By Tarek, 22, New Haven, Connecticut
In the past, whenever I started to feel too cramped inside my apartment, I simply... went outside. Before quarantine began, I never considered that being able to go outside could be a luxury. I took it for granted. Now, with the entrance of coronavirus, the concrete jungle is just as dangerous as an actual jungle. If you can’t be outside because of all the buildings and people who could be coming out of them, the natural subsequent desire is to go somewhere where there aren’t any people to keep you shut in. Enter: “The Countryside.” In my head—and the heads of many Gen Z city dwellers—this idea of somewhere so rural you could take your mask off outdoors and not worry about passing people on a walk is intoxicating. Could you imagine? I graduated with a B.S. in ecology, so you’d think the first thing that comes to mind for me when someone says “rural” is nature, plants, animals, and all the other abiotic facets of the great outdoors. And in truth, it was. But now? Now, someone says “rural” and my brain immediately goes, “ooh, I bet their covid rates are soooo low.” Yes, I do crave the idea of the countryside and a rural environment now more than I did in the past. But it’s not only because I love nature. It’s because nature isn’t going to give me covid19.
This fear of covid and what/who can give it to me has also extended to my relationship with nature as a food provider. In a world where it’s suddenly a risk to enter a populated grocery store, I find myself thinking, “gosh, I wish I could just grow my own food.” And the thing is, theoretically, I could! I could plant a garden, I could keep a couple chickens in my backyard. I haven’t, but many like me have! And in all honesty, the longer this whole thing threatens to go on, the longer urban farming and the idea of bringing nature into my home becomes more and more appealing. Why should I have to go outside for a head of lettuce? I should just grow it myself! Or work with my neighborhood to sustain a community garden which could feed multiple households! And if I moved to the countryside, I could in theory grow everything, and never have to enter a Walmart again. It’d be safe, sustainable, and all my own. How could that not be appealing?
Both of my parents immigrated to America from Morocco, and—more importantly—my mother came from the countryside, deep in the Anti-Atlas mountains. She grew up on a farm, tending livestock, harvesting vegetables, growing olives in her backyard, all of the things I now see people glamorizing as the “simple” life. But in reality, my mother has described it as nothing but hard, tiring work. Living off the land is not easy. The land does not give itself to you simply. You must tend it, care for it, put up with its tantrums, be ok with not getting what you want on occasion. There’s nothing simple about the reality of what the idea of “cottagecore” is getting at.
I know this, and yet, just like countless other Gen Z users of social media, I’m obsessed with cottagecore as a theoretical means of escape from the arduousness of my current existence. It’s funny, it’s almost as if someone took the idea behind the phrase “the grass is always greener on the other side” and then LITERALLY made it about grass. The fact is, in many ways, for many people, life sucks right now. Yes, it could always be worse. But people, especially young adults,aren’talwaysthebestatremindingthemselvesofwhattheydohave,somuchastheyare at focusing on what they don’t. And man, do many of us just want a way out. Covid19, the economic crisis, mass shootings, mass incarceration, police brutality, racism. None of that comes to mind when you picture a red brick cottage on a prairie with the sun shining and apple pie cooling in a window sill (well, except maybe racism, but discussing that would mean getting into a whole other layer of the “cottagecore” discourse about how it can become conceptually wrapped up in whiteness as a result of the inherent privilege of having no responsibilities being so adjacent to the inherent privilege of whiteness, as well as the “olden” days signifying simplicity and peace for white people but slavery and inequality for POC).
And so no one is thinking about the fact that escaping from metropolitan stress, crises, and responsibilities to rural living would just be escaping to a host of other responsibilities and duties. They are only thinking of the romanticized world in which the most complex thing they have to deal with is the gingham pattern on their picnic blanket.
Capitalism is the root of the very stress and pressure we are trying to escape. Mental health issues and disorders from social media, societal collapse as a result of reopening too soon in order to continue profiting off consumption, the pressure to work a 9 to 5 or otherwise have your life be deemed meaningless. At the root of all of these problems is capitalism and the desire to make money at the expense of others. So how do we escape all of these problems? By escaping capitalism. And how do we escape capitalism? By moving to the countryside, canceling our cell service, living off the land, and never having to file our taxes again.
What’s ironic is that the idea of cottagecore is also often so wrapped up in the performance of cottagecore and making it known that one has achieved simple living and managed to escape capitalism. The reason this is ironic is because such a performance is really only possible through social media, a product of capitalism! And so while many may think of yearning for cottagecore as yearning to escape from capitalism, they’ll never truly escape if they can’t let go of their desire to perform their desires. But then again, as is the case with many desires, once you take away the ability to let people know you’re doing something, some might not feel so strongly about doing it. Of course this starts to get more and more complicated the
farther down the rabithole you go, so for simplicity’s sake, I’ll just leave it at this: Many of us don’t actually like the idea of working for capitalism to survive, so the idea of working with mother nature to survive seems a lot more appealing, even when you consider the fact that it’s still hard work.
Oh, Gen Z is seeking stability. We have no idea what’s next! A second wave of coronavirus? An economic crash? A mass shooting? A housing crisis? War? Aliens???? With so many of the people in power being substantially older than us, it can feel like everything is out of our control and like there’s no way to guess what’s coming next. And even if we did know what was coming next, with the way things have been, it’s likely we wouldn’t be too enthusiastic about it. We don’t want to deal with those problems, we want to be able to wake up without worrying if the world has drastically changed over night. We want the consistency of the sunrise and the sunset. We want to spin around in a field surrounded by a backdrop of sturdy and dependable mountains like Julie Andrews singing “The Hills Are Alive” from The Sound of Music.
I do think we are going to see a trend in Gen Z trying to move towards self sufficiency. Not only to escape the outside pressures of society, but also to extricate themselves from the guilt of being complicit in oppressive systems like capitalism. We don’t just dislike things like capitalism because they make our lives harder by setting up exhausting expectations, but also because they’re intrinsically unethical and tied to the suffering of so many people. Whether it’s the sweatshops of fast fashion, animal testing of cosmetics, gentrification of property ownership, inherent colonialism of living anywhere Indigineous people once lived, or the underpayment of undocumented organic farmers. By depending on capitalism, we depend on unethical practices. In the dreamland of cottagecore, no one is oppressed.
This of course doesn’t take into account, for example, that to start a family in the countryside of many nations means to start a family on land formerly owned by displaced Indigenous peoples. But, as mentioned, cottagecore is about simplicity, and that simplicity extends into limiting the consideration of whatever problematic “implications” might go along with it. I’m not saying this is an ok thing, but that’s the reality of the aesthetic. And it’s a powerful reality. Gen Z can only take so much, and eventually, we’re going to stop taking society’s hardships and start producing our own salvation. And that’s when the more attainable aspects of cottagecore, like urban farming, rejection of the virtual, and reframing what it means to be a “contributing member of society” are going to become à la mode.