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Now, that's the life

I can't really believe that Dr. Johnson -- city man from hat to boots -- didn't have his tongue very firmly in his good eighteenth century cheek when he wrote: "luxury, avarice, injustice, violence and ambition, take up their ordinary residence in populous cities; while the hard and laborious lives of the husbandmen will not admit of these vices. The honest farmer lives in a wise and happy state, which inclines him to justice, temperance, sobriety, sincerity, and every [Word Illegible] that can dignify human nature."

I can only think that he felt fairly sure that the agricultural fraternity of his day (surely not all that different from today's) was either too busy or too illiterate to read his words. If they had, their expletives would unquestionably have had to be deleted.

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Something inside most of us still secretly half-credits the picture of pretty countryside, ghastly city.It is a myth that dies hard -- or perhaps even increases. Only an "honest farmer" could shake us out of such fantasies.

A farmer I know, who lives in the middle of glorious, rippling, rolling hill country, miles from the slightest hint of urban sprawl, away even from a village -- quite seriously said one day what he wanted was a good fish-and-chip shop at the end of his lane. To my displaced urban/suburban vision such an idea was anathema and wormwood.

The same farmer, following a long line of predecessors, I suspect, is responsible for something else not far from his house. I well remember the shock it was to my idealizing, afternoon-rambling mind when I discovered it. I had followed the delicious twist and rush of the beck as it slid over large, flat stones, squeezed bubbling into tight cracks between rocks, gushed out again , undercut earthy banks with occasional primroses rooted in them -- a kingfisher's paradise. At one point it runs into a wood of alder and beech -- in particular there is one tall, leaf-dappling beech that stands up like a slender goddess. In spring this woodland is a blue-mauve hollow of "bluebells," its banks like sloped lakes to the eye. You can't believe the color and totality of these endlessly self-multiplying bulbs, and at the bottom the beck flows, almost lost in all this flowering. I climbed, this first time, up above the trees into the meadow and looked down and across at all the varied leafage, following the stream.

Then suddenly I saw the bank opposite -- a disgusting downward surge of old worn tires, a child's perambulator, plastic fertilizer bags, smashed bottles, crushed baked-bean tins, a troubled fall of choking rubbish at the foot of the trees, smothering the earth with a shocking mess.

The flat, if not very complimentary, fact is that there is no striking evidence that the "honest farmers" (and they are, indeed, honest, the ones I know, and friendly and humorous and energetic and generous) in this place of open hills and grazing meadows are any wiser or happier -- than are their city brothers. Country people don't often do the things some city people dream they do. They don't as a rule go birdwatching or mountain climbing. If they are ever persuaded by their families to spend "a day in the Lakes," they don't drive slowly and gaze at the scenery: they belt, unwonderingly, through it.

Farmers don't specially like flowers, wild or tame. To them, gardening is "for women," or a man's hobby after retirement. My nearest neighbor literally doesn't know a pansy from a poppy. He doesn't even particularly likem animals -- any more than a worker on an assembly line necessarily likes Fords -- and he is as terrified of geese and dogs (except for his own pliant slave-dog) as you'd expect a child from a high rise to be. Yet he has lived on the land all his life, as his father has also; he, if there ever was one, is a countryman.

Put him in a city for an afternoon, and he would want to be out of that claustrophobia like a common-shot -- away from those people, crammed and surging , all those packed shops, all that confusion of traffic, that maze of streets, those factories and warehouses, that lack of air and greenness -- !

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-- and of course, that terrible, fearful litterm everywhere.


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