I prefer the country to the city. Why? It is often said that all of us now have urban lifestyles and mindsets wherever we live, and there is some truth in this. All of us, in this view, inhabit the city via the mass media, other forms of information sharing and communication links enabling travel. The image of the city is its centre, the hub of slick merchandising, business and public institutions. But even for the inhabitants of at least the larger cities, many of whom live in distinct areas within the city sprawl, this is a place to visit or to work in rather than a place to live. The same can be said of those who interact with the city on a regular basis while living in the suburbs or outlying villages and smaller urban centres.
But what of those further away who visit only rarely and who live and work entirely in the country or in a small country town? I grew up in a city but have spent most of my adult life living far away from any major urban centre. Usually, when I go on holiday, I choose more of the same: remote mountains or forests to walk in, wild landscapes to explore. I’ve just returned from a long weekend in
, a city with an increasingly vibrant urban pulse. Even so, I spent one of the days there in a leisurely circuit of Cardiff , including its expansive lake where I saw a greater array of wild birds – such as the Great Crested Grebe – than I could have hoped to see on a walk in the country. The lake’s swans, geese, ducks, gulls and other birds on its islands and among the exotic species of trees themselves inhabited a metropolis of sorts. The heron I saw in the air, winging away from the lake, was presumably going somewhere quieter. Roath Park
I can’t help comparing this to a recent experience on a solitary walk through the Eleri gorge near my home. A single duck flew in and alighted on the river. I watched him with a long, slow, intense focus as he swam, waddled and clambered over rocks and made his way upstream. What made this experience qualitatively different from witnessing the lavish display on the lake? Or, to ask a parallel question, what makes the daily life of a hill farmer qualitatively different from that of an urban worker, even one who works outdoors? The superficial difference is obvious and in some ways the question is too easy. There are many individuals living in rural areas who, for instance, take heavy lorries out onto the motorway system or interact regularly with the urban environment. And the rural environment itself is not all peace and tranquillity. Even in the hills where heavy industrial style farming does not take place, the buzz of chain saws is as likely to fill the air as birdsong.
But, in spite of a wish to avoid clichés or stereotypes, I still find that a crucial difference remains. I can’t deny that, along with almost everyone else in the developed world and beyond, I have an ‘urban sensibility’. Yet still it is a rural muse that moves me and places my focus on what is deep and important as far away from thronging crowds and tall buildings as possible.