I saw a bobcat crossing the road, and slowed for a better look. It was dusk dark, and the bobcat was ambling along in semi-cover. Things like this aren’t rare here. A couple of weeks earlier, I saw a large wild hog cross the road maybe four miles from that point. That might seem far to Europeans and city folks, but here that’s practically hollering distance. Here, you have to go twenty miles or so just to get anywhere, and a trip to the nearest city takes hours, one way. For all the urbanization near the cities, there are more wild areas in America than people think.
That was on my mind as I traveled that old familiar highway. Even though we measured the distance to our neighbors in miles, we never saw it as unusual. When you looked out our front door, it was maybe five miles straight through the woods to the next house, and we never considered that remote. No, for that you’d have to go to out West, to places like Alaska. Us? We were just rural. A bear track in the back yard? A catamount screaming? Exercising caution around a pond because you’re pretty sure it had an alligator that had taken one of the calves? Just part of life for us.
That’s a life so far removed from an urban environment as to be nearly incomprehensible to many. It’s a completely different world, a life so radically different as to be alien to those who live in cities. It’s where you share the road not only with bobcats, but log trucks and farm equipment the size of small barns. It’s where you and your neighbors are often, out of necessity, the first responders. It’s a life idolized by some in the crush of urban existence, and denigrated by citified bigots. And, as ways of life tend to do, it shapes the way you see the world.
That, of course, is a matter of form following function, of a culture influenced by the realities of living in a particular environment. When I recently went out in the woods, I did a quick scan of my surroundings before I stepped from my vehicle, and exercised care where I walked. That wasn’t some artifact of a culture imported from Europe centuries before my birth; that was part of the reality of sharing your world with four-legged predators, poisonous snakes, and stinging insects. There’s a rhythm of living that varies wherever you go, all shaped by the environment far more than where your ancestors came from.
Such is hardly new. There was a difference in how those along the frontier and those in colonial sea ports lived, and as such they had different outlooks, all more influenced far more by environment than place of origin. And yet, it tends to be forgotten, with each assuming how they live their lives is the norm, and often, unless they’ve lived elsewhere, with a distorted view of how life goes in another part of the country.
It does us well to remember that what constitutes the norm depends on where you are, and how we live may not be how others go about their lives. Sometimes, as when we venture to similar areas, we might be pleasantly surprised to find commonalities in tastes and lifestyle. And sometimes it saves us from embarrassing faux pas, such as the urbanite surprised to find we wear shoes.
Yet there is perhaps a bit of truth to how others see us. If we really do have more of an independent streak, perhaps it’s because a certain amount of independence is needed to live beyond the big cities. If we’re more distrustful of government, perhaps it’s because we tend to be far from government services. If all this, and more, happens to be the case, it’s shaped by where and how we live, not from where we came.
Here is where wild things are. It wouldn’t be surprising if we are a bit untamed ourselves.