City to Country: beware of rural idyls
Since being able to say with certainty that I’m moving out of the city, I’ve been offered lots of advice and opinion (both solicited and otherwise) about what to expect from country life. With a wistful sigh, folk often admit that they too have always wanted to move to the countryside, and then they list the reasons it wouldn’t be possible - their job, their ageing mother-in-law, an addiction to Deliveroo, a fear of the dark, etc. I’m always interested to hear these caveats, because it reveals beliefs and assumptions about the countryside and its deficits.
I’ve been aware of a distinct town/country split in Scotland ever since I can remember. This strikes me as somewhat unhelpful and unhealthy in a nation that relies so heavily on its rural landscape and communities for food, tourism, leisure and a vast portion of the national economy. If we’re going to steward this precious resource well and make sustainable choices about what we eat, amongst other things, we all need to have an appreciation of what our countryside is and how it works.
I sympathise when people say they love the idea of ‘escaping’ the city. Clearly, I am at least partly on-board with that idea. But in upholding the countryside as a retreat and escape, are we painting a picture of a place so remote and ‘other’ that it becomes inaccessible? Do the issues we find heavy, the burdensome responsibilities of urban dwellers, no longer apply because we have left the realm of streetlights? Have we inadvertently decided that rural communities can’t engage in the same debates, dialogues and issues, perhaps because we are afraid of losing this precious, idealised retreat space?
As I learned from my many brief conversations about my impending flitting, the ideal of a peaceful, untroubled existence in the country is invaluable to people leading busy lives, even if they never truly intend to realize the dream. I fully understand the need for such a fantasy. Sometimes it can be what gets us through a hellish day. But is the continuation of this dream preventing us from having a real relationship with the rural spaces and communities that produce our food and many other vital services?
A few days before the big move, I was at the Castle Terrace market in Edinburgh, chatting with a farmer I’ve known for some years. On learning about my move, she looked me dead in the eye and told me to beware. “It’s social death, you know. And your diet will be terrible. Believe me, you’ll be shopping in Spar before you know it!” And this coming from someone who lives in the countryside.
Maybe I'll stick with the fantasy.