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The real difference

By Rushworth M. Kidder / December 1, 1980



I suppose it was my father's doing. The advice he gave me was the modern equivalent of "Go west, young man." As a college student on the Eastern edge of of America, I wanted to go to Europe. He told me I should see my own country first. And he provided three essentials: time, trust, and a car.

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So it happened that I came to know America early. I poked into its Mt. Rushmores and Everglades and Grand Canyons and Niagaras. I saw its early morning silver-dollar flapjack cafes in Montana, its tumbledown bandstands baking at noonday in Missouri, its all-night precan-vendors along the bleared and searing Georgia highways. I remember we earned a free lunch skin diving for a yachtsman's lost anchor in New Hampshire. I recall that we slept under a campsite table in an Oregon downpour, awakening stiff and feeling (as a friend quipped) that we had just crawled out of a bag of potato chips. I recollect that we stopped at a country store in Iowa to ask what they meant by a sign advertising "hog balancer." The astonished proprietor pointed to a sack of food supplement intended to balance the animal's diet. We were disappointed. We thought it was some kind of wondrous scale for weighing pigs.

Now it is thousands of miles and many years later, and the pigs, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, have departed. And I still know Ameica better than Europe. I'm neither proud nor ashmed of that -- it's just a fact. My perceptions come through an Amerian lens three decades thick, coated with a thin year's glaze of living in England.

I was thinking of these things the other day as I sat on a friend's terrace overlooking a suburban London golf course. The wind was rippling the tall trees some distance away, toying with the leaves and turning them silver-green in sunlight under gathering clouds. I watched as though dazed: it was beautiful, evocative, mysterious, filled with meaning.

Like New Hampshire, I thought: the way the poplars at the farm used to shimmer before a July thunderstorm.

But the more I looked, the more it was not like New Hampshire at all. The wind had a different feel. The New Hampshire wind would have come across miles of forest. It would have come across a land that still, even after two centuries, felt new and unpeopled. It would have been, however remotely, a foxier wind, blowing over acres nobody remembered they owned. This was another wind. It had blown across southern England -- past chimney pots, clotheslines, trestles, paved rural roads, rhododendrons in the great estates and roses in the villages. And, mostly, past people. It was an English wind, full of humanity, full of history.

It was an exhilarating perception -- it always is when something you have vaguely felt shapes itself suddenly into a articulate thought. England, at the moment, seemed like a land that someone had carefully inventoried -- like a houseful of labeled furniture. It was, quite simply, known: known by its fretwork of footpaths, canals, railways, rivers, and roads. It had the feel of a place in which one could not get lost: pick a direction, walk in it, and you'll soon find civilization.

I realize full well, of course, that that's not true: that people wander for days in Dartmoor or the Pennines. But if felt true as I watched those trees. And that feeling made me uncomfortable. For surely, I thought, all I was feeling was the force of an old cliche: that England was congested, a land of cozy cottagers. Here I was, tempered by years of reading English literature, struggling to see beyond the petty masks of nationalistic character traits, and instead simply yearning for America's emptiness. I was saddened, chargied: I was no more than what my English friends smilingly call "an Ammurrekin."

But even that didn't answer it. For as I watched the wind upending the leaves, it dawned on me that the other side of England's apparent congestion was its compactness. And compactness breeds respect for others' rights, feelings, thoughts. Where you can't move away, you learn to live with your neighbor. It is a land of keenly developed conversation, so that a day on my friend's terrace is as stimulating as a day in the rockies.

And then, with August, I glimpsed something of what America was all about: that the observes of emptiness, the true quality of which it was the counterfeit , is spaciousness. It is a sense of freedom that insists on individuality and self-reliance and all those grand Emersonian traits.

Somewhere out in the Mid-Atlantic, it would seem, the devils of nationalism are aswirl. They would have us believe that Americans are vacand and Englishmen are dense. I've see the other side of the leaves. They flicker in praise of compactness and spaciousness.