2004: Verlyn Klinkenborg transforms everything he considers
in The Rural Life, generating a type of poetry of ordinary
life. He is an exceptionally good writer. The best writers do not
automatically write the best books though, and while Klinkenborg
has written a very good one, the brief essays that make up The
Rural Life suffer when read through as a collection. To be
fair, the pieces were not composed with the intention of being gathered
into one book. An author’s note explains they were written
over several years and published most frequently on the New
York Times editorial page. Accordingly, I most enjoyed this
book in small pieces.
The author’s gentle, soothing voice will be welcomed by people
looking to suspend their busy lifestyle. The appreciation and vigilance
of the book’s subject—essentially a discontinuous account
of a non-urban life—is matched by the rhythmic, careful prose.
His language never excludes or panders, and the quality of his thoughts
never seems to falter. Consider his remark about owning an old house.
He says, “You solve small problems as they come to your attention
in hopes that the big problems will solve themselves.” Such
assertions have universal appeal. It is the kind of folksy wisdom
you wish you lived by, and perhaps sometimes do. It is endearing
because of its irony.
Rural life—despite innovation—is steeped in ancient
patterns that are often excluded in daily urban life. Perhaps this
is why an amateurish gardener, expert in nothing except writing,
is able to allure readers with his life stories. His account is
often poignant, penetrating his own character.
Fresh, trendy revelations and anecdotes are not found in this book.
Instead, the writer reflects on themes that concern every person:
family, tradition, responsibility, work. Of course any lifestyle
engages with these things, but it is reassuring to see them from
a seemingly time-honored way of life, even if farmers are rarely
honored or even considered by the general population.
This is why it is worth questioning, if only briefly, the genuineness
of Klinkenborg’s representation of the rural American experience.
He is undoubtedly living in rural New York, tending to chores and
diligently working the land. Perhaps the experience becomes idyllic
and idealized in the act of writing. Even bee stings seem kind of
lovely. “Unless you’re allergic, it’s much more
satisfying to be stung by a bee than a mosquito. There’s none
of that cautious, reluctant, hovering parasitism….”
I’ve never felt anything quite like satisfaction after being
stung, and hours of garden work never truly helped me savor the
I cannot fault Klinkenborg, though, if the effect is to regard
rural life with something like nostalgia. Even if the toil and hardship
do not translate effectively, The Rural Life demonstrates
that history is a vivid marker when contemplating the present and
the future. In one of the book’s longest passages, Klinkenborg
examines his connection and history with his father. He says, “Now,
so many years later, I find myself in a new relationship to the
old story.” Intrigued by the turn of events, he declares that
he assiduously labors at the very jobs he hated as a kid—the
ones his father once forced him to do. In the same manner, enthusiasm
towards rural living, or at least some renewed connection to it,
may happen through time after so many generations of flights to
the city and retreat to the suburbs.
Time, not incidentally, is both a binding and liberating force
in the book. It marks and allows growth and decay, delivering promise
and then not a little wistfulness. Time also organizes the essays,
grouped by month in an erratic fashion – both time and place
have little continuity in the book. The author may be in his New
York home in one passage and Idaho the next. The reader never acquires
a familiarity with the experience of one place as a result. Still,
Klinkenborg is able to record an acknowledgment of a certain lifestyle.
He says, “In a way, that local sense of place can’t
be mapped. It depends too much on experience.” The experience
of the rural – whether fact or fiction in our own minds –
brings many of our other experiences into relief, and perhaps reminds
us of honor or duty, or at least something that seems familiar,
even it’s no longer well-known.
Adam Grybowski is a former farmworker and a lover of good books.