P.J. O'Rourke: My Life as a Failed Country Gentleman

April 16th, 2012

Little Green Footballs.com
By P.J. O’Rourke
April 15, 2012


I decided to become a rustic squire when I was 32 and stupid as only 32 can be. Youth’s frantic idiocy doesn’t have the means. Simple-minded old age lacks the energy. In midlife, we’re as dumb as we get. So I bought land in New Hampshire—first a little, then more and finally too much.

This was not back-to-the-land land. I wasn’t trying to get in touch with Mother Nature or even leave a message on her answering machine. I wasn’t pursuing the era’s whole grain and handicraft dream of self-sustenance that still persists in parts of Brooklyn. I wanted to be Lord Grantham of “Downton Abbey” before he was a figment of the BBC’s imagination.

I’d majored in English literature and, as sometimes happens, thought this was supposed to make me English instead of literate. I pictured myself in knickers and a Norfolk jacket striding over my fields with a fine English double-barreled shotgun broken open on my arm and my loyal English setter at heel. I was probably smoking a pipe. If so, I’d put something funny in it.

I do spend a lot of time hunting (“shooting” as the English say). But the briars and the puckerbush of New England shred tweeds. Swampy bird covers soak knee socks. And alder jungles knock the pipe out of your teeth. I shoot in muck boots, a barn coat and nylon-faced thorn-proof pants of circus-clown cut. I’m legally required to wear an iridescent orange vest. I look like an armed highway department flagman who got lost in the woods.

For what a fine English double-barrel shotgun costs these days, you could buy Lloyd’s of London. I’ve got an old Remington pump. And the setter is to hell and gone chasing squirrels. She’s encumbered with a remote control electronic collar, the transmitter for which is the size of a 1980s cellphone. This dangles from a lanyard around my own neck and allows me to communicate with the dog, via electric shock, at a range of two miles. The whole setup is about as romantically bucolic as a NASA launch. Did I hear a pained yelp from way up on top of that steep hill?

My steep hill. I own a lot of land—if you measure vertically. Even as a beginning gentleman farmer I realized that this would make planting difficult. Although, in theory, harvesting would be just a matter of standing at the bottom holding a bushel basket. Not that I’ve ever managed to grow anything. Raccoons eat the corn, squash and tomatoes. Sleet, snow, frost or freezing rain take care of everything else. One season of agriculture in New England explains manifest destiny. America’s westward expansion was mainly an excuse to kill raccoons and wear them as hats.

I am, nonetheless, a farmer. My property is a “Certified Tree Farm.” And a demanding life it is. Sleet, snow, frost or freezing rain, the crop must be brought in—every 40 years, no matter what. And I can tap my trees for maple syrup except that I seem to have found the only place in New England between Bridgeport and Bangor without a single sugar maple. It turns out there’s very little market for “fir syrup.”

The difference between being a Certified Tree Farm and being lost in the woods is a bureaucratic mystery fully understood only by the Department of Agriculture. I think it means that I can deduct what I spend on growing trees (nothing) from what I earn selling timber (nothing). I never pictured myself in knickers and a Norfolk jacket striding over stumps.

Being certifiably a farmer did excuse the purchase of a tractor with a mower attachment for cutting hay. At least I think it’s hay. I went to considerable expense to clear brush, yank rocks and plow and fertilize 20 acres. I don’t believe that I then asked for the 20 acres to be seeded with dandelions and crabgrass. However, that was when I first moved up from the city, and I may have given the wrong orders.

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