Living the Country Life in Suburbia

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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.

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.