City vs. Country Virtues


Sid Marty argues for rural life

You can expect rural denizens to ramble on about the usual touchstones of bucolic bliss: the fresh air and open spaces. But another prized commodity, found in rural life as nowhere else, is darkness.

True darkness, combined with quiet, is praised by insomniac urban visitors to our ranchette near the Crowsnest Pass. They marvel about how well they sleep here, and they rise eager to help put up firewood (in my dreams). It’s not that the nights are devoid of sound; they’re often punctuated by the wail of coyotes, the dulcet calls of a great horned owl or the lustful moaning of a neighbour’s bull. The effect, on a dark winter’s night while cuddled under a warm duvet, is a kind of hillbilly lullaby. There are exceptions; those nights when the chinook wind comes calling, “whoopin’” at about 100k and “whuppin’” at about 130. It doesn’t keep us awake for long, but it makes some guests in the bunkhouse a bit nervous, even after I show them the steel cables I installed to keep it from blowing over.

“I have been one acquainted with the night”—but not as a metaphor for depres-sion as in the Robert Frost poem; more as a friendly blanket that the stars peer through. And when the moon comes out, no streetlights diminish its splendour.

You might protest that urban nights feature youth gangs and noisy drunks roaming the streets, hence the need for streetlights. True, but we do have nocturnal hazards here, such as wandering porcupines and skunks laying in wait to mug you, and a few weeks ago a grizzly bear crossed the hill behind my writing shack and wandered over our property. I missed making his acquaintance by about two minutes. All of Alberta’s charismatic murderfauna are well represented here. The difference is that these animals are part of our neighbourhood, and as such, we get to know their comings and goings and make allowance for them. And when you are truly at home in the dark, you can sense the presence of these wild neighbours (especially skunks)—though not as acutely as they sense yours (except for skunks). This is a good thing, since I usually can’t find a flashlight when I need one.

Living in the country has other benefits, of course; it will develop handyman abilities in some unhandy persons that seem remarkable, until you realize that the nearest tradesman is 50 to 150 kilometres away. We have to provide our own water and septic system and haul our own garbage; many here develop basic skills in plumbing, wiring and carpentry, which make for a self-sufficient person. The kind of person, for example, who dares repair a broken power supply on an old Macintosh computer, using only a Leatherman tool and a piece of pine kindling. There we go—a wood-fired computer. (The geeks at the genius desk did not smile.)

Many here develop basic skills in plumbing, wiring and carpentry, making for a self-sufficient person.

There can be a steep learning curve in this (unless you are prematurely electrocuted). For example, before you go down in that crawl space and straddle that loose hot water pipe to get under the bathroom, make sure to warn your wife not to turn on the hot water. I wear that scar with pride: I am a HANDYMAN.

But there is something oddly satisfying, in these days of conspicuous consumption and pollution, in treating and disposing of your own crap, rather than just flushing it to the sewage lagoon and into the river. But—memo to self—if you have to build a new wooden baffle for that old concrete septic tank, don’t let the honey wagon guy leave even a puddle behind. Because if you build that baffle even a quarter of an inch too wide, you won’t be able to drive it into position with that sledgehammer—not without cracking the tank. Instead you’ll have to (whilst standing on a stepladder inside the tank) cut it in half lengthwise with a chainsaw to get it back out, and when it falls into that puddle, it is going to make an awful, slimy splash.

Thank god for safety goggles—and earplugs. Hell of an echo down there.

Eating locally is an obsession with many urbanites these days, but we have been eating locally for years out of a large vegetable garden in the backyard. Fruit comes from native saskatoon and raspberry bushes. Meat comes from the local hordes of mule deer or herds of elk, one member of which I usually knock over within a kilometre or two of our back door. And (here comes the virtue signalling), like our rancher neighbours, we are offsetting our carbon footprint by nurturing a small forest of willows and aspens and by growing hay every year, which sequesters yet more carbon in the ground.

Living 55 kilometres from a grocery store, we have a more sanguine view of wildlife than many city dwellers. A covey of ruffed grouse has taken over the woods and our yard, and we love to watch their antics. Recently a hawk went after one of them; the grouse hit a window and broke its neck. My son Nathan, who is a chef, was visiting. He picked it up, and after fully admiring its beautiful plumage and saying a tearful farewell, he field-dressed the fat little devil. Then he and his wife, Simona, turned it into breast of grouse schnitzel. It was delicious, but the wine we drank with it, I confess, came from a liquor store in Calgary.

Chris Turner argues for urban life

If you can read this, thank a city. The credit ultimately goes to the whole modern idea of urbanity in all its forms. And if you deem it virtuous to have this kind of rational public discourse in the first place—to assemble facts, weigh evidence, build arguments, write essays, publish them in magazines—then my side in this debate is pretty much already won. Because we wouldn’t even be having such a debate if not for cities.

This is the first mighty pillar supporting the argument that city life is more virtuous than rural life: Cities are the wellspring of our most cherished collective public virtues. Liberty, for example, is a paramount public virtue, and it is a product of the nation-state and democratic institutions, which in turn are products of the Enlightenment. And the Enlightenment, like most good ideas since, was a product almost entirely of city life.

Consider the coffee house, which first emerged as a civic institution in the great cities of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. The coffee house represents one of the most direct and unbroken civic links between, say, London in 1650 and a Canadian city in 2017—London’s legendary Lloyd’s coffee house, where the concept of insurance was born, is virtually indistinguishable, in terms of social and political utility, from your favourite local café full of gossiping friends and freelancers tapping at their laptops in Calgary or Edmonton today. And those coffee houses were the social crucibles from which the Age of Enlightenment exploded—as The Economist put it recently, they were “the internet of the Enlightenment era.” From rational discourse to the scientific method and from Ben Franklin to Isaac Newton, the architects of modern democracy, literature, politics and science traded ideas in the open, lively civic forum of the coffee house. (London’s coffee houses were even known to literally host scientific experiments at the time.) These spaces created a level of social fluidity and informal social intercourse that would be impossible in a rural setting; it’s no exaggeration to say that democratic society as we know and love it today would never have happened in the absence of city life.

The physical density of bustling polyglot city life significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

This points to another of the pillars of the city’s virtue: diversity. Rural life is, by nature—indeed because of nature—homogeneous and static. The core focus of rural life—agriculture—is a relentless battle to minimize the uncertainties and variances of the natural world and bring uniformity to wild nature. The social and political culture of rural places is suspicious of change and often hostile to difference. City life, on the other hand, is a daily dance with new and unfamiliar partners. The diverse backgrounds, insights and opinions of city dwellers ushered in not only the Enlightenment but all the core virtues of democracy, including all the ones enumerated in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is as near as we have in this country to a universal creed stating our core values and virtues. Canadian cities in the 21st century represent perhaps the world’s greatest experiment in human diversity, a joyous riot of cultures and beliefs, a daily delight of varying and mutating languages, ideas, traditions and cuisines. This unparalleled nurturing of heretofore dissimilar peoples might well be Canada’s greatest achievement as a nation—and it is a wholly urban achievement.

Small wonder, then, that the vast majority of Canadians—more than 80 per cent—choose to live in urban communities. And we should be thankful they do, because urban living gives rise to perhaps the most important public virtue in the age of climate change: a smaller carbon footprint. Beyond its other merits, in other words, city living is greener than rural living—and often healthier too. It might not be as dramatic as a wind turbine standing in a farmer’s field or as enticing as a freshly picked organic carrot, but the physical density of bustling polyglot city life is a significant tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. On average, city dwellers live on smaller plots of land, reside in smaller dwellings that require less heat and power, and have multiple options other than a pickup truck for transport. And the bigger and denser the better. From the point of view of the planet’s climate, for example, New York is one of the greenest cities in the world—its per capita carbon footprint is just one-third of the US average. Toronto’s footprint is less than half the Canadian average. Because of the coal burned to feed the provincial electricity grid (which the NDP government, elected mostly by city dwellers, is thankfully phasing out), Alberta’s cities don’t perform quite as well—but they still beat country living. Climate change is the great challenge of our time, and there is no more effective tool for surmounting it than taking up residence in a dense urban neighbourhood.

In part because of urban density, city living is generally healthier than rural (or suburban) life. Residents of dense urban neighbourhoods walk more and see more of their neighbours each day, with studies showing this leads to lower obesity rates and greater overall happiness. Not only is city living the more virtuous way of life, then, it’s the more joyous one as well.

There’s barely any debating it—the greatest virtue resides with city dwellers.

Marty responds to Turner:

If you can read this, thank a schoolteacher—then, thank a farmer. Without agriculturalists, urbanites would be succumbing to acute latte withdrawal or just starving to death. Therefore, since rural life sustains everyone, it is more virtuous and thus I refute Chris Turner’s entire argument a priori. (I won’t even mention where drinking water comes from.)

Mr. Turner credits the coffee house for giving rise to the Enlightenment, but the Enlightenment is so three-centuries-ago. Who needs democracy when urban social-media lynch mobs are primed to strangle any dissenting opinion that raises its knitted brows? I actually like coffee houses, mainly because I love coffee. In fact my wife, Myrna, opened the first coffee house here (Pincher Creek) in 1993. Now we have three coffee houses where ranchers can gather to discuss postmodern literary theory, and two serious art galleries offering diverse outlooks on today’s world. Mr. Turner’s view of rural life is outdated. Change has come on the heels of urban refugees fleeing the “virtues” of city living, such as smog and traffic jams caused by people who refuse to use that “green” mass transit, and those home invasions so popular with urban youth. Independent thinking is a virtue, I submit, but not in today’s urban humanities department. Rural dwellers are independent thinkers, slow to change their minds because that’s what city slickers want them to do. The country is the last refuge for independent thinkers; hence, more virtuous.

Thank a city? Sure; thanks for the Black Death and other plagues. Thanks for those metastasizing starter-castles, gobbling up the world’s scarce arable land. Speaking of carbon footprints, isn’t Calgary the headquarters for our entire oil industry? It’s a mixed blessing: One urban dweller’s dream can be a rural dweller’s nightmare.

But I am grateful nonetheless to cities, especially Calgary, for the medical specialists and major hospitals, for the Jack Singer concert hall where Leonard Cohen performed; for the blues jam at Mikey’s. Besides, without cities, platoons of paranoid urbanites would be moving in on top of us, nailing up No Hunting signs before they had even unloaded their espresso machines. Instead of six mule deer bedding down in our yard we would have an entire herd. (There’s a reason why Ed Abbey called them “rats with antlers”). Here’s an expression, by the way, you won’t hear at the Ship and Anchor: “Careful, don’t step in that bear shit.” Most fans of bears live in cities; to them bears are virtuous, and so, by extension, is their dung. Just another of those soil nourishing virtues we are busily spreading, far from the madding crowd.

Turner responds to Marty:

First, allow me to readily acknowledge that I have no quarrel with any of the virtues Sid Marty places on the pro side of rural living. “True darkness,” “dulcet calls,” a “hillbilly lullaby,” abundant wildlife, do-it-yourself home improvement and an expansive vegetable garden—these are all lovely things indeed. (I should probably reserve the right, however, to judge each hillbilly lullaby on its merits. There are surely some unwelcome versions of the genre out there in the rural vastness.)

Where I will find cause to quibble, though, is with the nature of these virtues. Many of them, to begin with, are largely or entirely aesthetic qualities, and they are thus open to competing interpretations. True darkness, for example, has long been seen to possess at least as many drawbacks as benefits—it’s been seen as a dangerous force, a hindrance to progress. (In rural India even today, for example, the arrival of enough solar power to light a few bulbs has been a boost to literacy rates.)

And the noise and light of the city are qualities some of us equate with energy and vitality. I might sleep better under the starry rural sky, but I find myself resenting the need to sleep at all when I am in a city such as New York or Berlin or Hong Kong that thrums with life non-stop. If I had to dwell forever in only one or the other? Come find me in Carroll Gardens or Prenzlauer Berg or the Kowloon Night Market.

You might disagree. You can do so on aesthetic differences like this without negating the virtue of the competing option.

My strongest disagreement, though, is with the notion of rural life as more ecologically virtuous. I saw that gloating nod to your carbon footprint, Sid, and I have no doubt the forests and hay fields do the job—for you. But even this sparsely populated nation of 35 million hasn’t enough space in it for sufficient volumes of hay fields and pretty aspen forests to atone for all our climate sins, let alone those of the other seven and a half billion souls we share the imperilled planet with. No, if we’re going to erase all those footprints, we’ll need the densities and efficiencies of urban living for the overwhelming majority of us. Which renders your approach to ecological atonement not so much a virtue as a privilege—an exclusive approach to tackling climate change, not an inclusive one.

Sorry, Sid: Cities are just plain better at inclusion. All that and a better wine selection too.

Sid Marty is a Pincher Creek-area non-fiction writer, poet and songwriter. Chris Turner is a Calgary-based writer and former Green Party candidate.


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