The Rural Life
On the Spot
I’ve been thinking of a line in A. J. Liebling quoting the man he calls his literary adviser, Whitey Bimstein, who also trained prizefighters. “I once asked him how he liked the country,” Liebling writes. “He said, ‘It is a nice spot.’ ” I love this for the same reason Liebling does — the way it reduces the nonurban land surface of the planet to a single, homogeneous vanishing point. Mr. Bimstein was also perpetuating an ancient poetic habit, singling out an idealized setting from among the chiggers and ticks, the pokeweed and the poison ivy, in the actual countryside. I know some of Mr. Bimstein’s rural counterparts. They have lived in the country their whole lives and never once been to the city.
The house I live in here in the country isn’t far from the highway, and every day is filled with traffic passing by. Most of the time I ignore it, but every now and then a car slows and I can see the occupants looking up the hill at the horses or the geese or me on the tractor. I wonder what it is they see. I begin to feel a little allegorical, like a peasant shearing sheep in a medieval book of hours. I begin to wonder what I stand for, whether there is a moral to me or whether I simply illuminate a month in the calendar. This place is a nice spot, and so I am happy to pretend to impersonate one of the merry rustics even as I go about teaching the pigs to like scratching.
These days I’m a little dizzy with that doubleness. It isn’t so much the back and forth to the city, which has been the pattern of my life for many years. It’s that the city has come to seem to me a place of nearly perfect sincerity. The country, it turns out, is a place of pervasive irony. This is exactly the opposite of what the pastoral poets taught me to expect. To understand the irony, all you have to do is watch a woodchuck in among the cabbages. It makes a perfect mockery of the intent in planting those cabbages. Sitting erect and nibbling, it seems to imply that if you had been just a little more sincere, this would never have happened. There is no laughter more hilarious, or more cutting, than the laughter of farmers.
So I stand in the pasture watching the heads turning in that slowing car, and I wonder do they see the man who pines for the city and inwardly blames the pastoral poets? Do my T-shirt and jeans look like overalls to them? Am I wearing a straw hat and chewing a blade of grass in their eyes? But then I look closer and notice that they’re fighting over the map, lost on the way to some pleasant spot further north.