My son Sam was fourteen months old when he first felt the sensation of grass beneath his feet. I lay him on his back on a blanket under a tree so he could watch the wind in the leaves, and he kept his heels in the air for a full five minutes, because the ticklish blades of grass were so foreign to him. It made me feel like a failure as a parent to see how unaccustomed my child was to the natural world.
But we live in downtown Colorado Springs, a city whose parks are littered with broken glass and whose inhabitants are more likely to cover their front yards with cement than go to the trouble of cultivating grass from the parched earth. Every restaurant on the main drag puts out bowls of water for customer’s dogs, but only three provide a changing table in the restroom. In a lot of ways, this town is more friendly to canines than children.
When we were first married, my husband and I chose to live in an urban setting on purpose. After spending four years attending college in rural Michigan, the excitement of city life appealed to us. We liked being able to walk to the post office, the library, restaurants, and our parish. Besides, our neighborhood had character…or, at least, characters. At any rate, it seemed better than the bland suburban communities sprawling in the foothills.
But then Sam came along, and suddenly our hip urban lifestyle seemed impractical, dangerous, and oddly lonely. I had never paid much attention to the sirens before, but when I lay awake at night listening to my newborn breathing, I heard them sound three, four, five times a night. Ambulances, fire trucks, police cars responding to crises–sometimes only a few doors down–and I could do nothing but say a prayer and listen. After all, it wasn’t my affair. I don’t know my neighbors’ names.
In The Long-Legged House, Wendell Berry writes that “A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives” (61). He insists, here and throughout his essays over the years, that this type of community is best found in rural areas, in small towns where most people earn their living from the land in one way or another. That’s something I’ve got to take on faith.
This land I’m in today, at the base of Pike’s Peak, doesn’t yield much of a living, at least not the type that Berry would approve. It’s a beautiful place: there’s no denying the splendor of the Rockies and the glow of the aspens in the fall. Vacationers often find the mountains ruggedly exhilarating and peaceful. But the soil is thin and dusty here. Water is scarce. And the people who share this space do their best to avoid defining and limiting each other’s lives.
This city exists primarily as a thoroughfare, a temporary home for people exploring their independence. Natives are so rare that they must declare themselves with a special bumper sticker. Transplants are identified primarily by their driving habits: Texans go twenty miles per hour at the first sight of snow flurries, Californians are likely tailgating in the slow lane, and Midwesterners are the only ones to stop and offer a hand when someone blows a tire. Add to this mix a seasonal population of college students, and forty thousand or so frequently reassigned military residents, and you get quite the ephemeral “community”.
Between us, my husband and I have taught close to a thousand students over the past five years: only a handful of them had grandparents in town. For some reason, people have as much trouble putting down roots here as maple trees do.
I suspect it’s because this isn’t our native earth, because our parents and friends and childhood memories are all settled a thousand miles away. And because no one can truly thrive without the knowledge that they matter in their community.
That’s not to say that no one can matter in Colorado. Out east on the plains you’ll find agricultural towns and small ranching communities that have made their mark on the land, and where people have made their mark on each other. And even in the Springs, there certainly are rare families who settled here several generations ago, and more that might begin to call it home. But my family isn’t one of them.
So we’re leaving now, before Sam spends his whole childhood indoors or on pavement, or before he comes to believe that his grandparents live in a little box called “Skype” on the computer. We’re going back home to the Midwest–Michigan, specifically–to be closer to our families, closer to familiar ground, closer to the grass.
We’ve made our experiment with independence and discovered that yes, we can survive on our own. Yet the experience has shown us that it’s far, far better to survive together.
[Ed. note: Winston and I are very pleased to announce Laurel Good as a featured Imaginative Conservative Summer Writer. I had the privilege of meeting Laurel when she first arrived at Hillsdale College as a student. I was immediately impressed not only with her penetrating intelligence and great personality, but also with her uncanny ability to communicate the deepest of thoughts in the most beautiful of ways. She and her husband, Zach, have a son, and they are currently in transition from Colorado to Michigan. Despite the move, Laurel has graciously agreed to spend some time with us. We’re honored.–Brad]