Year End: On moving to the woods
A year and a half ago, my husband and I moved from Brooklyn to a fairly remote part of NY’s Catskill Mountains to start an experimental, internet-infused creative space. After nearly 10 years of city life, it took a lot of soul-searching for us to decide to make the move—and even more scheming and finagling to make it possible—but now, we’re here, we’re settled, and we’re making it work.
Since becoming a full-time resident of the woods, I get asked a lot of questions about what it’s like up here. Many people seem to be reaching a point of severe burnout with city life, and feeling curious about what it might mean for them to live somewhere else.
The truth is, I love living in the woods. But there are also parts of city life that I dearly miss, and parts of rural life that are really hard. If you yourself are romanticizing the idea of moving out of the city to instead dwell with the forest creatures, below are a few considerations to think over—things we’ve learned the hard way, and if you make the move, you’ll have to learn, too. At the end of this piece, you’ll also find select insights and wisdom from the TCI Archive that further suss out the woods vs. city question. I hope you find it useful.
Things to consider before moving to the woods
If you leave the city, you may need to reconsider how you define “success” in your “career.”
In the city, it’s easy for one’s identity to become tangled in a complex web of ladder climbing, professional networks, and job-adjacent friendships. Up here, what people do for work seems less important.
If you’re a creative person, once you get outside the city, there might not be many (or any) jobs in your line of work. I’m lucky that after I moved up here, I was able to keep working for Kickstarter (which publishes TCI) by transitioning into a role that I could do remotely. Being able to keep a NYC-based job and live full-time upstate is a privilege, for sure. If that isn’t an option for you, you may need to reconsider your relationship to work, and rethink how you might earn a living in a totally different context.
How much does “what you do” for a living define you? Are you willing to take on a full-time role, part-time gigs, or service work that you might not be 100% excited about? If not, do you have a network built up and enough experience so you could start your own thing? And perhaps most importantly, what would it mean to define yourself by something other than how you earn a living? As Jocelyn K. Glei puts it, who are you without the doing?
When you live in the woods, you will have a lot more free time on your hands.
There are so many inane things that eat your time and energy in the city. From your daily commute to getting properly dressed and coiffed, just existing in a city requires a certain number of hours per day.
In NYC, rarely did I wake up without a shot of adrenaline surging through me as thoughts of everything I needed to do that day—work, meetings, errands, social obligations—went tumbling through my mind. Up here, I usually wake up without an alarm, to yet another day of working from home, walking my dog, hanging out with my husband, chipping away at various projects, and hosting residents. While such a repetitive lifestyle presents its own challenges, there’s no doubt that this greatly simplified “average day” has afforded me the time and energy I need to adequately pursue my creative practice.
Living outside of the city has enabled me to feel more artistically fulfilled now than ever before in my life. And yet, I oscillate between reveling in the long stretches of solitude, and feeling left out, lonely, sick of being here. Learning how to cope with the monotony of life in the woods has definitely been a learning experience requiring a lot of personal work. So ask yourself: How will you cope with feelings of loneliness, boredom, and monotony? If you don’t have a million things to do each day, how will you spend your time?
You will need to approach community-building like a part-time job.
When we moved upstate a year and a half ago, we did not know a single person in our area. The longer we’ve been here, the more we’ve realized that in order to make local friends, we have to literally hunt people down. Living through a deep, dark winter in the mountains has shown us the importance of the “Wednesday night dinner friend” who you can make plans with mid-week, simply to have a reason to leave the house. Somewhat embarrassingly, I even created a “local people we know” spreadsheet and forced us to try to plan something with one person every week.
Building a new community has been far more difficult than I imagined, maybe in part because the people who tend to move to the woods are, by nature, introverted hermit-types (like us). So if you’re thinking of moving out of the city, and especially if you’ll be working from home (or by yourself), consider how you’ll tap into a community, and get started in that process early.
You are going to learn some new skills—some fun, and some less fun.
The moving-to-the-woods learning curve is steep. Figuring out how to do things like seasonal property maintenance, chopping wood, growing a garden, and handling animal intrusions—of which there will be many (mice, bats, snakes, chipmunks, ticks, you name it, they’ll turn up)—is basically how you’ll spend your first year.
If you buy your house instead of renting, you will also get to figure out how to deal with random parts of that house faltering, usually at the worst possible times (or, in our case, as soon as you move in). But you’ll deal with it. Some parts will be fun: the garden surprising you with hidden cucumbers, 6’ tall zinnias, and more butterflies than you can count. For the harder parts, you’ll find trustworthy electricians, plumbers, chimney sweeps, and more—some of these people might be your neighbors, and some of them might eventually become your friends. You’ll also learn to do some of these daunting tasks yourself. We installed a shower that intermittently spewed water everywhere for the first few months, but after “fixing it” with wire and some other hacks, it works great. You start to realize that for any project, there’s a YouTube video that’ll teach you the basics. It’s empowering. You get thrifty in the woods. You learn to do it yourself—for better or worse.
“Wherever you go, there you are.”
As you contemplate what it would feel like to move out of the city, remember that wherever you live, you’ll still be you. And, it’s up to you to make your own place in this world. The short list of considerations I’ve outlined above leaves a lot out. There are plenty of additional questions I’ve been asked about what it’s like up here, many of which I’m still figuring out my own answers to.
At the end of the day, my life in the woods isn’t perfect, or even close to it. Just like I’m not a perfect human, no city, town, or patch of vacant field is perfect. Truly, in considering where to live your life, the only thing to do is find a place that lets you be you. I knew I wasn’t made for the city—I could feel it in my bones, feel it in the inexplicable back pain, feel it in the creeping anxiety that never went away. If you’re feeling this way too, all I can say is that you should try to live in a place that helps you feel your best, and enables you to do what you want to do. And you might not know where that is until you get there.
I do fantasize about [moving to the woods]. One of the things that I find difficult about Portland sometimes is that I am a super big extrovert. I am very enthusiastic, talkative, and outgoing in social situations, or at conventions, or doing events and stuff. I love it, but it takes so much from me, and the idea of living somewhere where nobody is ever inviting you to their gallery opening… There’s never an interesting band playing in town. There’s never a conference happening that you want to go to. There are no conventions. There are no airports. You’re just there, and there are three other hippies who live down the block, and you just get to live in the woods and make stuff.
I fantasize about that all the time, and I worry that if I ever actually get it, I will go mad, but then again, I guess in that environment I would still have an internet connection. So, how much of that community is online? How much of it is in person? I do feel that it’s very important to me to have interpersonal time in the real world. I do think having continued access to conventions, or events, where I can go and meet people face to face, and have this recognition of, “Oh, you’re not a metric. You’re a person. You’re not a weird collection of bits liking my tweet. You are a human being with an entire, rich, internal life of your own who has decided to pay attention to the work that I do.” That’s pretty magical.
I guess I think of New York City as kind of a wilderness, and then I also think of the actual wilderness as a wilderness, but any place that’s not one of those two extremes is not somewhere that feels good for me. Before I moved to Arkansas, I was just being a mess and floating around, which was its own internal wilderness. That was what I wanted and that is what I have and that is what I was looking for, I think. The only place I could live except for deep in the woods is New York City.
I grew up in Austria. I was surrounded by nature. My playground would be going into to the woods. Living in a cosmopolitan city ever since then, I’m interested in this idea that we’re so removed from nature, and the nature we know has been so intensely cultivated. Public parks. The simple idea of a lawn. These things that people think of as a garden, but obviously it’s not really a garden at all. I think that’s my fascination, how far we’re removed from nature. We live in an image of nature instead of interacting with nature itself.
I live in Woodland, North Carolina. It has a population of about 800 people. You can drive through the town holding your breath and you’ll make it through without suffocating. I have a porch and I have the internet which means I have access to most things that people want or need. I can buy good books and good coffee and rent movies. I miss walking around in a city though. I don’t walk around as much here and walking is important to me. But things happen here, people say things that you’d never hear anywhere else.
[Up here, being a pharmacist] was the only job I could get. I don’t want to be a pharmacist. I want to make it clear that I am not a pharmacist. I’d have to go to school for that and I don’t want to do that. I assist the pharmacist. I bag the medicines and put them in alphabetical order and I answer the phone and work the cash register. A lot of times I stand around and get paid to think all day.
I’ve moved around the country a lot. I have trouble staying in one place. I’m surprised that I’ve stayed here as long as I have. But rent is cheap here, and I get paid more here than I did in New York. And there is something here that I can’t get anywhere else—some quiet and a lot of space to think. Hardly any distractions.
I go home several times out of the year, and stay for a certain period of time, to really sink into the life there. As the seasons shift and change, and the place shifts and changes over a longer period of time, it’s important for me to be there as much as I can. I’m always going back and forth. I think eventually, maybe in a few years, I’ll become a snowbird. That is what we call it in Florida—people who fly down during the winter. I might do that, because there are a lot of other types of projects that I want to invest my time and energy in out there. I also want to work with my home communities in a positive way.
I do see myself spending more and more time there, hopefully being able to continue going back and forth. I love being in New York City as well. It’s also been important for me to be able to be here, to connect and have a community of artists around me, and to also be engaged in the dialog from the perspective of being here.
I live rurally, and so I have easy access to the woods, which I’ve just realized I need. Even when I was a little kid, I was always at the creek. It’s just part of who I am. I go on walks and I’ll sing and get ideas that way. But the biggest inspiration is the frame of mind that it offers me. I have a meditation practice, and that’s very related to my time in nature, just practicing being present and opening myself up to that connection.
It’s important to have active time creating, but it’s also important for me to gauge when I should put my time in what place. Like whether it’s literally picking up the guitar and playing, or if it’s taking a walk and allowing my subconscious to wander and figure things out.
I think our best American writers are regionalists. But those regions they’re describing only exist in their brain. Willa Cather’s Nebraska, as well as her Pittsburgh, are creations of her mind… West Virginia as a setting might be a bit unusual for readers who look for airport literature. But it’s my place. Like Shane McGowan’s Ireland, or Nick Cave’s Berlin. I don’t know if that Berlin ever existed, probably not, but it surely feels like it did.
Mostly you need to realize that you make your own place as a writer. You make your own New York, your own Beat Hotel. Look, your friends are amazing! Just look at them, you don’t have to become famous and hang out with cool friends. Your mom is much cooler and more complex than you can even imagine.
Willa Köerner is an artist, editor, writer, and creative strategist. By day, she edits and produces the guides, zines, tips, and other resources published on this very website. By night, she directs The Strange Foundation, an internet-and-nature-infused residency and retreat space in New York’s Catskill Mountains, and acts as a mentor for NEW INC members. In the past, Willa directed curatorial and editorial initiatives at Kickstarter, and led SFMOMA’s award-winning digital engagement program. She’s currently working on a book project about what it means to make and hold space as a creative practice, and is interested in making friends with nice, fun people who live near Woodstock and Kingston, NY. If that’s you and you want to grab a beer or coffee, her DMs on Twitter & Insta are wiiide open.