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A visit to the country

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The slow, easy end of summer brings a certain relaxation, not least because we can stop pretending to relax. We can cast aside the unfinished books from the “summer reading” lists, abandon the uncertain pleasures of the beach, hide the barbecue under its black cover, put away the insect repellants and live normally for a few weeks, at least until the holidays arrive.

For our ancestors, whose lives were bound to the seasons, autumn was the most important season of the year. The harvest had been safely gathered in, the arduous work of summer was over and the long, bitter days of winter lay ahead. Fall was a time of Thanksgiving and anxiety, celebrated in songs and dances, markets, religious festivals and fairs.

Even now we surround this time of year with rituals, most of them connected with food, and the dim memory of where it comes from. The last nostalgic relics of the old harvest home celebrations are the country fairs that pop up all over New England in September and October. A hundred years ago, these events would have combined agricultural business with social pleasure. Nowadays, the country fair is all fun. You won't find seed corn, ploughshares, harness or livestock at these cheerful gatherings, or see many farm workers with mud on their boots.

Today’s country fairs reflect our longing for a vanished past. The goods on display symbolize an America of folk memory —plain wood furniture (sometimes aspiring to be colonial), embroidered cushion covers, patchwork quilts and home baked goods. There may be hayrides, corn mazes, innocent, non-electronic games like horseshoes, and lots of plain, hearty foods. It's all wholesome, simple fun, with a touch of old-fashioned virtue.

Even today three of the most powerful words in the advertiser's vocabulary are "country," "craft" and "natural." "Country" implies away from the city, which means not crowded, hurried or scared. Country music celebrates simple emotions and clear choices, which are rare luxuries in the modern world. "Craft" implies real things made by real people, instead of plastic junk churned out by an anonymous factory on the Pacific Rim. "Natural" hints at a product which is somehow cleaner, healthier and even more virtuous than others.

The local agricultural supply store, old-fashioned, rather dilapidated, and full of unfamiliar smells, offers what is perhaps a more realistic taste of country life. It is stocked with things that farmers might actually want to buy like pig and chicken food, horse harness, manure forks and other necessities that you won’t find in the supermarket. This store feels like a time capsule to me even though I have never indulged in agricultural activity of any kind.

Nine out of 10 Americans now live in urban or suburban areas, and soon it will be close to 10 out of 10. It sometimes seems that the whole industrial revolution was a terrible mistake. But at a country fair on a fine fall day, we can still catch the faint faraway hint of Thomas Jefferson’s vision of America, as a rural nation of independent farmers. It’s something to dream about in this season of nostalgia when the leaves begin to turn alongside the expressway.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.