Where the Geese and the Cantaloupe Play

Laura Shaine Cunningham's lifelong romance with the country.

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·  First Chapter: 'A Place in the Country'



“This book is dedicated to all the city people who crave the country, who love nature with a passion that is near demented in its innocence,'' Laura Shaine Cunningham writes on the very first page of her new memoir, ''A Place in the Country.'' Fine, but what about the rest of us? As an equally passionate member of the opposite camp -- city dwellers whose craving for the green and the wild is completely satisfied by a trip to the Union Square farmer's market -- I want to urge all who are like-minded to keep reading this book anyway. True, there's an awful lot of rural rapture here (hiking to hidden lakes, discovering turtle eggs -- you know the drill) but this account stands out for two reasons. First, Cunningham makes it delightfully clear that the horrors of the simple life, from snakes to nasty neighbors, are right up front with the bliss. And second, she's a sharp and witty writer. If this particular memoirist were offering up 287 pages on life in an auto parts dealership, you'd be well advised to accept.

For the last 18 years, Cunningham -- Manhattan-born, Bronx-raised -- has been spending most of her time 100 miles upstate in a gracious old house on 13 acres, with willows and herons and a swimming pond. These unlikely surroundings still amaze her, growing up as she did in tiny apartments where nature meant a sooty picnic within view of skyscrapers. But as she looks back at a childhood physically rooted in New York City, she sees a heart constantly turned toward the countryside, like a cluster of pansies seeking the sun from a window box. ''What was the city, I wondered, but the country covered over?''

''A Place in the Country'' starts with Cunningham's early years, an extraordinary topic in itself and one she described in a previous memoir, the unforgettable ''Sleeping Arrangements.'' There's an obvious danger in revisiting this material -- it really is unforgettable -- but this time the focus is on her youthful zeal for the outdoors, prompting a whole new flock of anecdotes. Besides, it's a pleasure to encounter everyone again: Rosie, the single mother who made their hardscrabble life together an enchanted interlude; Uncle Gabe and Uncle Len, who stepped in after Rosie's death when Cunningham was 8; even Ava, owner of the scariest summer camp this side of ''Lord of the Flies.''

In one of her family's repeated lunges toward the bucolic, Cunningham accompanies her Uncle Gabe, a song-writing romantic in droopy trousers, as he hunts for true love at an Orthodox Jewish resort in the Catskills. While he woos Esther (''a formidable redhead with steel teeth, who seemed to have marched over to America from her native Poland''), his 11-year-old niece sizes up the surroundings. ''The grounds were a pathetic attempt to tame nature, to turn an inhospitable mountainside into a manicured Westchester-type club,'' she writes. ''The single groundsman, a toothless immigrant from Russia, had to groom such steep slopes that his hand mower seemed almost to get away from him. Every day, we watched this small, gnarled man, Hymie, disappear over a knoll, practically dragged by the mower.''


"'A private house.' Even today, those words hold a potent magic for me. Then, they were more than enough to propel us every weekend on buses and trains to differing destinations we called the 'country.' On the buses, I commandeered the window seat, the better to scan the roadside, my eyes searching for the corridors of evergreen, the hidden paths that led to some ultimate, secret oasis. It seemed to me that the scenery flashed by too fast. Was that a house, set back in the woods? A haunted house, abandoned. Perhaps available? I hunted for the shadows, too, for pure adventure -- was that rock overhang hiding a cave?"

-- from the first chapter of 'A Place in the Country'

Despite numerous efforts to recast herself as a damsel of the woods, Cunningham keeps getting catapulted back to the city. She seeks out a rural college and ends up on a cheerless brick campus near Albany, where she puts in a single year before hastening home. Then a film producer happens to glimpse her in Washington Square and impulsively asks her to take part in a movie about to be filmed on an upstate farm. Cunningham agrees -- she can't act, as everyone quickly discovers, but she likes the idea of the upstate farm -- and spends the next two weeks portraying one of six sisters who happen to survive a nuclear war. Their wretched existence gets even worse when a family of three brothers shows up; Cunningham vaguely recalls a number of deaths by pitchfork. The housing, however, is completely realistic: cast and crew all stay in an abandoned old wreck of a farmhouse without electricity or running water. '' 'Sin Sisters: 2000 A.D.' premiered at Newark Airport,'' Cunningham writes. ''To my knowledge, it was never reviewed.''

Not until she marries a man who is just as determined as she is to move out of the city does Cunningham manage to start living the dream, or at least renting it. Their first dwelling in the wild is the wing of a former mansion in Tuxedo Park, N.Y., with flying buttresses and a walk-in fireplace. Once an exclusive domain for the rich, Tuxedo Park is in the throes of transition when Cunningham and her husband move in. As she remarks, ''There was a high incidence of the 'Three A's': adultery, alcoholism and antiquing.'' They settle into an otherworldly landscape of mountains, lakes and crumbling chateaus, but at length she realizes this isn't home after all. It's ''Ivanhoe,'' and she wants ''Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.''

After a search that slogs on for 10 years, they find themselves standing in front of a colonial house near a sweep of sugar maples, overlooking a scenic herd of black-and-white cows. Local records for the house go back to 1810; nearly a century later a rich businessman bought it along with acres of adjoining property and had the whole area turned into an English-style estate. The current owners are selling it off, bit by bit. Cunningham takes one look at the house and recognizes paradise. Now she's home. Now she can live the rural life in earnest.

This means livestock, first of all. Cunningham writes that she keeps chickens, geese and goats -- 45 fat animals who do little but exist in a digestive trance,'' she admits. ''None of my farm animals does an honest day's work; they don't provide me with what their species are supposed to produce -- eggs, milk, cheese. Instead, it is I who provide for them, catering every snack.'' Naturally, she can't wait to start a garden, and every spring finds her laboring to create what she freely acknowledges is a salad bar for groundhogs and deer. By now the local wildlife, who disdain her zucchini, have developed a sophisticated taste for mesclun and frisée.

Of course, there are bushels of fruit available in season from neighbors and markets, so Cunningham starts putting up those iconic jars of preserves that glow all winter in the cellars of the truly rural. ''As I hover over my boiling caldrons like one of Macbeth's weird sisters, I brood on the possibility of botulism, the 'big B,' ''she writes. ''Even 'The Joy of Cooking,' a tome that waxes poetic over preserves, sounds a tad grim when it notes Clostridium botulinum is a germ so deadly that one ounce can kill a million people.''

While she manages not to commit murder by jelly, a lot else happens in 18 years of paradise. Cunningham and her husband bring home a baby girl from Romania, then another from China. The dairy farm down the hill is sold after it becomes too much for the elderly farmer; his son, who also farms the place, is getting a divorce and moving away. Cunningham and her husband get a divorce as well; but she writes little about their troubles. Maybe she's being unusually (for these times) discreet, or maybe it really was harder saying goodbye to the cows than to him. Her farewell to the herd, with which she has passed long hours in supremely peaceful communion, is one of the most poignant moments in the book. The most unsettling is when devotees of Vivekenanda, the late-19th-century swami who founded the Vedanta Society, buy the land adjoining her house. Although they build a ''shrine trail'' (a ''Hindu version of the stations of the cross'') in hopes that busloads of devotees will show up, the group luckily fails to attract many visitors.

This book has a great deal of literary company nowadays, including a spate of memoirs by writers who move to France or Italy and sit right down with their laptops under an olive tree to record their epiphanies. But Cunningham's work has quite a different personality. It reminds me most of ''The Egg and I,'' Betty MacDonald's account of following her new husband to a chicken ranch in the Olympic mountains. Unlike Cunningham, MacDonald hated every minute of her experience, but these two writers share much, including an excellent sense of the ridiculous and a solid antipathy for chickens. Published in 1945, ''The Egg and I'' remains a pleasure to read. Half a century from now, someone is sure to be saying the same thing about ''A Place in the Country.''

Laura Shapiro is at work on a book about women and cooking in the 1950's.