Bethany brought up a new term over at Graph Paper Diaries, proxy preference. She created it in reference to surveys in which people claim to want to move to a rural area, but actually don’t do this. She wonders what “I want to move to the country” is a proxy for, speculating that it may be yearning for a simpler lifestyle. As my wife and I originally wanted to move to the country decades ago but never did, I wondered what that idea was a proxy for in our case, perhaps illuminating others. BS King’s post is recommended. She was up visiting her family and came over to have tea with my wife yesterday. I doubt strenuously they discussed this.
For me, it was first a proxy for self-sufficiency, at minimum. I have always had a streak of not being beholden to others. The idea of growing one’s own food, cutting one’s own fuel, being able to hunker down in an emergency and survive loomed large in my imagination. Apocalypse was in the air in the 1970's, but it was also part of my personality to prove I could succeed at the sort of thing not expected of a soft-hands humanities person and his librarian wife. Most especially, to prove that I did not in any way need my parents and so would not be beholden to them in any way.
When one reads about preppers, they echo some if not all of those sentiments. Strategies of being able to live off the land for days, weeks, months are prominent. In the city, one is dependent on elevators and heating working; food supplies are just-in-time, not long-term storage, and even boiling water is impossible with the power out; armed people who might hurt you are right nearby. For that type of emergency, the city dweller is vulnerable, the rural person comparatively safe. Yet for everyday emergencies, the situation is reversed. If you make your living in a rural setting selling vegetables, beef cattle, or your skill as a carpenter, you are enormously dependent on your customers. Even if you have multiple jobs, as rural people sometimes do (at least in NH), a car that breaks down, a town on hard times, a mere bad season rather than a natural disaster – these are not easily solvable. In the city, if you lose your job you have more opportunity to hustle for another nearby. You can walk to a job in a pinch. Or walk to do simple errands which would be very difficult to accomplish in the country. As a practical matter, people find they can’t move to a rural area because they can’t find a job there, or only one of a couple can find a job there, or more subtly, there is an insecurity about getting stuck far from an alternative job if the one you landed lays people off or cuts back your hours.
I think it is also common that people want to move to rural settings “so that the kids will have room.” When one gets down to it, however, kids have plenty of room to run in small towns and even small cities, and certainly in suburbs. Folks start finding that there is even too much room to run, as children have to be driven to play with others well into their school years. If there aren’t a few children within a year or two of your child in a two-acre zoned district they often choose to just stay home. Neighborhood life is not often exciting. Rural settings only increase this problem. Rural life is better if you are trying to limit the number of people in contact. It can be a project.
“Room for the kids” then, may be a proxy for safety in one type of bad situation – of bullies, or thugs, or bad influences you can keep your children away from. As with the safety divide above, however, the more common safety problems, the non-emergency ones, are worse in rural areas. Children have to be a little older to go next door when next door is a quarter mile away. Getting to home or hospital if one gets hurt takes longer.
Lastly, I think desiring rural life is a proxy for wanting to be on vacation, especially on the vacations of childhood. While there are people who do truly love wilderness, with all its difficulty of movement and lack of visibility, most people – including most environmentalists – want a more managed, aesthetic wilderness, that you can drive most of the way to and have clear waterways for boats and the spreading trees of parks. Rural places are more like the places you went on vacation as a child, so the vision is not only beautiful scenery and some peace and quiet, it is also a place of no work. In the imagination, that is. Even people who haven’t lived the life are aware that “no work” is not one of the realistic expectations for rural living – that is, when they think it through for a minute rather than just dream about it. I eventually decided that even if we could afford a vacation home we would not use our money that way, so all subsequent changes to the house would be in the direction of making it feel and look like a vacation home. It’s about 25% so – it feels rather nice.
I mentioned this to my wife. She had a fourth, very accurate answer I had neglected. I will come back to it after we have had a nice drive in the car to discuss it.
A feeling of self-sufficiency; a sense of both moving freely and safety, especially for the children; to have vacation right nearby.