long Emergency” where he talks about peak oil and global warming, but this one is more about our public spaces and how they have been ruined by cars and suburban sprawl. He also blames modernist architecture, which is indeed awful. There is a lot about the American emphasis on freedom and individual, which led people to neglect public spaces in favor of their own homes.  Also he blames the ideal of “country living”, which made people flee the cities for the country, which they then ruined by turning it into the suburbs.

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I was feeling quite smug while reading most it, thinking yes, I hate the suburbs, I live in the country, until I got to that last part. How can loving the idea of “the country” ruin the the country? This was something I had truly never thought of.  It reminded me of this thoughtful post about how cultivating our anti-consumerist image just enhances our materialism.

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Kunstler argues “America reinvented (Eden)… called it Suburbia, and put it up for sale” (600).   And that “The people who lived there would not draw their livelihoods from it, either from farming or business. Rather, it was strictly a place of habitation and pleasure”(700). And “It was an artificial way of life in an inorganic community that pretended above all other virtues to be natural” (920).

Hmmm.

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What he hates most of all is our dependence on cars.  Not just because they are polluting our air and draining natural resources, but because they destroy society.  All our “public works” are roads.  We are slaves to our vehicles because we can’t do anything without them and take up an extraordinary amount of our time and money.  Being able to drive all over has caused us to develop rural land that never should have been developed beyond farmland.

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Interestingly, the road I live on was indeed developed in the late 19th century, long before cars. There is a small cattle farm across the street from us that used to own our property. The cottage that existed here when we bought it was built almost a hundred years ago. Less than a mile down the road is an intersection with a little convenience store, a church, and a plumbing business. There is a church another mile down the road built in 1789. So this whole area was built for a car free society, and in just a few generations, getting around by anything other than car has become impossible.

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I have a daughter in public school. I drive her there every morning because her bus ride would be an hour and ten minutes but the drive is only ten minutes. I am not going to put her on the bus for an extra hour to save resources, even though I understand that is wasteful as the bus drives right by out house every morning. I could homeschool, but that is not the cards for me right now (my husband is considerably more “mainstream” than I am), and also we would still be going out during the day.

Now here we are, isolated by our freedom. When you can “just drive somewhere” there suddenly becomes no alternative. The road in front of my house has a 45 mph speed limit and no sidewalks. The corner convenience store has devolved into a creepy place no one wants to go, because any respectable person would drive to the grocery store five miles away or the Walmart a few miles past that.

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Old fashioned, sustainable country living does not mean having a beautiful view from your front porch and also driving twenty minutes to get anywhere. It means making your land your job, and basically never leaving. It means if you can’t walk there or ride your horse there, you don’t go. Luckily you live with extended family to keep you company. The corner stores and churches are all you have. It means you are not relying on trucked in animal feed or fertilizer, but are grazing animals, growing hay, fertilizing with manure. I don’t think many of us are ready for that, or capable of that.

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So yes, I am basically living on a large suburban lot. I take my kids to school, church, soccer, and ballet. I, myself go to the grocery store and library once a week, Costco once a month, rarely the post office or bank. Even though I am home all the time, I drive every day because of my kids. If I didn’t have kids, would probably have (horrors) a job that I drove to. I see now that moving out here is contributing to the problem of a spread out society that is completely fuel dependent.

I’m not sure what I can do about it though. Moving, besides being completely out of the question, would fix nothing because someone else would buy this property and subdivide it, compounding the problem. I would move….where? Into town? The schools are terrible, so I would be driving them to a private school even farther away. There is no walkable grocery store in town either. A seasonal farmers market and a fancy butcher, but no way to get pantry goods. I would still be car dependent.

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I understand and somewhat agree with Kuntzler that cars have basically ruined our way of life. But there is no going back. He sees this as as well, and the book is not a call to action by individuals, but more a critique of society in general.  He proposes land use agreements (where counties buy development rights from land owners…the farm across the street from us has such an arrangement) and smarter urban zoning as potential cures to American ugliness.  But I don’t think much will change until our current way of life become impossible or unaffordable.  One day maybe gas will become insanely expensive and the church on the corner will have its own little school. I will be able to ride my horse and cart into town to go pick up a twenty pound bag of flour and go to the library. But for now, I am just another suburban housewife, driving around.

 


Thinking about zero-waste

Not thinking about actually attempting it. Just thinking about it.

Wasn’t it it just last fall that everyone was talking about hygge, and we were supposed to be surrounded by candles and playing cards? What was the “lifestyle trend” before that? Outdoor adventure? Quality time? Or was this the first one to have an official name and identifiable start date?

I recently stopped buying dish sponges, because I find them gross and ugly. Now I use dish cloths and a wooden scrub brush. Imagine my joy to learn that the brushes are part of the zero waste lifestyle! They can be composted!

Fine, except that I had them shipped here. They are made in Germany. Germany. The handle is wood, which I’m sure was harvested with power tools, trucked to the factory, and manufactured by something other than manpower. Sponges…well, I would have just picked them up at Costco while I was already there. The whole package weighs basically nothing and probably cost very little to transport from the factory to the store or the store to my home. But thank goodness I can throw this wooden brush in the compost to break down in twenty years. Don’t ask me about the plastic wrapper it came in.

Of course zero waste require a whole new set of implements. Glass jars, reusable produce bags, more wooden brushes, a drying rack, reusable straws. A travel mug so that when you go to Starbucks you can have them fill your mug instead of getting a paper mug. Conveniently, the coffee beans were grown and processed in the back of the restaurant, which is run on solar energy.

I’m not sure why this is making me so grouchy. I’m not saying that little things don’t make a difference. I also think plastic is wasteful and ugly. Heck, I line a basket in newspaper to give leftover food to the chickens and then put the newspaper in the compost. I use cloth diapers! But showing up to the grocery store with a quart sized jug and asking for olive oil… does not make sense.

Usually I am able to look at a trend and just simply think “that is not for me,” and move on. But this one seems so silly, so unrealistic, and so laced with judgement. Trash is a problem. Our throw away culture is a problem. Rich people with expensive brushes, me included, are not the answer. Do your best. Buy your glass jars. And then maybe stop calling it something it’s not.


Work Harder, Want Less

Whenever I send my kids up to their room to play quietly there is a lot of whining and complaining. “I don’t want to do quiet time!” “Let me stay down here!” “But I need a snack!”.

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But when I send them up to clean their room or get dressed, and I go to check on their progress, they are playing quietly without complaint. They are happy to be doing something that is just one level more fun that what they are supposed to be doing.

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When I have been working hard at home, dedicating my day to truly working and not just wandering around waiting for the time to pass, I am so happy when I have a break to listen to the radio and have a cup of tea.

But if I have been home all day doing nothing, just listening to the radio and drinking tea, I am bored by the afternoon. I want to go out to dinner or go shopping. Just to do something.

When I was in college and I spent my days shopping and going out to lunch, when evening rolled around, I was looking for that next level of entertainment, which meant going out to bars or parties.

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I wonder if that is the problem with so many celebrities. They already have “the next level”. They have don’t have to do any manual labor, they are constantly going out and being entertained, they have money and fame. So all that is left for them at the next level is affairs, drug use, and other addictions.

How many problems could be solved by doing hard and time consuming work. Not because it keeps you busy and makes you tired (although that is good too!), but because the “next level” that you are searching for is simply to relax and read, or occasionally go out to eat. I, along with the children, tend to be very whiny and complainy on days I have sat around doing nothing, even though doing nothing should theoretically make me happy.

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So I am making the effort to put the children to work.  Not because I need the help or because it is good for them, even though it is. But because making them work more makes them happy to just be reading, or playing quietly with puzzles and dolls, or sent outside to dig in the dirt. Doing everything myself and letting them just do what they want means they follow me around, bored, asking for tv shows and being pesky.  Making up activities for them occupies them for a few minutes and then they are on to wanting to do something else.  Enough.

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And I am trying to see the value in my work as a form of entertainment. There is more than just clean and folded laundry and a clean and organized mudroom at the end of every Monday. (Okay maybe not every Monday.) There is a day spent in productivity that helps to keep my greed for ever-more entertainment in check. This reminds me of my parents telling me to go outside in the cold when I complained about it being cold in the house. All of the sudden it will seem very warm inside!

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(Back Before the History, a beautiful and original song.)

Getting what you want will never make you happy.  It will never make me happy at least, because then I am on to wanting the next thing.  So I am just trying to find a way to keep wanting what I have.  Which is more than enough.

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Happy Easter!


Ten Things You Don’t Need at Target (or anywhere)

1.  Embroidered totes for kids toys.

Is there something wrong with shoeboxes?  They’re free, you have them.  You can        always change the labels.

2.  Valentine’s decorations

Must there be another box of junk in your basement?

3.  Sign that says “Eat”, “hello”, or “family”

Try to decorate your house with soul so that it does not have to literally say “home” on the walls.

4.  Tastykakes

I feel you on this one, but no.

5.  Stickers for your planner.

Just get some for your kids and steal one or two if you must.  But sort of a weird trend in general.

6. A fancy crockpot

The old ones are better, and let’s face it, almost everything that comes out of it is gross except beans and chili.

7.  A non-classic book

Request it from the library.  If you still want to own it after that, then okay.

8. Flavored coffee creamer

It is vegetable oil and corn syrup.  Use cream and sugar and get a flavored syrup if you want.

9. That cute scarf

I bet you have one.  They don’t really wear out.

10. Industrial farmhouse anything

The worst.

Sorry!

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