Judging by Band of Outsiders' prairie dresses, Ralph Lauren's Fair Isles weaters and Rodarte's shearling coats, fall is shaping up to be downright folksy. Not that the heading-to-the-hills look has ever entirely remained out of view (well, maybe it did during the disco era, but even then women were known to rock a polyester puffed sleeve or two).
Indeed, pioneer chic has long fascinated city folk, although that is as far as the enchantment typically goes. So when it became known earlier this year that Amanda Brooks, the New York socialite and poster girl for urban luxury, was trading in her crown as Barneys' fashion director for a country spread in Oxfordshire, more than a few eyebrows were raised. Imagine, her followers thought incredulously: She was leaving Manhattan for an actual farm! With pigs and horses! The inspiration for what Brooks called her "creative sabbatical"? The Pioneer Woman, Ree Drummond's six-year-old blog chronicling her daily life as a wife and mother of four on an Oklahoma cattle ranch.
Although The Pioneer Woman's country-hair-drying method doesn't involve a Chanel scarf (as Brooks admits hers does), Drummond's site, which expertly spins out her city-girl-turned-rural-maven shtick, is no down-home affair, receiving more than 20 million page views per month. In a characteristic posting, she might sing the praises of early mornings, discuss the taciturn husband she dubs "Marlboro Man," champion her quartet of milk-fed, home-schooled children or share her recipe for killer cornbread. What The Pioneer Woman turns on, of course, is the romantic and increasingly popular fantasy of abandoning chaotic urban life for a pastoral idyll. And she does it all in an earthy way that might make you hate her if she wasn't so damned genuine.
Full disclosure: I too have ditched city life for a rural existence. Shortly after giving birth to my first child (I now have three), I began to grow disillusioned with Toronto's grit and pace, questioning whether it was the right environment for a kid, let alone me. So my husband and I hatched an escape plan that involved relocating to a charming stone house, surrounded by sunflower fields, in the south of France. In due course, he traded his corporate job for freelance gigs as an illustrator and away we went to Europe.
While my husband worked from our new French home, a farmhouse with a hideous fly problem, I gamely tried to embrace pastoral life. Given both the houseflies and my intense need to roam, this meant that my son and I were frequently forced out of doors. And since he only slept while in motion, I could often be found in the dry, hot fields, wheeling his stroller amid the sunflowers. As the days progressed, doing time in the dusty terroir fell well short of fulfilling any idyllic fantasies, reminding me instead of my one-generation-removed-Ukrainian-peasant-stock roots – my father's family has never romanticized anything to do with dirt.
A few weeks in, I was bathing in the enormous tub awkwardly positioned in the centre of the room upstairs when I offered to my husband hopefully, "The valley has a certain beauty."
"The beauty of death," he countered.
At the exact same moment, we both blurted out how much we hated it there. After a few glasses of limpid local wine (on top of everything else, the region seemed to produce the only wine in France we didn't like), we agreed that there was only one option: We had to escape our country escape.
Next stop: Moscow, the closest urban centre where we knew anyone. On our first night there, we drank rustic Georgian wine and ate Russian chocolate in a luxurious apartment offered up by a friend, feeling like teenagers whose parents had left for the weekend.
Eventually, we exchanged Moscow's fairy-taledomes and dark canals for gai Paris, where we became flâneurs, wandering the streets and spending the rest of our sabbatical in a state of wonder and happiness. As we roamed, we forged relationships with the farmers at the marché biologique and became attuned to how the light changed – the type of things that we expected to do in the country but instead enjoyed in the middle of a metropolis.
After staying in Paris for several months, we finally moved back to Toronto, resolved that the city was where we belonged.
When we returned, our son was given his first real toy, a box filled with wooden letters hand-carved by his grandfather, who dipped them in beeswax so they could safely be gnawed on. I adopted my mother's homemade-bread-only policy (along with her recipe for homemade butter tarts, passed down from my grandmother). My husband, in turn, makes his own ink from black walnut hulls he forages in Queen's Park. And we eat salads harvested from our friend's rooftop garden.
As I write this in our TV-less home (a drafty Edwardian containing an old barn sink given to us by the original Pioneer Woman, my Aunt Penny, a former model turned goat herder), I remember a friend from Brooklyn telling me how she thought the city is preferable to the country when it comes to raising children. "There's just so much to do!" she enthused.
Yes, my kids and I have to sidestep cigarette butts on the street, but I have also realized that urbanity and rusticity aren't mutually exclusive. With all due respect to Amanda Brooks, the simple life can be had wherever you want, even in the city. Now if I could just get my hands on my Ukrainian grandmother's peasant dress, I'll truly beset for fall.