Learning about your country neighbors and contributing to the community isn't just a life-saver, it's one of the true pleasures of country life.
ILLUSTRATION: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
A move to a rural area, no matter how remote, means entering into a community of people. As an "outsider," your success or failure might well depend upon your relationships with that group.
When most folks dream about country life, their fantasies seem to focus upon "getting away from society," and "making it on their own." In fact, that's the sort of anonymity I had in mind when I first moved into my secluded Adirondack mountain cabin. My country neighbors had other ideas.
One short day after I'd settled in, a city friend decided to pay me a visit. He found his way to the nearest hamlet, and — since he didn't know the way to my place — stopped in at the town's only bar to ask. The tavern owner knew exactly who I was, and proceeded to give explicit directions to my cabin. My friend was surprised, but nowhere near as amazed as I was to have company show up at my "isolated" country home.
I had just learned that life in the city is often more private than country livin'. In town, you can "lose yourself in the crowd," but as a newcomer in a small community you'll stick out like a sore thumb. Your presence will become public knowledge immediately, and stories about who you are and where you're from will make the rounds in no time flat.
If you want to gain the "locals'" acceptance, then, you'll have to do a certain amount of conforming (yes, even "out there away from society"). You'll have to be as sociable as your new neighbors want you to be — friendly, yet discreet — and you'll have to make yourself known without being "pushy."
Most rural communities are made up of a few large families that have lived in the area for generations. Their ancestors were probably among the first local settlers, and these people feel close to (and often protective of) the land — maybe even of your land. Sure, there will be a few other "outsiders" here and there, but the ones who've "stuck" are the ones who understand the people around them and strive to be accepted into the community family. If you choose to keep yourself detached, your chances of "making it" in a rural environment can be pretty slim.
It might help to keep the following pointers in mind.
Don't expect to take your city lifestyle into the country with you. There probably won't be a place that delivers pizza after midnight, for instance, or even a restaurant open after 8 p.m. And you might have to travel 30, 40, even 50 miles or more to find a movie or nightclub.
I tried to hang on to my outside amusements during my first year in the country — that is, until the weather made travel impossible. But at that point I learned out of necessity to enjoy the company of my neighbors. Now my winter evening's entertainment often consists of a few hours spent by a wood stove, listening to old-timers talk about the past. This beats the heck out of TV, and helps me to understand and appreciate my new home all the more.
I've found that the isolated, sometimes lonely atmosphere of the country tends to draw people together. And in my mountain community at least, any sort of gathering usually includes enough musicians to get a country "jam session" going in the wink of an eye.
Of course, my adjustment to rural life didn't come about overnight. There were times in the beginning when I felt "culturally deprived," but that was before I learned to appreciate the "real" native culture that had been going on around me all along.
Remember, also, though you might spark some interest with tales of the places you've been, that many country folks haven't traveled beyond the county seat. Sure, they're curious about the outside world, but "where you are is where it's at" in their minds. It probably won't be long before you feel the same way.
Respect your new neighbors. Listen to the advice they'll surely offer and, when the need arises, don't be too proud (or shy) to ask for that advice. The local folks probably know a good bit more about the ways of the land than you do, so pay attention. You just might avoid learning some of the hardest lessons by yourself.
This winter, for example, the snow piled up on my flat roof. "Better shovel that drift off," a neighbor counseled me.
I listened, and I certainly did plan to take the advice. In fact, I made a mental note a few nights later: "Shovel the roof off tomorrow." The next morning I woke to the steady drip of water, onto my floor and all over my prized grand piano!
Always accept, graciously, the generosity that your neighbors will invariably show you. And be generous to them in return. Remember that these neighborly "gifts" aren't given lightly, and that people might be insulted if you refuse a present. (Last summer, for instance, I forgot to take home a bushel of potatoes that a neighbor had offered me. The next time I stopped by that friend's house, I was asked if there was anything wrong with the spuds — since I apparently didn't want them!)
I entered into the rural exchange system cautiously — swapping one kind of vegetable for another — and the barter just naturally snowballed. Now I trade piano lessons for firewood, and a few extra eggs earn my chickens the right to forage on neighboring land. There's a constant feeling of harmony and cooperation in this sharing, a wonderful combination of interdependence and independence.
Finally, stick to your goals and be willing to work hard to achieve them. When I first arrived here, one neighbor sarcastically called me "farm lady" to my face. He isn't skeptical anymore, though, because he's watched me dig boulders out of the ground to clear a fence row and he's seen me spread tons of bark mulch — by hand — over my garden.
Country people understand the heavy workload that a new homestead demands, and they'll offer to pitch in when they think they can be of help. These folks are rightly proud of the knowledge they have to share. I'm always grateful for their help, and offer as much as I can in return. A lackadaisical attitude will be noticed and judged quickly in the country, but your rural neighbors won't let hard work go unrecognized, or unrewarded.
The fact of the matter is, I probably wouldn't have been able to "stick it out" in the backwoods without the help — and just plain "moral support" — of my very fine, very helpful and very generous country neighbors. So take it from me: If you want to "get away from society" and "make it on your own," it'll be a whole lot easier to attain that worthy goal if you're flexible enough to accept and return a little down-home country help and warmth from time to time.