Good Country Neighbors
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Most of what it takes to become good country neighbors is little more than courtesy, patience, and a listening ear.
By Wren Everett In the city, life is fast and often impersonal. We live next door to neighbors with whom we have never had a conversation beyond a brief nod while fetching the mail. If they did hang over the fence while we were trying to get yard work done and chat, it might be somewhat annoying or odd. Our typical expectation for most city neighbors is to mind their own business and remember to bring their garbage cans back from the street on Monday afternoon.
But if you ever decide to leave it all and move to the country, you’re in for some culture shock. Folks out here aren’t accustomed to numbing themselves to some endless stream of stranger faces in traffic — they insist on engaging with their fellow humans. As you’ll eventually find, you’ll start recognizing a face or two at the local grocery store and finding folks sticking out a friendly wave as they pass your car. The neighbors will become far more than brief nods over the daily junk mail retrieval.
As new arrivals to their neck of the woods, you’ll very likely become aware that there’s a sort of unwritten “code” to how neighbors are expected to act with each other. If you’re a reasonably decent person, you’ll likely want to know how to speak that code as soon as possible, because both being and having a good country neighbor can be a massive asset to your “settlin’-in.”
As someone who left the city nearly six years ago, I’ve learned some of that code and would like to share a bit of what it takes to be a good country neighbor.
Keep Your Dogs on Your Property
In the cities, dogs are precious family members with names, personalized beds, and monogrammed leashes. But if you bring Prince Floofy with you on the move to the country, you’ll also find that he needs to learn how to be a good neighbor. Folks don’t take too kindly to a wandering mutt, no matter how harmless you promise he is.
“Shoot, Shovel, Shut Up” is the advice many country people follow when a rampaging dog is found on their property. Any dog running wild can destroy a flock of chickens, run cattle to death, and needlessly butcher newborn lambs as a fun “game.” Therefore, if a strange canine is sighted within their boundaries, many farmers quietly eliminate it before it does damage; not a great neighbor situation and one easily avoided by keeping your dog where he belongs.
Handle Your Garbage Thoughtfully
Burning garbage is an acceptable manner of eliminating waste in many parts of the rural world and, honestly, a necessary evil. Many of us live on those gravel and dirt roads endlessly mentioned in country songs. If we don’t handle our garbage ourselves, it won’t get handled. Many people have dedicated burn pits or barrels, and the smell of aerosolized plastic on the breeze isn’t out of the ordinary. However, when and how you destroy your garbage, you can publicly declare how thoughtful a neighbor you are.
Some folks carelessly throw kerosene on a messy pile of trash bags on a beautiful morning, toss a match, and leave the mess to slowly burn all … stinking … day. These folks often don’t check local weather conditions; their unattended burns can and do start wildfires.
Others wait until the workday is complete, check the local fire danger level, build a careful fire in the late evening, and attentively ensure that their pile burns hot, fast, and under control. This usually sends about 10 minutes of smoke straight into the sky if they were thoughtful about choosing a windless hour.
Don’t be a Mooch
A battered green truck rolled up our driveway only a few days after we moved in, and a neighbor emerged. “Don’t give them there anything.” He pointed to the rundown trailer closest to ours, surrounded by garbage piles and mangy, underfed dogs. “Give them a loaf of bread or a cup of sugar, and they’ll never stop comin’ back, asking for more. Mooches. I know you’re new. You seem nice. Just don’t want you gettin’ taken advantage of like they did t’us.”
I soon learned that most country folks are incredibly generous but eventually draw the line when they know they’re being exploited. As such, don’t endlessly borrow supplies. It’s one thing to ask a knowledgeable old neighbor to teach you the ropes of an unfamiliar tool — many of them are delighted for the chance to share their wisdom. But regularly borrowing other folks’ tools or using their goods rather than buying your own comes off as rude and irresponsible.
“Folks before you? Locusts.” My neighbor spat out the word with a curl of the lip. “Took Hugh’s (the original owner) beautiful land, logged it, and trashed it. Broke m’heart. Then they moved back to…” he paused for terrible effect, “California.”
He appraised the gardens we’d installed, the clean chicken coop, the just-laid path between the barn and the house, and the fledgling orchard. “But … it’s gettin’ better, now.”
In country terms, that small recognition of our years of hard work cleaning up and revitalizing the admittedly “trashed” land we’d bought was a huge compliment. At that moment, we knew we’d finally transcended the mysterious “observation” period allotted to newcomers and begun proving that we had what it took to live there. Though some may always refer to our property as “Hugh’s land,” at least we weren’t “locusts.”
Outsiders, especially those originally from the city, aren’t naturally endowed with respect or trust by the locals. The only way to “naturalize,” in many of their eyes, is through years of proving that you don’t mind working with your hands, getting dirty, and improving your land. The fruits of your labor will speak far more volumes than any of your words.
Have the Time to Talk
If your neighbor emerges from his field while you’re at your fenceline, he’ll likely talk with you for 20 minutes or more. If you drop off a crate of tomatoes and zucchini to an elderly neighbor, she’ll invite you in for an hour-long “visit.” Your city habits will nag at you that this is taking too long but not give a reason why. Resist it and take the time to chat. These interactions are invaluable, full of local lore, bits of wisdom, ridiculous anecdotes, and the social glue that links country folks and starts slowly weaving you into the fabric of the community.
With that said, I recommend listening and asking questions more than talking about yourself. Though important, your views on politics, land management, guns, or religion are best kept to yourself for the time being. You’re already at a disadvantage as the local newcomer from the city. It’s better that people know little about you and get to know you slowly through your positive actions than to acquire divisive factoids that will only load up the local gossip mill.
As you can see, most of what it takes to become part of the social fabric of your country neighborhood is little more than courtesy, patience, and a listening ear. Keep at it; slowly but surely, you’ll understand what it is to be and know good country neighbors.
WREN EVERETT and her husband quit their teaching jobs in the city and moved back to the land on 12 acres in the Ozarks. There, they are learning to live as modern peasants: off-grid, as self-sufficient as possible, and quite happily.
Originally published in the January/February 2023 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.