Of rural idylls and onesie movies
Cape Town - I’ve been thinking of moving to the country and have been idly searching the web for a perfect rural idyll.
I don’t want a stud farm or a sheep mogul’s home with 15 wrap around verandas, a tennis court and a brandy distillery. I’d be happy with a worker’s cottage or a very large turnip. In fact, a turnip would be perfect – no one would come to visit and when I’m hungry I could shave the walls and make something Russian.
In Walden, Henry Thoreau wrote: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Photographs of the writer show him as a clear-eyed man with a gentle face and a beard every coffee-roasting, beer-brewing, chocolate-making hipster would kill for. He spent two years living in a cabin in a New England forest next to Walden Pond. There, he wrote a lot, thought a lot, looked a lot and didn’t shave a lot. He was hairy, happy and ate potatoes.
One wonders what he needed to escape from. He moved to the woods in 1845. His hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, was hardly an industrial nightmare. Its economy centred on furniture making and Thoreau spent much of his early life making pencils. We barely know what those are any more.
In Thoreau’s day, there was no Twitter, no traffic, no plastic scooters, no TV, no YouTube and no personal training. There were no neighbours with trampolines and no dweeb living on the corner who revs his Golf in the afternoons and plays David Guetta at stadium volume.
I met a woman at a party recently. Like me, she grew up on a farm. She asked if I craved open spaces and together we wondered about the impact of childhood environments. If you grow up in the country, are you blueprinted with a desire for green and quiet, the smell of sheep? And if you are reared in the city, do you thrive on noise and concrete, the pump of frying oil?
During my surfing for a suitable turnip in the country, my imagination went into overdrive. I would wake to birdsong! And bake loaves of bread! And have a horse called Satellite! And sit in the sun wearing something long and swishy and watch the dogs gambol through pastures! I would collect mushrooms! And write whimsical poems about rivers and bats and lamplight! I might take a lover who is sturdy and silent and fixes stone walls with a pipe in his mouth!
Then I remembered what country life is really like. As a kid, I got bored. There are only so many plucked gazanias you can arrange into the shape of a dinosaur. The people were also small-minded and mean. Back then, we had a party-line phone and I would often lift the black bakelite receiver and listen in to the conversations. Apart from pigs with extended teats and silage that wasn’t getting hot enough, the main concerns involved the lives of others.
“You know he got drunk and drove his car into the hairdressing salon. Such a shame! All that perm lotion!”
“Did you see her tennis skirt? Disgusting. But she’s Dutch, you know.”
“That child looks like a weasel. No wonder Dave’s been having it off with that new nurse at the vet’s.”
I also remembered what I love about living in Cape Town: decent cappuccinos (even if they have a scum of hipster beard); movies at The Labia, where you can drink wine and wear a onesie; public transport, intoxicating in its death rattles and humanity; beers in small bars tended by transvestites; people-watching on the promenade, with its fragrant joggers and dozing tramps; the Milnerton Market, which has decorated and cluttered my life with its cracked charms.
As I clicked on various bucolic abodes, I reminded myself of the following: the last time I baked bread was in 1986. It was burnt on the outside and looked like a yeast smoothie inside. I am scared of horses and I wouldn’t know a tasty porcini from a toxic panther cap. I burn in the sun and my dogs don’t gambol – they kill birds and eat cow poo. And no one fixes stone walls these days.
In Thoreau’s treatise about being a hippie in the woods, he also writes: “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
I realised that in a city like Cape Town, with its quiet mountain paths and whale-humped oceans, it is possible to have the best of both worlds. Sucking the marrow of life is there for the taking. One just has to log out, unplug, get out and plunge in. And I might start wearing ear plugs in the afternoon or cut a broad swath – possibly with a chainsaw – in the direction of Golf boy to reduce his life to its lowest terms.
* Helen Walne is an award-winning columnist and writer based in Cape Town.