Except in the 1516 novel by Sir Thomas
More, Utopia is said to be impossible. That is probably a
blessing—it would be terribly boring after a week or three. No
challenges. For each of us though, there is an ideal place—one
that embodies most of our wants and needs and fewest of our dislikes.
One that soothes us and excites us, makes us feel secure but gives us
energy for life's explorations. With clarification, focus, and
persistence we each can find the place that is ideal for us.
In our mind, we can create any world we choose.
Our finest achievements often begin with dreams. So dream. Daydream
or nightdream, but dream. Emerson said: "The ancestor of every action is a
thought." Thoreau expounded: "If one advances confidently in the direction
of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will
meet with a success unexpected in common hours." With a poet's
conciseness, Carl Sandburg cut right to it: "Nothing happens unless first a
One's imagined ideal place is often a blend of
dreams and chance: lingering memories of childhood camps, vacations, books or
movies, college or job experiences. I recently recalled an emotional
connection with place that I made in January of 1970. My grandmother had
died, and my brother and I were driving our "won't fly" parents and sister
nonstop from California to Wisconsin for the funeral.
As we sped through the Missouri Ozarks I found
myself increasingly captured by the scenery. And then I spotted a cabin on
a hill, just visible through the leafless trees, gray smoke twisting skyward
from a stone chimney. In only a few moments an indelible connection was
apparently made. Seven years later, after considering the entire 48
contiguous states and carefully researching many specific states, never
consciously remembering that cabin in the trees, I bought my ideal country
place—smack dab in the middle of the Ozarks.
A country home typically defines a house, a somewhat
controlled area around the house, and a larger, more natural, maybe wild area
expanding beyond—whether majestic mountains, undulating sands, shimmering waves
of grasses, or the quiet, cool green of forest. It is often more, the sum
of house, garden, and landscape plus the magical, mystical aura common to a
natural place. The whole can only be improved by working with instead of
The ideal country home place provides necessities:
healthful air, water and soil, climate wherein we thrive, and those utilities
and services necessary to our chosen lifestyle. It provides space and
conditions for our buildings and our activities, including food production and
recreation and, increasingly, our commercial work. Located amidst chosen
natural beauty, the ideal home provides mental and psychological well-being and
it stimulates and nurtures our spiritual explorations. The ideal home
place inspires us to become more than we are. It elicits light, truth, and joy.
Location is paramount. The reason for the
cliche: "The three most important elements of value are location, location, and
location," is that almost anything about a place can be changed except its
location. Terrain can be graded, trees and shrubs cut down or planted, and
a house can be built, rebuilt, altered, razed, or moved. Only location and
the attendant climate are unchangeable.
The ideal country home is located in an area that is stable. The income base
is broad, not dependent on a single industry. In many ideal rural counties,
the three strongest sources of income are transfer payments (such as
retirement checks), agriculture, and tourism. Stability derives not only from
economics but from social conditions. The ideal home is located within a fair
and nurturing community.
It is a deeply personal decision whether the ideal country home is in a tiny
hamlet, a small town, near a town, or out in the boondocks. Each has
advantages; each has unique challenges. The ideal home site faces in a southerly
direction with maximum solar exposure for lighting, gardening, and vegetative growth. Whether it is in a valley or on a ridgetop will partly depend on whether you wish to
look up or down at soaring birds--the kind of view you prefer. Ridgetops get more winds,
valleys flood more.
Without leaving the contiguous 48 states you can find virtually any type of
house, climate, topography, and demographics you prefer. An A-frame in the
mountains; a cottage at the beach; a cabin in the woods; an adobe casa in the
desert. Two hours from the nearest neighbor or tucked against a small town. On a thousand acres, a hundred acres, ten acres, an acre, or a large lot. Ski
country, fishing country, farming country. But country.
Obtain as much land as you can afford to purchase and pay taxes on. Nothing
will guarantee your future peace and privacy more than ownership of a
substantial land buffer around your home. Extra land provides the kind of
privacy that makes window coverings redundant and the volume of Luciano
Pavarotti or Willie Nelson while gardening strictly a matter of personal
choice. And owning extra acreage allows one to be a land steward, an
honorable calling on our distressed planet-home. If buying a large acreage
seems beyond your means, you can look for a place that has characteristics
undesirable to developers: remoteness, bad roads, rough terrain, steep access,
and parcels too small to develop. Such land will usually be low-priced.
Like-minded persons can combine their dollars to buy a large acreage, deed
house-sites to each owner, and hold the rest of the land as common area, to be
enjoyed by all and to be a buffer against intrusive development. If five
buyers purchase an old 200-acre farm, and each uses five acres for house,
outbuildings, garden and orchard, that leaves 175 acres to ensure peace,
quiet, and firewood forever. We have friends who did this. At first they had
trouble getting bank financing for house construction because of legal
questions regarding foreclosure and resale in case of default. They hired a
lawyer who drafted an ownership agreement acceptable to their banks. Our
friends each now enjoy the use of a large, beautiful acreage that none of
them could have purchased alone.
Now that is my viewpoint. There is another: buy only as much land as you need
and wish to care for. This view comes from city people who treat country land
like city land, busting their behinds to prune forests and manicure meadows. Forget it. Manicure to your mind's content around the house, mow meadows a
few times a year to thicken the grass and prevent erosion, and cut firewood
judiciously, taking dead, dying, and crooked trees. Let the rest of your land
be natural. If the natural landscape offends you, you would probably be
unhappy living in real country. Consider a small town.
There is in fact a great need for land to be protected from further human
meddling. Forests, wetlands, grasslands, meadows, glades, and fens left in
their natural states maintain biodiversity, protect watersheds, consume
carbon dioxide, and preserve this bountiful and beautiful planet for our
children. That such land can also be a buffer for serene living is a bonus.
"The home idea is clearly dying out in the cities. Homes seem to be
incompatible with compact city life; the consequence is that the
serious-minded middle class is constantly working out and out toward the
suburbs and the adjacent towns, in the effort to secure the greatest possible
proximity to nature consistent with business prudence. This transfer of
domicile at once raises far-reaching questions. The political philosopher
sees danger because this movement removes a large class of voters and is
likely to leave the city, or the congested parts of it, in the hands of
politicians. The social philosopher finds a new breed of citizen
developing...not country-bred nor city-bred, but suburban-bred, product of
neither extreme. Will this citizen have the prejudices of either extreme? And
will he be a more useful social factor because of his intermediate origin?"
(Liberty Hyde Bailey, The Outlook to Nature, 1924)
"So, do you think that small town life in America is disappearing? No at all! Communities such as these can be found all over the United States. I mean,
it is shrinking, to be sure, but it's still out there." (Paul Newman, in an Interview by Jonathan Cutler in Venice Magazine, December 1994.)