Thirty-five years ago, during the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” China’s Chairman Mao Zedong announced the coming of an uncompromising global struggle between the City and the Village. China, in Mao’s eyes the best country in the world, symbolized the sturdy and righteous Village. Haughty and corrupted America stood for the cruel and ugly City.
Great revolutionaries of the 20th century are not known for the accuracy of their prophecies. There is probably no weather-forecast service in existence that would employ someone with the dubious analytical record of Mao or Vladimir Lenin. As with almost everything else he said, Mao was dead wrong about America’s urbanism.
To most foreigners, the United States is indeed a highly urbanized country, full of megalopolises, skyscrapers and highways. Correspondingly, to many Americans the rest of the world is just a rural preserve, which they look at with a certain envious nostalgia. In fact, America’s urbanism is not much more than a self-celebratory myth.
To start with, the first thing almost every American sees out the window when he wakes up in the morning is not a skyscraper, but a tree. It will be palm in California, dogwood in Massachusetts, pine in North Carolina, elm in Ohio, but it will be a tree and not some factory’s back yard, as in Russia or China. Cleaning his car and his driveway, an American will encounter the traces of the squirrels’ latest nocturnal feast or a birds’ wedding party, but rarely cigarette butts, plastic bags and beer cans. Driving to the office, an average American will pass through woods and fields rather than a concrete labyrinth of gloomy development projects.
Of course, in the center of Manhattan it is easier to come across an affordable lawyer than a tree, but within a few blocks one will inevitably meet some more squirrels, happily gobbling crunchy pizza leftovers.
In a sense, the squirrel, rather than the eagle, is the true symbol of America. A person from a brutally industrialized country like Russia loves squirrels. On the rare occasions when they spot an underfed and distrustful rodent in the thin, dying woods, Russians of any age and gender smile with pleasure and exclaim, “Oh, you cute little thing!” An American will either ignore the creature completely or hiss at it in ferocious but impotent hatred.
For Americans who like gardening, the squirrel is a bigger pest than Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. A friend of mine calls them “rats with bushy tails” (which is probably what they are, biologically speaking). It is hard to deny that squirrels are greedy, gluttonous, nosy and brazen. Like termites, they eat almost everything they come across — be it vegetables, flower bulbs or birdseed. Still, I don’t think their Russian siblings are so very different; they are patronized and loved because they are almost extinct and because the only specimen of wild life a Russian normally encounters is an entrepreneurial cockroach. A typical Russian child has to go to a zoo to see anything more entertaining. In sharp contrast, American kids grow up surrounded by squirrels, raccoons, chipmunks, hawks and robins. He or she may easily get sprayed by a frightened skunk — an extremely unpleasant encounter, as I know from experience, but definitely a thrilling one. By the way, the skunk who nuked the car I was in lives in Boston, not in the City Hall, needless to say, but not more than 10 minutes drive from it. If somebody had discovered anything bigger than a mouse in the suburbs of Moscow — say, a raccoon — pictures of it would have been on the front pages of the newspapers.
There is one more very nonurban feature about America: people here do not just like gardening, they like to have vegetable gardens. A Russian visitor will never understand why, in the land of supermarkets and low prices, anyone would want to get his hands dirty planting tomatoes or cucumbers. The typical American response would be that home-grown vegetables “taste different.” In fact, they really do. A tomato from a supermarket has a taste that could most politely be described as neutral. Still, it would hardly occur to a Russian migrant living in any part of America to plant anything but roses or rhododendrons. A Russian is still too close to the age of gross industrialization. Loathing many of its fruits, such as pollution, a Russian still despises anything that smacks of “peasant’s stuff.”
People living on the edge of the two worlds — in a word, immigrants — find it especially difficult to become accustomed to America’s rural soul. A friend of mine recently bought a house in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. A passionate gardener, she immediately immersed herself in the world of seeds, bulbs and roots — only to encounter the “squirrel question.” Realizing the futility of plain verbal abuse (“Go away, you, filthy fluffy creature!”), she asked her neighbors for advice. Reporting the results to me, she said she had never been given more bloodthirsty counsel. It was like attending a medieval war council, she said. Actually, opinions split between “Shoot’ em!” and “Poison’ em!” Neither option appealed to her much: Russians are too close in time, not only to industrialization, but also to the Great Terror.
I must say that her eventual response to the squirrel challenge was imaginative. She bought a special trap, which did not hurt the greedy trespassers, and put it among her flowers. As soon as she got the first customer, she took the garden hose and gave the squirrel a very long and very cold shower. The violent squeals of the felon would have melted her heart a year ago, but not now. After 10 minutes of torture she let the squirrel go. The results were fantastic: The little guy passed the word and before long rodents stopped violating the borders of her property. She has become very popular in her neighborhood, which is now planning a communal cold-shower crusade. By the way, I will not be surprised if in a year or two my friend gets a vegetable garden.
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