A FRIEND OF MINE in Indianapolis recently asked if he and his family could stay at our farmhouse for a weekend. I said yes, then emailed him the pertinent instructions for life in a country house. Unlike city houses, whose services are seamlessly provided by a public utility, the country dweller must master the intricacies of water supply, septic tanks, intermittent electricity, and, should the need arise, policing and firefighting. These duties require several pages of information, including directions to the farm and instructions on finding the farmhouse key once they’ve arrived, in case I accidentally locked the door.
In our city house, I turn the faucet on, confident the Danville Water Department has performed its duties flawlessly and that clean, pure water in ample amounts, hot or cold, will gush forth, safe for drinking and bathing. In the country, I must descend to the cellar upon arrival, usually late in the evening, rotate the water valve next to the pressure tank counterclockwise a quarter turn, flip the switch to the water heater, then wait a half hour to take a hot shower. While waiting, I sweep up the ladybugs that have found their way inside, then reset the mouse traps after tossing the dead mice into the swale behind our woodshed, where the next rain will carry them into Young’s Creek. From there, they flow to the White River and then the great Ohio, which will whisk them into Old Man River himself, the mighty Mississippi, to be deposited, only a little worse for the wear, into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. If it’s winter, I haul in firewood to fill the box next to the woodstove, a task I should have done during our previous stay, but didn’t. It takes three hours to warm the house, so once I’m done with my hot shower, I go to bed to get warm, making sure to set my alarm for 3 a.m. to add more wood to the woodstove.
In the middle of the night, I sit by the fire, watching to see that the stove doesn’t overheat and burn our house down. (Tip to the novice: If your stove turns red, it’s too hot.) In my city home, I never awaken to stare at the furnace, but at our country house, I pass one pleasant hour after another staring at the flames, thinking deep thoughts. As a result, fire and I have grown close, and I’ve decided I want to be cremated when I die. No cold, dark, damp hole in the ground for me, only the bone-deep warmth of combustion.
There are other complications to country life unknown to the city dweller. When a thunderstorm beats down on our city home, I just close the windows. But in the country, I must close the windows and fill the bathtub with water in the event electrical power is lost, the well pump fails, and water is needed for flushing toilets. Then I must make sure we have bottled water for drinking, so we don’t have to drink bathtub water. If we’re out of bottled water, I fill the tea pitcher with water while the pump still works. In the country, there’s either too much water or not enough.
Having survived another winter without the house burning down, we arrive at spring in the country. With it comes certain duties, including picking up the branches in the yard that have fallen throughout the winter, and stacking them on the brush pile in the corner of the pasture. In the city, I toss our branches into my neighbor Brian’s yard while he’s at work. In the country, I also must walk the quarter-mile back to the woods to make sure no fallen trees will impede the flow of water that rolls down from the forest after spring rains. The one year I failed to do that, the water backed up into the barnyard, forcing the barn mice to temporarily relocate to the woodshed, then to our house, and after that to the Gulf of Mexico.
Despite its reputation for relaxation, life in the country has a complexity the city lacks. In the country, I’m too busy with my own affairs to meddle in someone else’s. This is likely why Thomas Jefferson believed Americans should remain farmers. At our current population, this would permit every American to own seven acres, or twice that if we took over Canada, another scheme I hatched while sitting by the woodstove.