The show is called Kobra, for some reason that I haven’t figured out. It’s a half-hour, Swedish-language show that covers a variety of topics, from masturbation to Mecca. I mean that literally: in the first episode I watched, the presenter traveled to San Francisco to visit Good Vibrations, while the upcoming episode covers the Disney-fication of the holy city of Mecca. So there’s a bit of a range there.
Anyhow, recently, Kobra aired a two-part report on landsbygden (the countryside), which, like rural areas across the world, faces increasing depopulation as more and more people travel to the cities to make their fortunes. It should be no surprise that Swedish television deals in many of the same tropes regarding rural folk as does American television—after all, ’twas the Roman Empire that forged the link between the citizen and the city, and later Christians who, by dint of the term “pagan,” created a bond between the countryside and nigh-satanic survivals of a polytheistic age. One recent Swedish show, Morann och Tobias, featured a mother and son pair squabbling and slowly destroying their house somewhere out on the edge of civilization, it may as well be. Our collective discounting of folks “out in the stix” has a long heritage, and a wide one, one we share with a number of other cultures across the globe.
But back to Kobra. Our host travels out into the countryside and meets both natives there as well as folks who have sought refuge in a slower pace of life, such as a noteworthy artist. But, in such a Swedish way, the episode is framed in terms of human rights—are we providing enough services to our rural dwellers, and, in fact, can we afford to provide such services to such a low concentration of people? Swedes, like Americans, love the idea of the countryside existing, not being swallowed up by cities, that they may still visit it, but for the most part do not want to live there themselves.
Of course, many of these same concerns apply to my own state of Arkansas. I’ve written before about the necessity of reclaiming a rural perspective and don’t want to go into that again. However, my viewing of these episodes of Kobra, this week, coincided with me taking a week away from work in order to catch up on some needed work around the house, particular with a silver maple that had fallen and needed to be cut up. After one particular day of chainsawing chunks of tree and then splitting the wood with wedge and sledgehammer, it occurred to me that, for all the effort I was putting into this, I could well perhaps be taking on some freelancing or other work and pay professionals to do it for me, probably more quickly and efficiently, too. This thought did seem to have some merit to it, honoring as it did the easy division of labor we have developed in our modern era. However, the wife and I have long prized the belief that we could be at home anywhere, country or city, and it seemed that such a turn of behavior would definitely be marking me for the urban more than for the non-urban. If you want to be adaptable, then it’s important to keep up, not necessarily skills, but at least the willingness to invest in the energy of necessary tasks.
And, truth be told, I like working outside. Nathaniel Hawthorne may not have liked his stint in a community where everyone had to put in a set amount of manual labor, referring to it as poison for higher thinking, but sometimes working yourself to honest exhaustion can be the best tonic for a life of the mind, as it clears away all the noise that rattles around in the head. Summers are good for this. A friend of mine’s sister liked to quip, “Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder,” and there is indeed something in denial that makes the reunion or reacquaintance that much richer and more properly enjoyed. Many Christian sects have their Lent, while Muslims have their Ramadan, but intellectuals tend to shrink at the idea of fasting from the life of the mind. Yes, there are critical skills that must be maintained through constant vigilance, but often an important component of maintenance is the momentary respite from vigilance.