“The hell with it,” said the seventeenth-century specialist. “I spent nine years working on a PhD and fifteen years making full professor and here I am shoveling rocks out of a ditch. I’m moving back to town.”
“You don’t mean it,” I said, visitant free labor, leaning on the pick that had loosened the rocks of which he spoke.
He shook his head and grinned. “I guess maybe not. But one of these times I will.”
No figures exist nor is there much demand for them, but I suspect that electrical malfunctions, leaky roofs, busted pipes, jammed sewers, rampaging storm waters, and the like have more bearing on the number of back-to-the-landers who eventually return to the cities than do other strong factors like wifely lonesomeness and the generally dismal economics, these days, of a functional existence on the land. Not that city dwellers and suburbanites don’t have to face similar troubles in their brick-veneer “machines for living.” But they don’t have to face them quite so squarely and so miserably alone unless they choose to, nor is the possible range of problems half as extensive in town as out among the hoot owls and coyotes.
Consider if you will the question of human waste, to designate it by one of the numerous euphemisms which have been tailored for it and which attest to its grubby importance. Except for the anal-stage babies and certain happy coprophiles and a billion or so Third World vegetable gardeners, not many people have much affection for the stuff, but it is one of the more central facts of life.
A scant century ago if that much (let’s not stray into tales of mythical Thomas Crapper and his invention and all that), Western man devised a means of whisking this substance out of sight and mind so fast that for most of us these days it is possible to pretend that it doesn’t exist, except as an epithet. Whether this evasion is good for us philosophically is an unresolved question. Whether it’s good for our world is all too clearly resolved on the nay side, as a boat trip down any stream that has to absorb even standardly “treated” mass wastes will show. But that’s a social problem, not a personal one, unless you happen to live too close to the bank of such a stream. The average urban or suburban householder can keep his mind on higher things like bass lures and Archie Bunker, except on rare occasions when T. Crapper’s invention backfires or tree roots clog the short house sewer that connects him to the public main. And on those occasions he can call a nearby plumber, whose charges are theoretically kept within reason by competition from competition from hordes of nearby plumbers, and with spouse, offspring, and intact dignity can quit the house till the trouble has been fixed and the air has cleared.
Not so in the boondocks. Here flows no public sewer main, but instead an intricate disposal system, consisting of usually of a septic tank or two whose population of friendly bacteria digests solids (a second euphemism, though it includes other matter that gets flushed too), and a “field” of tile or perforated plastic pipes to disperse into the soil the clear effluent that results. Indigestible sludge results also, building up slowly in the bottom of the tank. This system isn’t a social problem but normally belongs to the sturdy homesteader alone. It costs large heaps of money to install, and if he neglects it, letting sludge accumulate to the point that it spills over and clogs his disposal field, it costs heaps more to replace. Hence a returner to the land, after one or two sour experiences, is likely to spend a portion of his time digging down to inspection boxes to lift their lids and make certain his effluent is unclouded, or searching for damp fragrant spots in grass that hasn’t been rained on in weeks.
And after a couple of other sour experiences with the payment demanded and received by one of the scarce and uncompetitive plumbers willing to drive out from a town and view his trouble and maybe cope with it, he is likely to spend a good bit more time manipulating a pick and shovel and certain more specialized tools such as snakes and sewer rods. Spouse and offspring may leave the premises with dignity at such times, but not he. Few of us neo-rustics (or paleo-rustics either) have the fortitude to tackle a sludge-packed septic tank on our own; we call in a specialist with a tank truck and a suction pump, who gets revenge for the general unpleasantness and lack of social cachet attaching to his job by charging hell out of us. But most of the rest of it we learn how to do, because we have to.
So too do we learn about water systems that begin at the bottom of a 200-foot well and progress through pumps and pressure tanks to an underground network of leak-prone pipes running to far-flung cattle troughs and kitchen sinks and what all, with swarms of differently sized and functioning valves and outlets along the way. And about high lines, ground rods, breaker boxes, and shorted motors. And diversion ditches, and chimney flashings, and one-lung gasoline engines, and termites, and even such mechanisms as water heaters and automatic washers, though with some of these latter you do have the sweaty alternative of detaching the offending object from its moorings, wrestling it aboard your pickup, and hauling it to some shop in town that will not charge you more for repairs than it charges suburbanites. In the course of this education you acquire boxes and shelves and walls full of tools, a good many of which you have never heard of before you headed countryward and some few of which you will use exactly one time in your life—because for instance on one sole occasion you had urgent need for a 1 ¼-inch crow’s-foot