I heard on the news the other day that 80% of the population of the United States lives in cities, or in suburbs of cities, in the uninterrupted sprawl extending outward in ripples from our metropolitan centers. This statistic surprised me. It made me realize, perhaps late in the game, just how much the country has changed in the last few generations.
My husband and I both grew up in small towns, and those towns have left their imprint upon us. I grew up where tidy blocks of homes mostly built in the early 1900's were interspersed with fields and creeks; from most of those tidy homes, one can see the rolling hills cradling the town. My walk to grammar school included a stretch of earthen alley alongside Nathanson Creek. I took a different way home, one that took me by an undeveloped town block, covered by a field of grasses and wildflowers. Slightly off-center, a lovely old oak tree held court, a perfect fort for school children looking to stretch out the afternoon by lingering in the field, imagining they were living on the wide open prairie, waiting for Laura and Nellie to walk by with their chalkboards and lunch buckets.
My little town was quiet, slow in comparison to the city I live in now, utterly charming. Yes, it was a safe place to raise kids, and I've written before about wishing my kids could be "free range," but it's not the safety I am feeling nostalgic for. It's the chance to live close to nature, to fields and trees and dirt and buzzing flies. It’s the chance to live where the sight of farm animals is not novel, where not all the sidewalks are paved, where shoes can crunch over gravel on a routine walk to the store. Living so close to the natural world settles you somehow, places you somewhere that feels solid and unchanging, in a way that strip malls with their ever-changing store fronts simply cannot do.
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We are raising our family firmly placed in that 80% of the population I heard about on the radio. We occupy one of those undulating ripples of urban/suburban sprawl radiating outward from San Francisco. I realized the other day that as I live my life amidst the concrete and asphalt, I am assuming that someday we will live once more where fields and dirt and grass and wide expanses are commonplace. The rural life I grew up with is firmly etched on my mind and heart in such a way that I still feel like a visitor in the place I've called home for 12 years, someone passing through on my way home.
But who knows? We talk about moving someplace rural, but we are far away from making that a reality. We don't know if we ever really will sell this house -- our first, the one that is supposed to be our "starter home" -- and move to someplace our hearts already live, someplace that is quiet at night, where we can see the stars, where our kids can really learn about land from the ground up, so to speak.
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Now, when I drive around town (or more accurately, from one town to the next along the stretch of cities that run together along the freeway), I think about how I might not be able to give them that experience. Maybe we won’t make it “back to the land.” That does make me stop and get nostalgic.
There are, of course, good things about cities. Shakespeare camp is probably hard to come by in more rural places. Good coffee might be a bit harder to find. Great books stores? Not so easy to get to. We would wait longer for really good movies to play nearby. If we stay in a metropolitan area, our kids will have multiple opportunities to learn about whatever they are interested in and to be exposed to interesting people doing interesting things. They will understand the modern world well.
But they won’t have the same imprints that their mom and dad have, further evidence that we are actually raising complete strangers. That asphalt feels foreign to me, but certainly not to them.
Maybe that’s really where my nostalgia for the rural life comes from, a desire to hold on to my children and to “place” them where my heart lives and from the knowledge that I really can’t do that, no matter where our house is located.
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That field I used to linger in? It’s developed now, and has been for years. I might not crunch over gravel walking to the store anymore. The town is overrun by folks with lots of money and a penchant for spending it on homes that resemble small castles. Things change. Towns change. Children grow. Perhaps that’s why I can’t get this Robert Frost poem out of my head, one I memorized in high school and flash back to every few years:
Nothing Gold Can Stay
Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
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