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 ideal country home 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 dream.”
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 home—smack dab in the middle of a piece of land in 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 against, nature.
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 country 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.)