Grit Blogs > Almost Country

Living the Country Life in Suburbia

Growing up in Chicago’s suburbs, I was keenly aware of the lack of mettle needed to survive in my world. City kids developed the savviness essential for daily encounters with strangers and public transportation. Country kids grew up well acquainted with hard work and the cycles of life woven into the everyday. As suburban kids, we got driven around in station wagons. The most demanding physical task expected of me was cleaning the bathtub. Bored and restless, we walked around the blocks of our look-alike homes for hours at a time. I don’t think I could articulate it then, but I longed for a life that asked more of me.

When my husband and I got together 20-plus years ago, we thought we might move to Chicago and enjoy the excitement of the city. That phase lasted five minutes. We realized the ever-present people and traffic would make us crazy. We settled in the suburbs, moving from a house with a small yard to one with a big yard, to another on the edge of the woods, each move illustrating our growing desire for more space, more privacy, more room to be who we are. About a decade ago, I took up a mantra: I want to move to the country.

Four years ago we got as close as we could get and still have a reasonable commute and affordable mortgage: a house on the edge of the Thorn Creek Nature Preserve, about 35 miles south of the city’s downtown. Here we enjoy wooded hills and the wildlife that populates them. But there’s little direct sun for a garden (and a lot of hungry deer). And houses are still close enough to worry about being overheard during, um, certain exuberant pastimes.

So the mantra continues, with a little stomping of the feet and pounding of the fists now: I want to move to the country! But with a son in college, the real estate market being what it is, and my much-needed job located in the city, it doesn’t look like a move is in our future anytime soon. The best I can do is start living “as if.” In his book You Can Farm, Joel Salatin asks wannabe farmers “What can you do now?” – not when you’ve sold the house, quit the job, purchased 200 acres, and built a barn, but right now, right where you’re planted. I’ve started asking myself the same. Can I grow anything on this shady lot that the deer won’t eat? Mushrooms, maybe? Herbs? What about chickens? We’ve got an aging cement swimming pool occupying the small patch of backyard that doesn’t slope steeply to a creek. Maybe ducks would do well here? Would my neighbors kill me?

I want to live a country life, so it seems the only thing to do is live it. But what exactly does “a country life” mean, anyway? Solitude, space, and the noise of nature. Living closer to the land, appreciating simplicity, a more homegrown, homemade existence. “Honesty,” my friend and co-worker Deneen chimes in. A born-and-bred city girl who’s afraid of animals, and she knows what I’m getting at better than I do. “Truthfulness is very important to you. No airs.” Well, she’s got that right.

Nothing soothes my soul more than “real” living – getting my hands dirty, whether in the garden or in the kitchen. I like a hands-on life. Maybe that’s what “country” means? I’ll keep pondering that one. I suspect there’s some notion of community in there too, but I’m not sure how I see that just yet.

In the meantime, herbs are sprouting in pots on an ironing board in my home office. (Watering the seedlings from the bottom is working well – a tip I picked up from the book Homestead Year: Back to the Land in Suburbia by Judith Moffett.)

I bought the GRIT book Guide to Backyard Chickens and am debating a) whether to fly under the radar or try changing our local ordinance and b) whether our bearded collie mix will protect the chickens or prefer to eat them. Ditto for the cats. (Anybody got any experience with that?)

I’ve made homemade mozzarella (delicious!) and am searching for a source for non-ultrapasteurized goat’s milk so I can make goat cheese. (Ideas on that are welcome.)

Here, in this suburb that doesn’t demand much of me, I’ll keep dreaming – and learning – about creating the hands-on, homegrown, homemade country life I crave. Perhaps “country” is not so much a place as it is a state of mind, a way of life – maybe one that I’ve been living all along.

raku firing in yard

One of the advantages to living “almost country”: a raku pottery firing in the front yard. To see the results, visit my husband’s website, Weiss Ceramics.

almost country_1
3/13/2010 9:20:34 AM

Thanks for the warm welcome, all! It's great to be part of this community. I'm so enjoying reading everyone's blogs. One thing--I think "bearded collie" was misread as "border collie." I've got a dog who came from the Humane Society that was identified as an Old English sheepdog, but he sure looks much more like a bearded collie (think the Disney remake of the Shaggy Dog with Tim Allen). Bearded collies are also herding dogs, Scottish sheepdogs, I think they're considered. Love the tip about herding clinics, Mountain Woman! I'm going to look for one today.


hank will_2
3/10/2010 4:46:55 PM

Welcome Colleen! Get the chickens ... let your border collie know just whose chickens they are and you should be fine. But you might not want to leave them together unsupervised for a while. Thanks for sharing your journey. Hank


mountain woman
3/10/2010 1:19:48 PM

Hi Colleen, I really related to your post because I've lived in suburbia/cities for so much of my life and I always longed to be in the country surrounded by nature and animals. I did notice you have a border collie and one of the things I did with my dogs was to go to herding clinics. They have them all over now for city folk and suburbanites who want to try their hands at herding and border collies learn so fast. My dogs and I had a blast working sheep long before my country dream became a reality. As to chickens and dogs, I'll let you know because my turkeys, guineas and chicks are due to arrive in May and will be free range during the day and I'll be teaching my dogs they are off limits. I'll have goats' milk for you in another year :-) Anyway, now that I live on a 300 acre farm, country to me means hard work, frugal living (because tractor tires cost more than I could have imagined) and all the animals of my dreams. It also means no near neighbors, no lights other than the moon and stars and no sounds except those of nature. And, also the added responsibility to be stewards of our beautiful farm for future generations to enjoy. Anyway, I loved your article and I think your ideas are great. I also visited your husband's website and wow, is he talented. Welcome to Grit. I look forward to reading more about your wonderful ideas.


nebraska dave
3/9/2010 11:03:59 PM

Colleen, city girl with a country heart, you are definitely in the right place. Many here continue to share about their journey from city to country. As for me, I’m just an Urban backyard bio intensive vertical experimental grower with a black thumb. It’s just a fancy way of saying that I have a pile of rotting compost in my back yard with sticks poked in it to allow growing things to climb. Over the course of the last year with a little help from my Grit friends, I can begin to see a little green beginning to show up on the right hand thumb. I came from a farming background but fell in love with technology and made a 40 year career out it. Now with more time on my hands, I have reverted back to the call of the simpler life of improving the 50 X 100 foot Urban ranch. My animals are rabbits, Opossum, Raccoons, Squirrels, assorted birds, and any other thing that runs, scampers, crawls, or hops. They all seem to think that my garden area is the buffet of the neighborhood and bring all their relatives. I am surrounded by a neighborhood of manicured yards, flowering bushes, decorative fruited trees, and assorted multicolored flower beds. The truth of the matter is that I am at peace. It’s not the size of garden but the size of the plan for the garden that makes the difference. I’m looking forward to hear about your journey from city to country living.


susan_7
3/9/2010 7:30:51 PM

Hi Colleen, Nice blog--lots of good questions to ponder. I like the Joel Salatin question "what can I do now?" It seems to me that country life has much more to do with connection to the land and life cycles of living beings than does city life. It's also about pace, and about how far you can see, literally and figuratively. I'll be thinking more about this myself--thanks. Alaska Susan