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Seeking a Better Country
It was certainly as beautiful a spot for a home as one could find in this world. A rolling country, where the hills were sometimes crowned with maple forests in autumnal splendor of colors, sometimes cultivated to and over their ridges, yellow cornfields glowing with vast heaps of orange colored pumpkins, pasture lands in which good cattle were feeding leisurely, brush lots crimson with sumach, except where rich blue asters made spots of the earth to look like spots of the sky.
But its beauty had not caused it to be thickly inhabited, had not even kept the population here which had once found homes in the valley; for as my horses walked slowly up the hill road we approached a house which, at a little distance off, looked picturesque and pretty, but as we came nearer was found to have only the beauty of ruin. It was a deserted farm-house.
There is sometimes beauty in ruin. Nature occasionally takes hold of the works of men's hands and shapes and decorates them to be very beautiful.
This old house had been a low story-and-a-half tenement, painted red. The red had faded and been washed into a score of tints, which only old tapestries and embroideries can match. Wild-cherry bushes, growing close around it, were trying to match them, and in trying made with their leaves very delicate and very surprising variations and contrasts. There was a spot of brilliant color which caught my eye long before I reached the house, and when I came up to it I discovered that a young maple had sprung up in the shattered door-step, and filled the doorway with its foliage, mostly of a like color with the house, only there was a bunch of leaves at the top, all as golden as gold.
Deserted farm-houses in New England are all alike in the most prominent features, generally resembling each other in many minute details. For the life in them was very much the same, and the life in the house gives specific character to the surroundings. The worn spot on the little piazza of the kitchen end, or L, is again and again visible, the spot where the farmer sat down daily for a little while when he took the very short rest which the farmer can afford to give himself in daylight. The marks on the inside of the window-seat are almost always there, made by the broken mugs and teapots and the cans and boxes in which his wife kept her flowers growing when frost drove them in-doors for the winter. Her garden is always there, and I know a place where I go and gather roses sometimes from bushes in a dense tangle, which were the garden roses of a farm-house that utterly vanished more than fifty years ago.
I drove on, still slowly uphill, and after a little saw the customary burial-ground, enclosed by a stone-wall, only a few rods from the road-side. Going to it I found four upright stones, and on one of them read a name, and an inscription which was somewhat startling: "But now they desire a better country."
Why do so many people make the mistake of expecting to find that better country by going off on railways? There is nowhere on earth a better country than this Northern New England country. When we get a reasonable amount of commonsense into legislatures and law-makers; when they get to realizing what a good country theirs is, and how good it can always be if they will preserve the glory of their forests from the axe and the purity of their streams from the saw-mill, it will be safe for any one to make a home in it for the time he must spend among the things that are uncertain.
Vermont and New Hampshire are becoming wide-awake to the extensive abandonment of farms and the gradual decrease of the best element in the population. The people are inquiring into the cause, with a view to finding a cure for the disease. It is a disease, and it is a disease which affects the community and the State by affecting individuals.
The inscription on that gravestone suggests the explanation of the disease. Those old people who are never going to travel off in search of a new home in the Far West were contented and happy enough in the red farm-house, looking for a better country beyond all seas, all possibilities of travel in the flesh. Later generations were not contented. Life was hard, and they thought to find a place where it would be easier. They went to a large town, to a city, to the West. It is beyond a doubt that they went to less happiness, to harder labor, with smaller reward. Not one in ten bettered his condition by the going. If you had known the personal history of as many country families who have moved away from the old places as I have known, you would understand why I am so ready to affirm that the great body of New England emigrants who have gone away from these farms have done worse than they would have done had they remained in the old homes.
Is it probable that the efforts now made to turn the tide of emigration and lead it into instead of out of New Hampshire and Vermont will succeed?
Why not? The land is fruitful and beautiful. The climate is wholesome and enjoyable. What is there to keep people away? Nothing, except that vague idea which is so universally deceptive that the better country, where one may grow rich with ease, may live well without much labor, lies far off at the end of a railway or a steamer journey.
There are some characteristics of American families in which they differ greatly from people of other countries. One of these is in their ideas of what form the necessaries of comfortable life. That which goes to the daily support of a humble family in America would support in luxury two or three or more families in the same social position in old countries. There are a hundred considerations which an American has in selecting a home which no European would stop to think of. I do not find fault with these, but they are to be regarded in seeking the causes of depopulation of portions of the country.
Contentment with a moderate enough is not an American characteristic. It ceases in a few years to characterize Europeans who come over here to settle. The "enough" includes too many things which are not necessities. Look at a practical illustration: There are great numbers of American families in cities who are in what are called reduced circumstances. Men, women, sometimes husbands and wives, have but small incomes. They have a hard time to get food and clothing in the position and with the surroundings to which they have been accustomed. They suffer; their lives are full of Struggling anxiety, pains, too often debts. They are unfitted for work, and work, if they were able to do it, is not easy to get. Thousands of these persons cling to life in the city, where rents are high, where food is costly, where the requirements of dress seem to demand much expense. Now at the same time you have the broad country, especially New Hampshire and Vermont, with these facts: The average expense of living of a family is not $500 a year; and this furnishes better and more abundant food, better and more clothing, better everything that men and women need, than can be found anywhere else in the world. You can hire a house for $100 a year in the country which is more roomy and comfortable than any house you can hire for $1000 anywhere within miles of Madison Square. You can get better board the year round in country places at $3, $4, and $5 a week than you can get in a city for $13, $14, or $15.
But if you suggest to the persons struggling on small incomes in city life that they go to the far-off country villages of New England to live and be happy, they shrink with apprehensions they cannot define from what seems miserable exile. I am not the one to make light of those desires, tastes, habits of life which form the comforts and shape the pleasures of all of us. No one can be happy for any one else. But if the people who cling to life in cities and expensive towns could be persuaded to consider with common-sense the question whether, after all, life in the country, with its abundant enjoyments and employments, and its small expense, is not the life they ought to adopt, it is probable that we should see a beginning of the repeopling of abandoned farms, and a new growth of a valuable population. A new generation might grow up to love home well enough to live and die in it.
It is not at all probable that the New England States will recall to their homes the same people, or call to them the same kind of people, who have left them. A new age has begun for all the eastern country. Wealth has increased in cities. The custom of having a country as well as a city home is largely on the increase. Before many years all parts of the country which are healthy and attractive will draw purchasers of lands for country homes. Where a few will seek such homes in fashionable localities for society pleasures, hundreds will seek them in more economical and quite as enjoyable places. More and more families will go into the country for the whole year. More and more men will retire from active business on small fortunes, instead of remaining in it to increase them, with the hundred to one chances of coming to grief and losing all. People of moderate means, and people of wealth, too, will learn how much nobler is a race of children brought up in the country than a race brought up in the city. And, to bring this to a close, the man who can count on an income of $800 a year while he has a family to support and care for, will be wise enough to go where he can buy a house and fifty or a hundred acres of land for $10 or $20 an acre, and live like a prince on his own estate from its produce, with an outside income of six or seven hundred. But even there he must work. The better country than the city is beyond doubt the free land of fields and forests. But work and weariness he must have forever on this soil of earth, nor will there be work without weariness anywhere until he shall reach the better country far away, which the inhabitants of the old red farm-house desired and I hope found.