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Who Are the Woods For?

Recently, my wife went to visit some friends in New Hampshire who had just finished building their own house, from scratch, on the hundred acres of woodland they share with some other family. The house sounds marvelous, in a rustic, connected-with-nature kind of way: Large, but energy efficient. A central fireplace that also opens into the kitchen to be used as an oven. Wide-plank boards cut exactly how they wanted them, from trees on their land, which is big enough that they could harvest all the trees they needed for the house, and some to pay the lumberjacks, without damaging the forest.

She was clearly envious of the house, and as I listened, I was too. A house built just right, a yard not contaminated with goodness knows what, a whole forest of resources outside my back door, communion with nature every day. It is, of course, one of the American dreams, the Thoreauvian ideal.

I have my frequent bouts of this whenever I head for hills for a while. See, hereís a little secret: The world is not really cleanly divided into city people and country people. Itís true that I am a big, vocal fan of urban livingóthe walkability, the diversity, the regular interactions with other people, etc. But Iím no diehard City Girl either. I prefer quiet. I donít really care about keeping up with the cutting edge. I love the great outdoorsógardening, camping, birdwatching. I prefer to swim in lakes over pools.

All of this comes up from time to time when I hear about someone whose kid has three tree forts or someone who had room on their land to build the root cellar Iím trying to figure out how to concoct in my basement. But then, as I catch myself, I start to feel a little queasy, like I do when I realize Iíve been envying someone for having more money, when they got it by means of choices I would feel wrong making.

On balance, I think Iím happier living in the city. But a large part of that is that if I were to settle out in the woods, even homesteading in as self-reliant a way as I could, I would always feel like Iíd taken something that I didnít deserve.

I just looked up the numbers and they confirm my gut feeling: Itís neither practical nor sustainable for everyone to go back to the land. The United States has 2.3 billion acres of land. Divided by our 305.2 million people (which is only growing for the foreseeable future), that comes out to 7.5 acres per person. (For comparison, Albanyís Washington Park is 99 acres.)

Of course that 2.3 billion includes 257 million acres set aside for roads, airports, parks, wildlife areas, national defense, and industry and 60 million acres already urbanized, bringing us down to 6.5 acres per person. And that still includes plenty of areas not readily available for what would effectively be high-density homesteading: deserts, swamps, the frozen tundra of Alaska, the highest mountaintops of the Rockies, and the barren lava flows of Hawaii. It also includes landóurban and ruralóalready devoted to schools, churches, government buildings, sports fields, stores, offices, and dozens of other non-residential uses.

Most of the rest of what might be available is currently cropland and grazing land, meaning if we actually divvied it all evenly so everyone could live closer to nature, we would all basically have to be entirely self-sufficient on what would end up being pretty tiny allotments. Not exactly the vision of bucolic bliss that most people who want to ďget out of the cityĒ are imagining. More like our familiar friend suburbia.

Nor would it be an environmental improvement. Even in a modest version of this scenario, the losses to the very natural world we claim to love and want to be immersed in are incredible: added roads, fragmented or lost habitats, increased driving.

Perhaps in the long run the world should have fewer people overall, so that those who want to could spread out without taking over. Given all the creativity, productivity, and social benefits researchers keep finding about urban living, I think not. (Suicide rates in New York state are inversely proportional to the density of the county. Interesting, huh?)

But even if it really were the ideal, I canít make a particular claim that I should get to be one of the few who lives out in nature just because I like it, or just because itís more of a pain to live sustainably when you have to work together with your neighbors to do it. More selfishly, I want there to be large tracts of land left for me to go hiking in, even if I only can go once a year.

So I would rather leave rural living to those for whom it makes sense: farmers and ranchers, park rangers, foresters and wildlife researchers, and the people whose businesses serve them (think tractor mechanics or farm vets); the people who provide the infrastructure of rural life, like teachers, doctors, etc.; and those in the hospitality industry who give the rest of us the chance to visit, appreciate, and recharge our batteries, whether they run a B&B or a campground, a canoe rental service or a restaurant. We can probably even spare some space for the true hermits.

As for me, I can work anywhere with an Internet connection. So Iíll swallow my passing longings for a barn and a stream and put my energy into helping our urban areas transform themselves into the dense but green, relocalized, self-reliant, humane places I know they can be.

óMiriam Axel-Lute


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