COLUMN: The city mouse and the country mouse

Gene Lyons

Back when my wife and I moved to the country, many of our citified friends were alarmed. One well-meaning fellow even questioned if I'd be safe out in rural Perry County, Arkansas, given my political apostasy. (Trump won 75% of the 2020 vote there.)

Something similar happened after our forced return to Little Rock 10 years later. Diane's eyesight had gone bad, and as the county's resident cow-whisperer observed, "You can't keep no Little Rock girl on a gravel road if she can't drive." Indeed, you can't, but several of our rural friends and neighbors, particularly the Black ones, expressed fear of big-city crime. Would we be safe in town? If all you knew about Little Rock came from TV news, you'd wonder too. Violent crime in the boondocks is almost invariably family-related, so it doesn't scare anybody.

Out on the farm, our back door didn't even HAVE a lock. Mutual suspicion between city and country is literally one of the oldest stories in the world. The fable Mus Urbanus et Mus Rusticus (The City Mouse and the Country Mouse) was already 500 years old when Roman poet Horace borrowed it for his "Satires" in 35 B.C. Its originator, the Greek slave Aesop, is thought to have lived in the 6th century B.C.

In the original fable, marauding cats made the city mouse's more sophisticated life perilous, teaching his country cousin to appreciate the virtues of his humble home.

The terms are somewhat different in contemporary America. Maybe the dumbest thing Barack Obama ever said was that "bitter" small-town Americans "cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them ... as a way to explain their frustrations."

It's like a parody of what country people imagine condescending liberals think. The religion part is particularly offensive to people whose lives center around their churches. But you know what? I never heard anybody in Perry County mention it. Bringing up politics is considered rude. The only people who ever mentioned my political opinions were persons who agreed with them. Editorial columns in out-of-town newspapers don't circulate widely in rural Arkansas, which is just how I liked it.

As for religion, all we ever needed to say in response to proselytizing neighbors was, "We're Catholics." Our farm was just a few miles from St. Boniface Church in New Dixie, so that was normal.

After Pupska nipped Father Davis' ankle that time, we kept the incident to ourselves. She'd warned him not to come on the porch, but would he listen? The priest allowed as how it was all his fault. She was far from being his first farm dog.

Diane would invite our Little Rock friends out to visit, and mostly they went away saying they understood our new lives. The woods and pastures around our farm were beautiful in all seasons. Sitting on a porch swing watching hummingbirds visit our feeders, while barn swallows swooped all around and bald eagles visited the nest down on the bayou, helped them see. Not 50 miles from downtown Little Rock, it felt like a different world. Harder to explain was the satisfaction I derived from the grunt work of caring for horses and cows. I'd owned horses before, but cows were a whole new thing. There's a lot to learn. Without the aforementioned cow-whisperer and others who were generous with their time and knowledge, I couldn't have managed.

I fell in love with my big girls. Diane, who, like most Arkansas girls, knew how to make boys behave, hand-fed apple slices to Bernie, a 2,400-pound Simmental bull whose head was bigger than her whole body. Except when he was walking through barbed wire fences to push the neighbor's bull around and breed his cows, Bernie was the gentlest pet you could imagine.

I miss my cows terribly, and dream about them. I miss the calling of owls, the all-night tolling of chuck-will's-widows and the thunderous cacophony of springtime frogs. I miss the night sky. Here in town, it's as if the heavens have disappeared. But wherever Diane is, that's where I'll be. She complains about her failing eyesight about 10% as much as I would in her place. I also miss my rural neighbors: friends who brought you the bounty from their gardens, who showed up with T-posts and barbed wire to help fix your fence after a storm, who brought a backhoe to bury your horse after somebody at the feed store told him he'd died, or who charged you $40 each for 50 1,200-pound bales of hay at a time when drought-stricken Texans were willing to pay $100. And who, when I reminded him of that, said simply: "I reckon they would, but you're my neighbor." Here in the state capital, where Trump got less than 25% of my neighborhood's vote, it just wouldn't happen that way.

Gene Lyons is an author and a columnist with the Arkansas Times.

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