Notes on Moving to the Country after Social Distancing
You’ve been thinking about moving to the country. Let’s explore the idea together. While this moment is not the time to do it, with a pandemic spreading its way across the country and world, I recognize that instinct for flight which has perhaps always been there and now rattles around louder than before. Let’s leave the city. We’ve thought about it for so long. I wish we had done it already. I had these same thoughts for years.
Country living wasn’t completely foreign to me, the Midwestern farmhouse where I grew up was unmappable by today’s technology, simply identified by a rural route service number, and a postal box. In spite of (or perhaps because of this) I spent nearly all of my adult life living in cities; out West, in Europe, and most recently 10 years in a city on the East Coast.
While I loved aspects of the city, a part of me always longed for the rural life. In 2018 I jumped all in and moved my family from the city to a rural town, population 1,800.
If actually moving to the country makes you feel excited and also a little bit terrified, there are things about this moment of social distancing and quarantine that can help you prepare your mind, your family, and your household for that move.
In a 2018 Gallup Poll, researchers found that across all age groups there was a gap between how many people wanted to live in a rural area and how many actually did.
“[I]f Americans could sort themselves geographically according to their desires, the nation would see an out-migration from big cities and, to some degree, from small cities and towns, and a substantial movement into rural regions.”
In terms of building sustainable and resilient communities, moving away from the city is best accomplished as an intentional, full-time choice. I’m not authorizing a flight of city dwellers to their second homes, or renting an AirBnB in the woods to wait out the worst of it, or even just moving house at this time. It is important to hunker down, within your communities and networks of support at this time.
Moving one’s life and family all the way across this continuum, from urban to something recognizable in the American psyche as “country,” isn’t for everyone. There are some who have made the move, and found it wasn’t for them. Others left the city and and settled in small and mid-size towns, or in or near their hometowns, and never looked back.
There are many different places to look for the right mix of urban amenities and rural pleasures, it need not be all or nothing.
For myself, the transition from an urban, capitalistic, man-made environment (many aspects of which I honestly benefitted from and enjoyed) to a more arcadian, physically isolated, and self-reliant landscape was both a deconstruction of my bourgeois identity and an opportunity for remaking my life via more plainly meaningful, intentional choices.
Social distancing has recreated many of the same conditions that I encountered when I moved to the country, with the accompanying shift in mindset.
In some ways, we are participating in a massive country living practice drill — with several notable exceptions; under normal circumstances my life in the country includes sending my children to school, socializing with friends and neighbors, shopping at local businesses and going to restaurants.
The abrupt end to these daily human interactions has been difficult, but I also see an opportunity for many more of us to have a taste of the simpler, less dense, and more deeply rooted way of life which I have come to appreciate in a rural place.
If you find yourself at ease with aspects of social distancing, it could be time to plan your move to the country. How will you know? There are a series of attributes of this time that already resonate with and reflect my life in the country.
You like working remotely.
The easiest way to fast track your move to the country is to bring your own job with you.
The old way to do this was to try to convince your current employer to let you work remotely, or find a new remote-friendly job. While the technology for remote work has existed for years (and you likely already communicate with most of your coworkers over chat and email anyway) employers have been slow to fully embrace these tools. The result has been an ever higher concentration of economic growth in select cities and workers tethered to those metro areas.
When our family moved out of the city, we brought our jobs with us, working remotely 85% of the time and traveling 2 hours to the city a few times a month to work with colleagues and clients in person. For our household, the effect has been transformational, instead of the rhythm of life centering around the workplace, it centers around home. When I joined a co-working space in the next town over, my days also centered around my local community and region. We participate not only in a corporate economy, but in a more fully expressed home economy.
With social distancing in place, most employers are now relying on remote working tools, and employees are centering their lives around home. This could very well be the turning point toward a new way of working in post-pandemic America that is more dispersed, offers diverse viewpoints rooted in place, and distributes the economic gains across the continuum of urban and rural landscapes.
Of note: Though many rural areas do not currently have access to high speed internet, those that do often have independent town-owned systems with plenty of bandwidth and no data caps. If you are ready to realize full-time rural living by working remote, be absolutely certain that your new home is connected to reliable broadband infrastructure.
We learned this the hard way when we first moved to the country and the only internet service provider in town disconnected our internet. With no wifi and no cell phone service, we had to wait a full year for the rural broadband network to finish construction in order to connect our home.
You are an art maker now.
Much about art and culture in the city is about being in relationship to it as a consumer. The artists and administrators in urban areas make their living from creating and promoting culture. If this is accessible to you financially, it is an undeniable perk of urban areas to be able to support and consume this endless inspiration.
However, the unrelenting pressure of affording the city can stifle the creative impulse of the greater citizenry. In the time of social distance these institutions are closed and the pace of urban life has slowed. Now, instead of consuming, you are creating art and culture.
Institutional closures and event cancellations due to social distancing guidelines coupled with more free time have brought art making into your home and onto the internet, perhaps even in your yard, front doors, and neighborhood streets. Watercoloring with your children, creating novel video works for social media, performing music live online, or designing your own handmade face mask — artists and hobbyists alike are producing art, music and performance and sharing these with their communities online via social media.
This model of collective creation is what I have found in the country. Where there is an absence of approval by public or private institutions, there is no lack of culture or art. This is cumulatively true in the time of social distancing, but over time it has been consistently true in many rural places.
You notice the quiet streets.
I live two miles down a dirt road. When I first moved here, the silence was thick. The absence of urban sounds created an audible void in my auditory. No car brakes, city buses, or 6:40AM flight paths over my apartment. I could hear the silence in the way my eardrum braced for sensation.
At first this whirring of silence was all I could “hear,” but over time my listening softened and tuned to the subtle non-silence that existed beyond human-made machines. The creak of tree branches, icy and bare. The return of the robins. The thunderous crash of a single acorn on the metal roof of the woodshed. One early morning, the low and distant bellow of a moose.
Since the start of social distancing, the traffic here in the country is about the same as before, though the traffic in usually bustling places has begun to match it with curfews and stay-at-home orders making for quieter moments. If you reflect on it, your sense of sound may also have adjusted, hearing more subtle vibrations like the rustling of the jacket of someone passing by on the sidewalk or the diversity of morning songbirds.
The sensory effect on your previously overburdened nervous system is slowly unwinding. If you sense and appreciate this shift, its time to make some long-term changes.
Nature is your refuge.
In the sparsely populated hills where I live, it’s easy to forget there is a pandemic. In this place, humans are not the center of the story. The square mile where I spend most of my time now is dense with trees, and hidden within is wildlife of all kinds — songbirds, spring peepers, foxes, deer, porcupines, the black bear.
Living here does not mean that I am somehow immune to the attention economy or that I don’t also get caught up in the endlessly discouraging news cycle, but when I step outside I am immediately surrounded by species that are refreshingly indifferent to all of it.
There are no streetlights here and clear nights reveal billowy clouds of ever distant stars far and beyond the brightest and most familiar constellations. The seasons change not just at four dates on the calendar, but as a slow, daily shift that is always making slight adjustments.
When you live immersed in these elements full time, it begins to affect you deeply, connecting you to the cycles of life and death of which humans are not separate from, but very much a part of.
As other activities in the city have been shut down, you may also find yourself spending more time outside; in your public parks, next to bodies of water, in woodland reservations, as well as on your sidewalks and in your backyards.
This time spent outdoors may be the only interaction you have with the world outside your own home, and because of this, simply being present in nature has likely taken on more of an outsized role in your awareness and your body’s place in the world.
Even the stars are becoming visible in cities as traffic pollution subsides and city skies have cleared. Pay attention to how this affects you in the rhythms of your body and the pace of your mind. Allow it to disrupt who you think you are.
The natural world isn’t just for recreation and respite, it is essential. If this is enough for you, you’ll find yourself right at home out here in the country. That said, you can strive to maintain this connection no matter where you are based, now or in the future.
I don’t mean to make light of an outbreak of infectious disease by romanticizing social distancing as a sort of bucolic ideal when for so many this time is full of hardship and food insecurity.
The capitalist systems we have been living with have revealed themselves to be breathtakingly flimsy and inadequate. This event has brought millions more humans into uncertainty. While no geography is immune to anxiety and suffering in times of pandemic, these challenges are multiplied by population density.
This outbreak and its fallout will touch all of our lives, in big and small ways. If in this moment of suspension — of mobility, of production, of consuming — you find your urban identity receding, it is worth asking yourself the really good questions. How do I want to live? What are my values? What’s stopping me?
Clean air, quiet roads, proximity to nature and home — up until recently these qualities were mostly associated with country life. Suddenly they are a noteworthy (though likely ephemeral) feature of urban areas as a result of social distance guidelines.
If you’ve been on the fence about staying or going, use this moment to tune into the aspects of your life already in sync with rural living patterns. Can you find a way to advocate for and sustain these qualities right where you are already?
Or has this crisis revealed to you the truth you’ve known all along, it’s time to go? If it has, you’re already well on your way to making the transition.