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The Urban Man

Little House in the Big City 

by Marc Porter Zasada

IF YOU HAD GONE for a stroll across the Great Plains from the city of St. Louis to the wilds of the Dakota Territory in 1883, you would now and then have passed cabins built by homesteading families – sometimes clustered into small towns like islands in the ocean of golden grass, or sometimes anchored uncertain and alone, like tiny ships.

You would have found the landscape beautiful, but harsh: long winters, locusts, wolves, renegade soldiers, shortages of food. And surely, you would have expected to find the inhabitants of the cabins grim and ignorant, sullen and suspicious.

But if you had chosen the right cabin, the one you’ve read about in the "Little House" book series, up a rise above Silver Lake and some ways outside the miniature town of De Smet, you would have found the now-famous Ingalls family: Charles, Caroline and their daughters Mary, Laura, Carrie and Grace. And there you would have found a surprising level of civilization: Mary playing a foot-pumped organ. Laura studying to be a one-room schoolteacher. Charles playing his violin. They might have set you down at that rough table in the front room of their place and blue-eyed Laura, now 16, might have run to get you tea with homemade bread and butter.

And when she sat to chat with you, cheerful and unafraid, you might have been surprised to find her acutely aware of the world around her: Well-spoken and well-educated in spite of her isolation. You might have complimented her mother and looked with admiration on her strong and amiable father. Conversation may have turned to the literary evenings in town.

And who knows, you yourself, dressed up tight and uncomfortable in the many-layered fashion of 19th Century St. Louis, with your fine shoes and your tailor-made gloves, might have felt a moment of envy. In fact, sitting over tea in the rough-hewn cabin, you might have seen your own city life in a new light: Crowded with anxiety about career and social standing, stuffed with newspapers, grimy boulevards and empty entertainments. You might have thought about the 16-year-olds you knew back in St. Louis: Themselves already driven by fashion and amusement, competing over bonnets and boots. And you might have thought to yourself how you preferred the company of these self-possessed young homesteaders.

You might have wondered if the Ingalls had found some better way to live – or at least, some better way to raise children.

And yes, 120-odd years later, our envy of the Ingalls remains just as strong as we pull off a smoggy exit from a great American freeway and enter the vast parking lot of a gaudy shopping mall to buy a boxed set of Laura’s now-famous memoirs. We still wish we could be as self-sufficient as those pioneers, as filled with courage and clarity. We still wish that like them, we could take from the culture exactly what we wanted and leave all the rest behind.

This morning I got up early to thumb through the "Little House" books in secret: Not as children’s literature and entirely without the help of a television producer to interpret them for me.

"I could never be a farmer," I thought. "I could never give up the opera, the theaters, the museums, and the smart buzz of a great city. But gee, these folks do seem happy in their self-reliance. They do seem more in control of their lives and their beliefs. They do seem less subject to the whims of other people. They do try to keep themselves deliberately innocent of some things, and well informed on others."

And as I read further, I thought: "Has it really become impossible to raise kids like this? Was it really only do-able for one brief moment in our history? Did you have to have been there in the 1880s with the wagons and the wide-open prairie, and did you have to know how to build a cabin all by yourself with a hammer and an axe?"

And I realized, sadly, that even if you devoted all your energy to the effort, you could not reproduce that life today. You could never head out like the Ingalls into any wilderness, anywhere, with only the good stuff packed in a covered wagon, the stuff you really wanted to keep: The Bible and the Shakespeare, the fiddle and the kids. Even if you took your SUV, it would prove impossible. After all, our culture now follows a man to the remotest corners of the earth. In today’s wilderness, you know you would find satellite dishes and building codes, crappy bars and ATVs. You know that in time, your kids would drift back to the blandishments of city life.

But does that mean that no one in America will ever again raise a daughter like Laura Ingalls Wilder?

Surely, to accomplish that feat, we must all learn to be a new kind of home-steader, right here in the wilderness of the modern metropolis. And surely, to begin we must strip down our own ideas down to their essentials, and then build them up by hand; log-by-log, just like the pioneers. We must learn to pick and choose right here in the midst of contemporary life, and not look for any prairie to protect us.

I’ll say this much: If you were to set out across a modern American metropolis in the 21st Century, the landscape would also prove sometimes beautiful, but often harsh: You would find police in the schools. Boulevards littered with trash and minimalls. Gangs. Pornography. Misogynist rap. Pathological avarice in executive suites. Wolves out after dark.

But here and there, nearly lost in the great sea of buildings and humanity, you would also find the homes of people who had kept themselves a little apart. You would find folks who had chosen not to send their kids through a dangerous and spiritually dead school system or who had firmly refused to let things like unrestricted television and fashionable greed into their homes. You might find that somehow, like homesteaders living against the odds of a hostile territory, they had managed to preserve a kind of innocence. Like the homesteaders, you would not find them sullen or grim. And if you stepped inside their homes, you might also find a surprising level of civilization: Classic novels and often-played pianos, calendars of local theater and guides to Renaissance art, symphony schedules and science projects, courtesy and respect. Like the homesteaders, you might realize that these families were struggling to choose the best fruits of our culture while firmly rejecting the rest.

Surely, lots of these people subscribe to The Link. Surely, one of their daughters will someday write her memoir and call it: "Little House in the Big City." 

© 2005 Marc Porter Zasada. You can read more from Marc at www.theurbanman.com, or write to him at marc@theurbanman.com.