Monday, June 13, 2011

The (cough) simple life

Here's an article I wrote awhile ago that I just re-read and thought I'd post here for your edification. Enjoy!

Remember that old game we all played in elementary school? I think it was called “Association.” I’ll say a word, and you say the first associated word that pops into your head. Like this:

Bacon. Eggs.

Mother. Father.

Near. Far.

Country living. Simple life.

Of all the hilariously funny misconceptions that exist about life in the country, one of the funniest is that it is “simple.”

I think this misconception came about because life just never seems “simple” when you’re tied up in a miles-long traffic jam. It’s during such insightful moments when folks look out at the parking lot of cars jamming the freeway and try to imagine life without a commute.

“Ah,” goes the thinking. “If only I could get away from this blasted commute, my life would be simple!” The mind darts ahead, envisioning what kind of lifestyle doesn’t require a commute, and inevitably comes up with “country living.”

(This is putting aside the also inevitable fact that a whole lot of country people commute to the city. That’s because there aren’t many jobs in the country.)

But is country life, in fact, simple? Of course not. For purposes of illustration, consider the “simple” act of heating your house in the country.

Naturally you heat your house with wood. So first you have to find some dead trees. It helps if those trees are near a road because if they aren’t, it means you have to haul the rounds out of the woods with a wheelbarrow or handtruck. Next, make sure the chainsaw has gas and the blade is sharpened. Don’t forget ear protection and gloves. Cut down the tree. Cut off the branches. Cut the log into rounds. Hoist those rounds (heavy aren’t they?) into the back of the truck. Drive the truck back to the house and unload the rounds. Haul out the log splitter (or, if you’re feeling especially energetic, the maul) and split the rounds into smaller pieces. Stack the wood in an open-sided shed to dry for a few months. When cold weather comes, stack firewood on the front porch (or other accessible spot), clean the stove pipe (unless you want a chimney fire), make sure you have sufficient kindling, and have the kids crumple newspapers each night before bed so you can start a fire in the morning. Periodically sweep up stray ashes and charcoal from the hearth and forgive the dogs when they track ashes everywhere. Deal with a 50 degree house in the morning before the stove is lit. Prepare for uneven heating throughout the house (it’s cooler farthest from the woodstove, obviously). Only then can you sit back and admire the flames as they lick the logs, and think about how simple your life is.

Or – for those city folks longing for the simple life – you can just turn a dial and the furnace heats the house all by itself. Which is simpler?

What about dairy products? One of our favorite desserts is homemade cheesecake, which requires both whipped cream and cream cheese. So when I want to make a cheesecake, I need to prepare at least three or four days ahead.

Twice a day, of course, I milk our Jersey cow. That means morning and evening, winter and summer, regardless of the weather, I boot up, pour some grain into the feed bucket, grab the lead rope, and go get the cow. I haul her up from the pasture (this will take either a long or a short time, depending on (a) how far away she is from the gate, and (b) how much she doesn’t want to be milked). I pull her into the milking stall, tie her head, block her in from behind, hobble her back leg, wash her udder, and milk. Then I reverse the hobbling, blocking, and tying, walk her back to the pasture and release her. Then I take the milk into the house, strain it, and put it in the fridge.

The next day (remember, there were two additional milkings during this elapsed time) I skim the cream, some of which I put aside for whipped cream. I take the rest of the cream and make cream cheese, which requires heating the cream to the right temperature, adding the right amount of rennet, letting the cream set for twelve hours, adding hot water to the incipient cream cheese, then hanging the watery cream cheese to drip dry for another twelve hours.

Then, and only then, do I have the dairy ingredients necessary to make the cheesecake. And this process doesn’t include the actual making of the cheesecake.

Or…I could go to the grocery store and buy one of those boxed cheesecake mixes, add a little (store bought) milk, and voilĂ . “Homemade” cheesecake. Just sayin’.

This is why an urban person’s blithe (and usually condescending) conclusions that our rural lives are simple send us into peals of laughter. Simple? In your dreams, buddy.

A few years ago the Hollywood types even sent the charming Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie to a farm to prove life was simple. Remember? We don’t have television reception so I never did see ol’ Paris whooping it up in the boondocks, but I’ve seen bits and pieces of her antics. Naturally she dressed like a skank (but a skank in denim, so I guess that made it okay). Now, Paris wouldn’t know a “simple” life if it bit her on the butt. Nonetheless, the producers of this show saw fit to start Paris and Nicole’s exploits on a farm because, after all, farm life is (cough) simple. Besides, and I quote, “They wanted to see stilettos in cow poop.” (Well, they didn’t really say “poop,” but this is a family-friendly column so I couldn’t quote them directly.)

For those contemplating a move to the country in order to simplify their lives, take heed at how a typical conversation will proceed. Let’s say Bob and Jane are fed up with the commute and long to simplify by moving to a five acre parcel well outside the city. Discussions will center, not surprisingly, on dreams.

“We’ll raise chickens and have our own organic eggs,” says Jane.

“We’ll grow a big garden and not have to shop at the grocery store anymore,” adds Bob.

“I’ll hang laundry on a clothesline.”

“I’ll split our own firewood.”

“The kids won’t want to watch television any more because there will be so much to do outside.”

“We’ll get a calf so little Johnny can show it in 4H.”

And so it goes. Plan after plan after plan. And it’s guaranteed – one hundred percent, with absolute certainty – that these plans will go awry so often that the nouveau ruralites will wonder why the hell they ever gave up that simple commute in order to wrestle a sick calf to the ground in a corral full of mud and manure in order to administer needed vaccinations because little Johnny has no interest in the stupid calf (he’s too busy watching television). Bob will throw out his back from splitting firewood, Jane will use the clothesline once and then revert to using the the dryer, the garden will become overrun with weeds, and something will keep picking off the chickens one by one in the middle of the night. Oh, and on top of this they have to commute an hour each way into the city, fighting traffic all the way because, after all, there aren’t many jobs in the country.

And none of the neighbors will be surprised when they put their property up for sale a couple years later.

Bottom line, rural life is neither simpler nor more complicated than urban life. It’s just different. And believe me, there are times I’d far rather fight a commute than fight my way through a howling blizzard to milk our cow because I promised to bring a cheesecake to the neighborhood potluck on Thursday.

Just sayin’.


  1. hahahahaha This is so great! My fiance' and I are doing this very thing right now...."planning". You kinda freaked me out a little with this article. lol. Actually I was raised on a farm and he's a Montana boy, so even though we have great hopes and dreams of sitting on the front porch in our matching rocking chairs, sipping iced tea, with the clothes on the line in the back ground...we know things are going to be incredibly tough and there will be times we long for the "simple life" of convience and Taco Bells. hehe We are not looking to get away from long commutes (his is 2 miles lol), we are looking for God's country and God fearing people....self sufficientcy and a place to bring up our kids right. When you look around at the state of things, not just financially, but spiritually....I think our best self preservation move will be to say a prayer, and Make a go of it. :)

    I hope we are blessed with neighbors like you and Enola are two incredibly remarkable woman, and I love peeking in on your lives. :)

    Preppin' Mama.

  2. Ahhh. The simplicity of it all.

    We're only in it for the glamor.

    A. McSp

  3. i think the main reason that city people (myself included)think the country life is simpler is like you said in the article that they can get rid of the commute to work and be able to raise and take care of farm animals the way that they take care of pets. they can just take them to the vet every time an animal is sick and everything will be fine. even though i include myself in the city folk category i have been reading and obtaining info about farming/homesteading from books, articles, people, and the internet (including your blogsite and survivalblog).
    dreams are nice and give you some goal to strive toward but some people need to realize that some of their dreams are not what happens in reality. most people don't know where their food actually comes from nor do they know how to fix something if it breaks. this is not necessarily their fault it is just how society today brings people up (why should i do that when someone else can do it for me). most people today don't have any skills or very little skills needed to make sure they can make it in a country setting. yes country folk (just like city folk)can still call someone out to fix what is broke, but out in the country it takes longer to get someone out there to look at what is broke and then get the needed parts (if he/she has none on hand) to fix something.
    if that thing that is broke is needed to earn money to keep you on your homestead you don't have time to wait to get something fixed.
    as for raising farm animals, as stated above most people again don't have any idea what all is involved in taking care of farm animals. they can't be left alone for any length of time like a pet, they need to be taken care of every day.
    my suggestion to anyone from the city thinking about moving to the country is do all the research you can about country life and obtain any skill you can as the information/skills you acquire now will eventually help you when you do decide to make the move to the country. there is truly no substitute for actual hands on experience but get that from someone who currently has the knowledge and uses the skills you are seeking.
    for people thinking country life is simple IT IS NOT. to me the only difference between city life and country life is in the city everything is done for you but in the country you have to do everything. i am not saying don't move to the country, just research and know what you are getting into before plunging right in.

  4. Hah. Pretty much. I'm not even rural (well, I guess technically I am, but not logistically) and we just aim for more self-sufficiency when we can. Friends are sometimes amazed at how much time some things can take - many never knew what all canning peaches involved until I got them to help a time or two, so now they don't take that gift of a jar of peaches lightly anymore.

    Although... some of the newer/more efficient wood stoves? Don't go out overnight. I usually only have to load our stove 3 times a day (or 4-5 times with funny sized logs or during the few week -10 to 10* snaps in the dead of winter here), but it burns nicely all night long so the house stays a toasty 74*+. Just sayin'. ;)

  5. I just read this aloud to my hubby and we both had a howling good laugh together.

    If it isn't something mechanical breaking down, it's a nasty raccoon to be dealt with...a skunk on Christmas Tree Hill...hail on the garden...rain on the hay and coyotes in the mow.

    It's all worth it because of the fresh salad and strawberries for dinner, the 35 big bales that DIDN'T get rained on ($!), the breeze through the window, and being able to see the Milky Way.

    Just Me

  6. G-d and nature go forth hand in hand "in the country".

    A bad season or two can break your purse.
    You pray and plea, and still the weather plays it's determined course. You spend weeks reseeding and fertilizing the pasture fields and then the rain plays hookie for weeks on end, and it all turns yellow, withers and dies. Back to plan B, pulling hay out of the barn loft, that took hours to get it up there to begin with, and was being stored for the Fall.
    You learn to live and work on several contingency plans simultaneously.

    You pray and plea, and even on the really bad days, you still raise your eyes to heaven and say your thanks of gratitude and praise to G-d, to be where you are....out in the country.


  7. Wow, are you listening in on us? I just offered to put a clothes line in the backyard last week and I've been looking at coop designs!

    I can relate your story in a different way. I do ultrasounds for a living. I can't tell you how many times I've been scanning someone and have them say "I wanna do what you do. Did you have to go to school?" Um, yes. I went four years for my Bachelors, two years for xray and that qualified me to get accepted into ultrasound school (which was another two years.)

    If people haven't walked in your shoes or are uneducated about what you do, they don't understand the complexity.

    You could take it as a sign of being good at what you make it look easy ;-)

  8. Haha, what a great post. It's funny because it's TRUE! LOL!

    Yea, we're in it for the glamour and the trendy clothes, my favorite designer is the generic version of Carhardt. LOL!

    Miss Violet

  9. I am so with you, Sister!! My son said whoever wrote that song that John Denver sang... "Life on the farm is kind of laid back..." never lived on a farm!! :)

  10. LOL, Marci -- I'm a HUGE John Denver fan. Have been since I was 10 yrs old.

    - Patrice

  11. Anyone who thinks running a farm is "easy" compared to city living is either naive or stupid.

    That being said, I think a lot of times when people call country living "simple," what they mean is "straightforward." For example, you get up and go to work on your farm, to raise your food, to put it on your table. There's no middle man; you don't go work somewhere else for a paycheck, part of which you then give to someone else at a grocery store, in exchange for food that was grown by yet another person. With the ever-expanding world population, societies have gotten way more complex. I think some people yearn to go back to "simpler times," even if it means more hard work.

  12. We've had a lot of people talk to us about "getting back to the land" and many start with "sell the house and buy some land in the country." We tend to discourage that thinking for the exact reasons you stated. We encourage people to do what they can where they are and if they find they are successful and want more land, THEN think about moving. But you can raise a big garden, rabbits, squab, and possibly a few chickens on most suburban lots. Live simply by choice first before its by necessity.

  13. You forgot planting, weeding, picking and making a sauce of strawberries to go on your cheesecake, cleaning the milking parlor and sterilizing all of the milking utensils, etc.
    Well it's back to simple fence building and garden replanting. My simple cattle have wreaked havoc on the homestead.

  14. Love the blog and have been reading it for some time now.

    I grew up in the country...hunting, fishing, gardening, fixing my own cars/truck (huntin, fishin and fixin for you country folk). I now live in one of the largest cities in the US for job reasons. I will agree that country living is not as simple as it is cracked up to be, but for those of you that think living in country is the toughest cross to bear and that no other lifestyle can come close to your trials and in the city for 7 years now ain't exactly as simple as y'all might think. Country folk wake up at the crack of dawn to milk the cow, feed the chickens and so on, while here in the city, I have to wake up at the crack of dawn to commute 2 hours a day with 500,000 of my closest friends, work all day in a small cube with flourescent lighting and then go home to find there are things to fix around the house, bills to pay, etc. etc.

    By the way, to fix city cheesecake, here is what I have to do. Get in my car, fill up with $5 a gallon gas, fight rude drivers in traffic for 30 minutes to go 5 miles while my car is overheating mind you, red lights and speed traps, find a parking space at the grocery store without getting shot by the person who thought they got there first, look around to make sure I am not going to get car jacked or mugged as I step out of my car, tell the same bums no you don't have change for the 8,000th time, go inside the store, fight other rude people in the isles that block the entire isle by standing in the middle talking on the phone to God knows who, stand in line for 30 minutes (behind someone that wants to pay with a check that has to be verified by every person in the store including the stock boys...did I mention that they also have 300 items in the 10 item only line?) to pay for the over priced items that will likely kill me with preservatives in them, tell the nice little girl scouts no I don't need any more tagalongs as I walk out the door, pass the same bum that just asked you 30 minutes before that I still don't have any change (Obama took it all) get back in my car and fight more traffic, red lights etc. Unload my car as I uncomfortablly wave to the neighbor I don't know and that looks strangly like the man on the wanted posters, open my door to make sure there are no home invaders inside (those occur a lot int he big city ya know) unload my groceries, then translate the instructions on the box from Spanish to English because that is all we speak in the big city now, and then, I can finally enjoy a possibly lethal cheesecake made of red dye number 5 that usually tastes like you know what...and did I mention that I spent $60 to make said cheesecake?

    For those country folk that think city folk have it easy....move to the city and get back to me once you have tried it. :) It is a lot less simple than you think