The city has always been the best place from which to admire the country. The grass does look greener to the city-dweller, who is comparing it to a sidewalk, than it does to the farmer, who thinks of grass far less in terms of its greenness than in terms of the animals it will feed. The air is fresher to the city-dweller, the sky bluer, the stars brighter and more numerous.
Pastoral literature, from the Romans onward, has been produced chiefly by writers of great urbanity and sophistication, and it is essentially a literature of loss and nostalgia. In the pastoral myth the good life lies not only in the rural countryside (in some American versions of the pastoral, the countryside has often been replaced by the wilderness) but also in the irrecoverable past.
This is a myth that might have been expected to perish, especially in America, where people have been leaving the country for the city at a rate that is downright deflating. Huck Finn lit out for the territories, but nowadays folks light out for the cities. Yet the myth has survived, even flourished, and in some rural places the out-migration has tapered off. Every time a farm boy says good-bye to his plow, there seems to be a city fellow just itching to take his place.
Noel Perrin is a city fellow who not only itched but scratched. Raised in New York City, he was 30 when he moved to Vermont to take up the rural life. There wasn't a plow waiting for him, but he did acquire in short order a chain saw, a pickup truck, and a rototiller. Most of the essays in his first book, First Person Rural, (Godine, $8.95; Penguin paperback, $3.95) deal with practical and preliminary matters -- how to buy a pickup truck, for example, or how to keep the pipes from freezing. The 28 brief essays that make up this new book, Second Person Rural, are more reflective, less concerned with How-to than with the meatier question, Why?
Perrin's best answer to that question, always the best answer to that question, is that he likes what he's doing. He likes to make maple syrup and apple cider, likes to be out cutting wood on a sparkling winter day, likes to watch his Bantam cock wooing four buxom and virginal Golden Comet hens. He also likes to write essays (he's an English professor at Dartmouth); no writer since E. B. White can make puttering around a small farm sound more satisfying. Perrin's prose style is as unaffected as White's, and he is always deft, droll, and thoroughly civilized. He never forgets that he came from the city, and his pleasures are heightened by the memory.
A few of the essays are hampered by complacency, the vice that always lurks in the shadow of pleasure. There is an anecdote, for example, about an Oriental gentleman who mistakes Perrin for a native New Englander, a scuffy local, and complains about his clothes and the condition of his truck. It's the sort of anecdote that would go over at a cocktail party but probably shouldn't go much farther. And it does touch on the theme that runs through a great many of these essays, the theme of "going native."
"In New England," writes Perrin, "'native is the condition that, all of us newcomers aspire to." He's a very sympathetic observer of the natives, far too astute to mar his admiration for their skills, their savvy, and their silences by romanticizing them. He writes about the New England codes, those touchy matters of pride and self-respect, as one who has had to learn them the hard way, by breaking them. Pondering the cachet of native products, of native corn and native maple syrup, he wonders if a local merchant hasn't gone too far by advertising "Native Ice." When a Frenchman comes to town and makes himself ubiquitous with his camera, the natives get very dodgy; they're not inclined to be seen as merely picturesque. "There is mounting evidence," Perrin remarks, "that the natives want to quit being natives. The burden is too great."
Perrin, a native to outsiders and an outsider to natives, is caught right in the middle of no man's land. In one of the essays he proposes a rural immigration law designed to keep undesirables where they belong, in the city. "If enough upper-middle-class people move to a rural town, they are naturally going to turn it into a suburb of the nearest city." Their priorities will include improvements to the local airport and a good French restaurant. Perrin suggests that newcomers be given a year to acclimate themselves, at the end of which time they would be called before a board composed entirely of native farmers, loggers, and road-crew men. There they might be asked to "show proof of having taken care of two farm animals of at least pig size, or of one cow, for at least nine months."
Perrin would pass this examination with ease. In his own way, even if he hasn't achieved the status of native, he has succeeded in making a reality of the pastoral myth. He has made for himself an enviable rural life, and the future of that way of life probably depends less on the natives than on people like Perrin, who have pursued it not by necessity but by choice. Self-exiled from the city, they value country things highly enough to be willing to take up the cause of preserving them. More is at stake than stone walls and covered bridges; a part of our seductive past is what they want to enjoy for themselves and to bequeath to others.
These winsome essays have been illustrated by Allyn Massey, whose drawings have the dramatic grain of photographic close-ups. The book itself is like every book from the press of David Godine -- a beauty.