Like many rural people, I’ve met new neighbors several times by helping (or trying to) herd cows or horses that got out of unfamiliar pastures. That’s a surefire way to make an acquaintance. But for those without misbehaving domestic animals or school-age kids, introductions can be more of a challenge.
Once upon a time when folks had landlines if you knew someone’s last name, you could look them up in the phone book to call when their dog was in your yard or a package was delivered to your porch by mistake. With cell phones, it’s harder to reach out to someone you don’t already know. Nobody wants to come across as a busybody by asking a stranger for their cell number or give off an unintended creepy stalker vibe by showing up at their door unannounced. Knocking that wakes up a sleeping baby or third-shift worker isn’t the first impression you want to make. How do you even know when is a good time to introduce yourself to neighbors who work out of town or have a long commute, or to non-resident property owners?
There are no perfect answers, but here are some suggestions on how to reach out to your country neighbors.
Smile and wave. Whether you’re in your yard, on your deck, walking to the mailbox, shoveling snow, mowing the lawn, in your vehicle, or on your bicycle – smile and wave at everyone. A cheerful greeting is never wasted, even on people just passing through. And your actual neighbors will start to connect a friendly face with a place and/or mode of transportation. Once you can recognize each other, it’s easier for one of you to pull up and introduce yourself. Keep it brief and casual: I’m so-and-so and I live at the place with the _________. I can see you’re busy but I wanted to say hello and introduce myself.
Offer your number. Anyone used to living where people draw curtains for privacy might need a little space to acclimate to a rural neighborhood. So unless you want them to start running background checks on you, don’t lead off with offers to watch their kids or pick up their mail. However, you can offer your cell phone number and a “feel free to call or text if you have any questions”. They may offer theirs back, or to text you so you’re both in each other’s contacts. Or they may not, in which case don’t ask for it unless and until you know each other well enough to have a legitimate (to them) need for it. Give them the benefit of the doubt about why they may not seem ready to be all-in as neighbors – yet – and let them set the pace for building this new relationship.
Need-to-know. There’s a fine line, sometimes, between helpful information and thinly veiled criticism or the kind of gossip that makes a neighbor wonder what you’re telling others about them. So think twice about what you share, how you share, and what it says about you. Bite your tongue before offering the neighbor with the shaggy lawn names of a half dozen people who mow. But if you’re planning a big party, stop by to invite the neighbors to join you and to assure them the music will end at 10 pm. For sure let your neighbors know how to contact you if your short-term vacation rental tenants suddenly seem to be hosting a rock festival and encampment at your place. And if you’ve given someone permission to hunt on your land, let the neighbors know there may be a strange vehicle parked at a strange place at odd hours.
Join a neighborhood group. Whether you have questions to ask or advice to offer, meetings in real life and online groups or message boards are surprisingly good ways to connect with your community. Review and adhere to the rules of engagement for online groups, and the Golden Rule in all situations. Give yourself a little time to settle into a group before posing questions that might ruffle feathers, like “Who owns that annoying rooster we hear before dawn?” But you can’t beat the hive mind for coming up with the name of someone who sells local honey or a cell phone number for the non-resident cottage owner who just had a tree fall on their roof.
When neighbors aren’t people… Non-resident owners aren’t all cottage people. Farmland changes hands, and some landowners contract out field work to people who may not live nearby. Tracking down a phone number for forest cropland, family trusts, limited liability corporations, and other ownership entities isn’t easy. One way to do that is by using an app that integrates public records and maps. For example, OnX Hunt is a GPS mapping app that shows property boundaries. You can tap on a parcel to view the owner’s name and address from tax records. Snail mail isn’t the fastest way for a neighbor to report a concern to a non-resident owner, but at least it’s something.
When that’s not enough… Recently a friend noticed the lights on a cell tower she could see from her house had stopped blinking at night. She was concerned about medical helicopters that sometimes fly a route through that area. The sheriff’s department didn’t know who to contact. She considered calling the people who own the land where the tower is located. But that seemed several layers removed from who actually operates and maintains the structure. So she ran an online antenna search to identify towers (count of 5) and antennas (count of 24) within a 3-mile radius of her address. After narrowing down possible users, she used the online database to find contact info for the cell phone provider that uses the tower.
It took a few calls and a couple of weeks but those red lights are back on, and she said those folks were grateful a neighbor let them know about the outage. The database she used also includes the FCC’s Antenna Structure Registration (ASR) numbers. Structures taller than 200 feet above ground level can pose a hazard to air navigation. Having the ASR number makes it simple to find more information about a specific tower’s ownership and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) painting and lighting specifications that apply to it. Our neighbor’s next strategy, if contacting the cell company didn’t get results, was to contact the FAA.
If all else fails, hold a yard sale. Nothing draws curious neighbors like putting artifacts from your life up for sale on tables on your lawn. And what better way could there be to get to know folks than to hold up a find and say, “There must be a story that goes with this”?
In some rural neighborhoods, showing up with baked goods to introduce yourself is still exactly the right thing. Or you can learn all you need to know with a few questions at church or the local gas station. But if it takes a little more effort to get acquainted with your neighbors, it’s worth it. And after the horses are back in the fence you’ll have a great story to tell about how you met.
Donna Kallner writes from Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin.