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002 — Town and country
Why a cow is the UK’s most dangerous animal, how where we grow up matters and the things we remember most.
Welcome back to The Notebooks. If you missed the last, this is where we were.
If you’re coming in fresh, The Notebooks is a piece of long form writing, based on a true story, served in weekly instalments.
Pieces in The Notebooks may have a song-matching, like wine and cheese.
Not your quick-release serotonin fix, The Notebooks are in it for the long haul.
Now re-opening The Notebooks to July 2006….
Did you grow up in the country?
I did and I think there’s a big difference between country folk and city folk. I don’t mean where you live now, I mean where you grew up.
I’ll try to explain the difference.
I heard a woman yesterday on a street at dusk near Hyde Park in London:
“I don’t know which direction to go!”
Her friend turned her around, laughing.
“Not that way! Looks like a forest over that way.” It was the edge of Hyde Park.
They turned back onto a busy London road. “Let’s go this way, there are more lights.”
There were also these two schoolboys I overheard on a train in London once.
“Cows are dangerous, you know.”
“I know, it’s true. Cows kill people.” 1
“They do. I’ve been lucky. I was in a field of cows once.”
“I think you could probably outmanoeuvre a cow though.”
“I don’t know. What if it came running at you?”
“Yeah, no, not in the open. But, like, in a forested area. I bet you could outmanoeuvre it in a forested area.”
“Yeah, or maybe near a forested area because then you could run into the forested area?”
“That would be risky though. Maybe just don’t get yourself in that situation. Don’t aggravate cows.”
I wonder if one of these boys in Westminster School uniform will grow up to be the kind of man I see driving a pristine Land Rover down the middle of the lane, afraid of scratching his car on a blade of grass.
What I’m trying to say is this:
If you grow up in the city, it shapes how you see the world, just like it shapes how you see the world if you grow up in the country.
“A country girl can’t be made out of anybody here.”
(The Avett Brothers, Famous Flower of Manhattan)
It’s quite hard to pin down what I mean by “country”, especially for readers in the UK. In the UK, the “country” could mean a leafy part of Surrey, perhaps adjacent to a field, maybe frequented by the occasional wandering deer — but no more than fifteen minutes from a mainline rail station that will get you in to central London in half an hour.
That is not what I mean by country.
Country to me means long grass, so tall you can hide in it for hours and, when you run through it, your legs get wet all over from spit bugs.
It means spending all summer barefoot, never once touching concrete, and knowing which patches of grass need to be jumped because they hide red ant nests.
It means knowing which apple tree is the easiest to climb and which has the best apples (not the same tree, obviously). It means knowing which banks of the pond are the steepest and hardest to climb out of.
It means knowing where there is edible watercress, where the leeches congregate and where a sofa-sized polypore is threatening to engulf a neighbouring tree.
It means knowing where there are blackberries and where each trail in the woods goes.
It means the sound of cicadas at night and nothing else at all, because there are no neighbours, no motorways, no busy flight paths, no sidewalks and no street lights — not for miles and miles and miles.
There isn’t much in the UK that I would call country really; it certainly doesn’t start until you get past commuter distance to London and by then you’ve already entered commuter distance to Birmingham, and then Manchester after that, and so on, until you hit the sea. Sure, there are some remote bits. Scotland, absolutely. Some parts of Wales, yes. Shropshire, maybe, and Yorkshire and bits of central Devon and Dorset too.
The thing is though that most people in the UK tend to cluster; they live in little villages huddled together as if for warmth, even when the fields extend in all directions. The only people who live unhuddled in the country in the UK tend to be vastly wealthy and live in palatial manor houses on thousands of acres of land that were often the product of dubious enclosures and the colonisation of the common land since the Industrial Revolution.
They hang the man and flog the woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
Yet let the greater villain loose
That steals the common from the goose.
So goes a famous 18th century English countryside rhyme about the theft of the old common land that you may have heard before. The enclosures may be why everyone is so huddled, never mind that the country was already pretty diminutive to begin with.
Come to think of it, the vast tracts of available land in the States that allow people to grow up in the kind of rural idyll I described above were also stolen, also (mostly) since the 18th century.
Where I grew up, getting leeches stuck to my feet in the NY-Vermont borderlands between the Green Mountains and the Adirondacks, was Mohawk country.
Many parts of the local forests, high lands, creeks, marshes, and fields around Saratoga Springs are old familiar places for Mohawk, Mohican, Oneida, Abenaki, and other Native families from around the Northeast who have long ancestral memories of being here. The oldest evidence of Native homesites and travelling camps dates back at least 9,000 years.
(Bruchac, M. (2007). Native Artisans and Trade in the Saratoga Region. The Saratoga Native American Festival Program, 27-28. UPenn archive.)
9,000 years. Imagine how well you’d know the ant nests and blackberries in a patch of earth after 9,000 years.
But I digress.
The point is that I think it’s pretty formative, whether you grow up on concrete or in suburban grass or jumping ant nests in a field.
I remember going to visit cousins in the city and being floored by the riches of having a corner store within *walking* distance of the house — but also mystified by the fences separating one patch of earth from an identical patch in the neighbour’s yard. Touching gravel in a playground and being struck by how artificial it felt — chalky, dusty, chemically-treated — not at all like the soft mud and rocks at home.
I moved to the suburbs when I was twelve — a trauma from which I never fully recovered — and made friends who had grown up in Dublin semi-detacheds or in UN compounds in Nairobi. They all knew how to ride the bus and walk to a McDonalds. I didn’t. I learned, sure, and I can fake urban acclimation with the best of them but still today I am deeply uneasy in a crowd. Still today I can name most of the trees (although I’m not so good with an English hedgerow as I am with an Appalachian hill).
I am, and always will be, a country girl.
And, being a country girl, I am partial to a country boy. That is just the way it is. Don’t @me.
I’m not the only one to have noticed there is something a bit different about country folk.
That long loping stride all country men have…
Roald Dahl, Danny the Champion of the World
It’s in the walk.
I can tell from your giant step you’ve been walking through the cotton fields.
Old Crow Medicine Show, Down Home Girl
This is why it makes sense to me that my first memories of Luke* are all of him walking. I remember passing him once in a deserted school hallway, nervous and excited to be alone in a hallway with him even though we just walked past each other and he barely looked at me. I remember him walking across the cafeteria, two years ahead of me — always in 8th grade in my head, to my dorky 6th. More clearly than kissing him in 2006, I remember his face in 1996.
I was 11 then, a raging bag of hormones, raging that he wasn’t on my school bus route because the school bus was the only way to get to know or even speak briefly to the older kids. Everyone from kindergarten up through 12th grade was on those buses — but only if they lived on your arbitrarily drawn route. He wasn’t on mine.
He had an earring at 13 and I remember the day in fall ’96 or early ’97 when he came to school with blue hair — because, grunge — and always the baggiest jeans with a silver keychain in the pocket and the slightly squinty-eyed, high-cheekboned, always a little tanned face that age 11 I just thought exquisite. More than a bit Native American — Cherokee, he later told me — incongruous with light brown hair, lightened by a life outdoors. Only a few images are burned into my mind, of the boy at thirteen, and the man at twenty-three. In the cafeteria, which was the only time I ever had occasion to see him; the baggy skater pants he wore; that day he died his hair bright blue. Those images never change since I don’t have the real-life counterpart to write over the old story. So I watch them over and over again. He carries his lunch tray to the same spot, he jokes with friends in the same cafeteria lunch line forever. He smiles at me from across a bar somewhere in upstate New York, forever.
That’s going much further back than I meant. I only meant to go back to July 2006.
Why does it matter? Because all the pieces matter.
In July 2006, the girl with the mosquito bites and the hard-soled calluses was almost dead.
Before she went back home, she was a different person entirely and had almost forgotten what it felt like to walk barefoot in the woods.
She didn’t walk barefoot anywhere. She had French manicured toes.
To be continued
*All names are made up and any likeness to a real person, dead or alive, is coincidence.