In October 1999, Bob and I plunked down our combined savings on our house, which was memorably described in the real estate listings as “a surprise for all seasons.” They weren’t kidding. In our time here, we’ve confronted a failed septic system, rotten roof decking, a mildew-infested bathroom, decayed sills, disintegrating walls. Technically, the original house still stands today, but we’ve had to replace every single wall, the heating system, the roof, the floor and the septic. In fairness, the well has always been great. That part of the house is original.
We didn’t buy the house for the quality construction. We bought it for the location. Situated on the top of a mountain, it is an easy bike ride to our family farm, and it is surrounded on three sides by a 2,500 acre state forest. The road we live on slices through the forest, however, and on the other side lies “the development.”
“The development,” probably by most conventional standards, is not much of a development at all. A section of forest that was carved up into about fifteen secluded second-home properties about 20 years ago, it has little in common with suburban developments seen on the urban fringe today. Nevertheless, locals hated it when it went in. Being locals ourselves (me by birthright, and Bob by marriage), we hated it, too.
But with all this state forest surrounding our home, it was easy to be blissfully unaware of the fifteen houses less than a mile away. We defined our community by the neighbors surrounding our family farm, and by our local lifelong friends and acquaintances. Perhaps I can blame the forest for hiding the fact that, in all my waxing on about the importance of community and relationships, I was completely overlooking the potential friendships on my own road. Occasionally, I would reflect on the bizarre irony that I often wrote about the importance of one’s neighbors, and while I knew lots of folks in my own community, I didn’t seem to know much about those “not from here” people right up the road. I suppose I unconsciously justified my un-neighborliness by adopting a holier-than-thou attitude—concluding the ecological sin of living in a “development,” and the local transgression of not being “from here” (never mind that we were also technically the newcomers to that road) pardoned me from making any connections.
Perpetuating my fantasy that my family is alone on the mountaintop, with no non-native residents to be seen, I’ve generally taken my daily walks by leaving my house, walking a short distance up the road, then turning right and veering off into the state forest before I came to any other houses. For most of the year, that works just fine.
But everything changes in November, when hunting season begins. The forest behind my house is known as prime hunting land, and traversing these woods—even while sporting blaze orange fashions and adorning Spriggan (my dog) with a fluorescent collar—is still dangerous. Come Novemember, I can no longer pretend that “the development” doesn’t exist. If I’m going to go for a walk, it's the safest place to tread.
For years, I took that loathsome trek up to the other end of the road with my head down, continuing to pretend that these neighbors somehow didn’t exist. They’d drive by headed out on various errands, and I’d wait on the side of the road, holding Spriggan’s collar, nodding politely, but avoiding eye contact.
Spriggan never did. She’d look those drivers straight in the eye, and I swear, she’d will them to slow down and admire her, if not stop and offer her some attention. Sometimes it worked. Folks would occasionally roll down their windows to compliment her (always a sure way into my heart). Over the years they’d occasionally witness my belly growing large, then they’d see me out walking with my new babies (causing more stops on the road), who grew into small children who always make eye contact and wave when folks drive by. Eventually, my make-believe world was shattered. My neighbors in the development lost their anonymity and gained faces and names.
Caught in the consumer trap? Radical Homemaker Shannon Hayes discovered that producing what she needs at home lets her live on a fraction of what she thought she needed.
Now, as November brings the echo of rifles, I look forward to my treks up into the development. Martin, just a few houses up, greets me each morning as I go by. We are in a competition to see who can wear the loudest blaze-orange clothing. Carolyn keeps up with my blog. Russ has his pick-up truck parked out front for sale (and I can personally assure you that he has been taking very good care of it). Rob and Barbara have been fixing up their house so that they can move up here full-time, and it looks really beautiful.
Since I write so enthusiastically about the importance of community and good relationships, I am often asked by my readers how these connections are built—how does one get to know her neighbors? That’s a manual I’ve not yet dared to write. What’s the secret? Get a dog? Walk the same route every day? Give birth to children and let them wave at passing cars?
I suppose part of the answer lies in all of that, because all these things are a virtue of time and commitment to a place. Despite the rotten walls and the caved-in septic, Bob and I were here to stay. And whether I liked it or not, so were the neighbors. Couple that commitment with a few years to let my local-supremacist attitude mellow out, and I’ve discovered something really marvelous about my home: It truly is a surprise for all seasons, where good neighbors were just waiting to be discovered.
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