T talked at her rural work place following a lunch break. Born 1953 Louisiana, then Texas.
I remember Woodstock, but I was too young. I wanted to be involved. I had two brothers, a brother-in-law, and a cousin who all went to Vietnam. That’s when I really became aware, because my mother was real present with that, conscious of telling us all the time, we have brothers, we have family there, we have to watch this, we have to be aware. She wasn’t anti-war until they started shooting students, then she was like, I don’t know what is going on in this country, but those are our children. We shouldn’t be shooting them. I remember her walking, wringing her hands, saying, this ain’t right. Up until then, you support your government, that’s what she was taught, you known. Everybody came home. We were really blessed. Everybody. And they’re still well. They didn’t talk about the experience. You could see the visible change in all of them.
When I was a junior or senior in high school is when I started realizing that for one, there was nothing for the girls in school to do – no sporting events, no organized sports at all for girls. That’s when I started recognizing that there was nothing going on if you’re not a foo-foo girl – cheerleaders or drum and bugle. There were no outlets. The women’s movement seemed kind of vague and put-on-ish to me, because my mama and aunts and everybody just did it because they had to. So I’m looking at these women getting all this press, thinking, bring your cameras, ok? I could show you some women that have been doing it raising children, doing everything alone.
We moved from being sharecroppers in northern Louisiana to the refineries in Texas. The oil boom was going on. I was 3 or 4. By the time I was six, my father was in the hospital with terminal illnesses by heavy metals in his system. There was no EPA. There was nothing. I remember thinking why would they let somebody work where it would hurt them. And I was little. Yet, my mother was one of the most optimistic people in the world. She’d say, “Now you hold your head up, girl. Nobody knows your situation. You’re not any less or any more than any other individual because of this.” All the men were gone. They died from lack of environmental protection laws that allowed them to work in places that killed them in a very short time. My father never came home except on weekend passes and died when I was ten.
So my aunts and my mother just did it. We lived in town when he got sick, and then moved out to a farm because my mom knew that. We had milk cows and chickens; we sold milk and butter; we raised a huge garden. We never went without. But we knew we were poor. One pair of shoes. Lots of kids. My mother was uneducated, too, so she harped on us getting an education. But then we get in school and there’s no support for that. Even though I had good grades, there was no counselor once suggesting that I should apply for scholarships. They just were not available. They told me, get married, have some kids. So that’s what I did.
By the time I had children, I looked up and found myself in the mountains in North Carolina. That was my first experience with anything, and that’s when I decided, you know what, I can live in the woods. I was raising gardens, I can do this. My husband was a Marine. That’s why I was in North Carolina. Lived there for six years. That didn’t last. The 60s helped me see a way out of putting up with a situation that you married into because that’s what you were taught to do. My mother would tell me, “Look your daddy died real young and I was stuck with all these kids. Don’t you leave this man.” We were taught it’s until death do you part, quite literally. I believed that, until I looked around and said to heck with this. There’s only so much any individual ought to have to take.
I had to tell my mother that she taught me that I didn’t need that fool dragging me down. She said I never taught any such thing, and I said, yes, you did, by example. I cannot stay when I can obviously see I’d be better off if I came home and lived with my sister – you know, whatever it took.
I’ve always been kind of different from my family. I have really different views. Maybe it was just the times. Being raised in a huge southern city, a big sprawling ugly nasty greasy oil dripping from the sky. It’s the armpit of the world. Then getting out in the mountains, it was like, I will not raise my children in Baytown, Texas. That put me on the path. I started gathering books, how-to books, survival books, and taught myself just from books about herbs and flowers and plants you could eat if you had to. It wasn’t until I got to Arkansas that I actually practiced that.
I had a three year old and an infant when we moved to Arkansas. He came with me. I gave him a choice, you can stay or come with me, I don’t care, this is what I’m doing. I had written a bunch of letters to addresses I got out of Mother Earth News, kind of a yuppie thing at the time, everybody had Mother Earth News, you had your Foxfire books, you know. The big Whole Earth Catalog. I still have one. I have the Last Whole Earth Catalog. I wrote to places in Australia and New Zealand. I wanted a caretaker’s job. I just wanted to leave Baytown and I was broke. Anywhere. That’s how I ended up in Arkansas. He came with me.
My mother was such a worrier, she made me feel guilty, so I wouldn’t do things with other kids my age because I knew it would upset my mother if I got caught. I didn’t start smoking pot or drinking until I was already 18 and living out of her house. I was always the one who was the designated driver. So I was a poor kid but I got to drive other people’s cars. That worked out real well. When everybody else was tripping and everything, I was thinking, yeah, well, you don’t have my mother. The last thing I would do was lay a burden on her. That’s what I had seen my whole life, that she had done nothing but struggle.
But after I was 18 and left home was when I did all the experimenting. I’ve always been kind of an oddball. I only did LSD one time, and I was gone. It scared me. I said I’ll never do that again. All I’ve done is peyote and mushrooms since. Well, I was about 30 before I did any of that, because I was a big chicken. I was married to an alcoholic who did any drug possible, so I was kind of anti- for quite awhile, because if I joined in then, see, I couldn’t badmouth him. So I kind of had an attitude – it wasn’t until I got to Arkansas, around 24 or 25, when I started relaxing and realizing that I could smoke a little bit. I’m such a moderate person, I don’t do anything except maybe eat too much. I’ve never felt like drugs altered my lifestyle much.
I really and truly believe that the back to the land thing – you know, I’d been raised in that and I saw that as easy. I didn’t have a good education, but could grow some vegetables, you know. It was a way of keeping my kids safe, raising them with proper food. I couldn’t do that in the city. I had a tiny little yard and every inch of that yard was food. My neighbors thought I was some kind of quack. My house didn’t look like other people’s houses. I knew that if I just lived out where I didn’t have nosy neighbors and people judging me all the time, I’d probably be more comfortable and I could focus more on what it is I might could do. Because I didn’t know.
I’ve lived in so many places, under a bluff, in a tent, and this is with children. I’ve done it all. I’ve had an adventure. Somebody answered a letter that I had written inquiring about caretaking an old farmhouse. He ended up being a kook. I lived in the farmhouse with his wife and children and me and my kids, then it turned into this big – they were trying to build some kind of commune or something. Well, when you’ve been raised in a large family and you know how it works, I got real impatient with them. It’s like, this isn’t going to work, people. It’s not practical. It’s some idea they had, some idealistic lifestyle, and I’m a pretty take-charge person. This guy wanted to be some kind of guru or something, but I was there because I could see there were gardens already established, different little dwellings, you know. I’m not into a lot of peripheral stuff. I’m real tolerant. I’ll put up with everybody’s stuff, until they want to dictate my stuff.
I learned so much, just be being able to meet the locals. I’ve been around her now for twenty years. My daughter just turned 20 and she was 18 months old when I came to Arkansas. My husband would go on binges and end up being gone for days at a time, and I’d call every hospital and police department. Never could depend on him at all. As poor as we were when I was raised, we were never once on welfare or public assistance. My mother taught me to be so ashamed of it that I was willing to live under a bluff with my children with what little I could do, and then finally I said, this is nuts. I went into human services. It was only about a month or six weeks in the summer time. It was a party to the kids. They thought we were camping. I just let them believe that mama was fine. I had learned by then to have lots of dried grains, and we’d cook everything from scratch, and I grew a little garden patch. But I went to the DHS and they got me lined out and I got some really good friends here and stayed with them for awhile, then I decided to go tree planting.
So I took my kids back to Texas to stay with my sister and my mom. So that’s how I got up out of the dirt, just deciding. Tree planting, that’s slave labor. The irony is, of all the years my mother told me I had to stay with that fool, he’s the one who ended up just leaving. He was gone once for a year, and that’s when I said, I’m done. I’m not calling anywhere, I don’t care where he is, I’m done. And that’s when I went tree planting.
I truly believe that the universe prepares us – you can call it “God,” name it, whatever. The universe prepares us for what we need to do. Once you are grown and an enlightened individual, all the stuff can fall into place, all the things you didn’t understand. Like, no wonder I had to do that because I’d be messed up right now if I hadn’t done that. I went tree planting. I’ve been a laborer all my life, my parents were laborers. It was easy for me, and people were out there struggling. It was like, for once in my life, I’ve got something going on, you know. It felt so good to come home with thousands of dollars – had a bank account, you know. But knowing that all my aunts and mother, you know, they worked right alongside men and got paid less than the men their entire lives and here I was right up there with the men, beating them sometimes, planting more than they did.
I’ve married a man who already had a piece of property, and we’ve added to it so we own forty acres, and it’s completely self-sufficient. We have all solar power and produce our own electricity in the wintertime from a waterfall. We try to grow all our own food, but that is a struggle. That was my goal, I see that now. All those how-to books, books on root-cellaring, all the stuff I dreamed 20 years ago, really, I know it now. I know it as a fact that I can do it. Without all those struggles, I’m sure would not appreciate it. We have not chosen an easy lifestyle.
I’d always wanted to live close to the land. My mother would say, “Honey why do you have to do something so hard? I worked all those years to get you up out of that dirt.” To her, being a laborer is something she didn’t want for her kids. I’ve got a brother who’s a millionaire, a big executive. If she had to count each one of us and our professions, she’s got pretty much everything. She did a good job. Nobody’s in jail. Nobody’s a drug addict.
The land is my religion, it’s what I believe. You’ll see some real high society lady and she’s looking at something she’s going to purchase, something real earthy, that doesn’t even look like something she’s want. I think people desire to have earthy things near them, on them. We are part of the earth. So your spirit is diminished if you don’t have that in your life. That’s why we decorate, we make our surroundings reflect what we need in our lives. If you could come to my house, which is this incredibly tiny little house, it’s in this beautiful spot. We don’t need beautiful floors and all that, because we have the surroundings. I truly believe that the reason I live where I live is because my spirit needed it. When I was in Baytown, I was so tired of living like I was living, living with an alcoholic, I literally got on my knees and said, ok, God, I’m done, ok? I’m going to give these kids away and I’m going to go jump off in front of the nearest train, because I can’t live like this anymore. When is it going to be my turn, and I can relax? I’m not a Bible scholar, or even a student, but the words Ecclesiastes 3:11 popped into my head, so I run and look it up. This verse says, there is a time for everything under the sun, a time to reap and a time to sow. So when I read that, I said, ok, that’s pretty blunt. If you don’t know the Bible and this comes right into your head, then you’re thinking, ok, I’ll look it up. And then I realized it was my turn.
I’m not rich but I’m comfortable. I own my own land, I’m self sufficient. The world could fall apart and yes, we’d struggle, but we’d be ok. We have gone that far. The thing that’s inside me is that the rewards are finally coming. My mother did not come to see me for 11 years. She would not come to Arkansas. What she thought was, it was the Beverly Hillbillies or something. She’d seen poverty and degradation her whole life and she thought that’s what I was doing. But she’s living in an ugly horrible place and I live in something that’s beautiful. Then she came and was so amazed. I’ve got a flush toilet in my house, all the comforts of home. It’s just hard to get to. All my sisters came too.
Somebody told me I must have an old soul. I like to be with the earth and with people who appreciate it. I didn’t come here knowing about solar energy and all that, but I wanted to stay in harmony with it. I went 18 years without a phone. I just got a phone this last year. I didn’t want them running a line down through there, it was too destructive. We live on the creek – it’s very fragile. I’m a woman warrior for the creek. I’ve stood in front of the road grader and said, “No, get out of here. You can run me down but you’re not doing this.” They come to grade the road and they have this one method that doesn’t work. I’ve watched the road for 20 years now. I know what that road needs, and if they’re not going to do it, I’d rather maintain it ourselves. We’ve maintained it for years. If we let them come down into the holler – it’s so fragile – you change it just a little bit and it’s changed for years. It’s the Felkins Creek, and it enters into the Kings River. We’ve in the headwaters. It’s pretty wild and wooly. There’s times we have to hike out. We have a highwater trail, and we park our car on the bluff and it takes about a 15-minute walk to get down to the house, because the creek’s roaring and we can’t get in or out.
T has a sawmill. He cuts lumber for people. He’s a wonderful artist and carpenter. A handyman. He can do anything somebody tells him to do. He’s making a lot of money now, building staircases and really nice things in houses, not furniture. He’s so much older than me in spirit that he calms me down.
My son’s 23 and he’s studying to be a doctor. I have a 20-year-old daughter M who goes to the university in Fayetteville and then a 12-year-old C. These two girls have been raised in these mountains and they take it so for granted. I’ll see them out there and think, God I would have given anything if somebody had brought me out here when I was 11 years old. C thinks nothing of it, she just takes off, she’ll be gone 2-3 hours. She’s building a fairy house or just doing her thing, totally unafraid. Now the bear in the area got her scared. He was really big. She knew if her dogs ran from him, she probably needed to be afraid of it. Otherwise it wouldn’t have occurred to her to be afraid if the dogs hadn’t signaled her to run. And when I look at them and think you know, this is exactly what I wanted, they’ll walk out there barefooted at night and not even think about how some people would be terrified. So I raised the little earth mothers that I hoped to raise.
I’m proud to say that all three of my kids were straight-As – these kids are really smart. And I attribute that to being able to grow without that fear. The impact on society as a whole is that I’ve improved it. I smoked around my kids. I asked my son when he was a teenager, what do you think? I was concerned – I love my kids and would never do anything detrimental to them. My thought was, I had some cousins who snuck around, be all up in the room, you know, hiding from their kids to get high. Anyway, I asked my son – I wanted to make sure – I said, “What would be the difference that you could point out to me how I was different after I smoked?” and he said, “You didn’t say ‘no’ as often. You said ‘yes’ more often.”
My bigger kids were raised around alcoholic behavior and that’s what M told me. She said, “Mama, I saw grown-ups be really stupid on beer and whisky and I never saw you do anything on pot.” She said, “I see you and your girlfriends – there is no difference.” And C, with the new programs – Just Say No – and the drug day and all that, her papa and I sat her down and asked her, and she said, “Well one thing they tell us is that pot’s for losers. Y’all don’t look like losers to me.” See she’s coming home with information that’s not applying. I de-program her regularly. She would say, “Well, mom, it’s illegal.” And I said, “There are things that are legal in this world that shouldn’t be, like tobacco – millions and millions are dying from it. They are making people addicted to it. There’s millions to be made from it. The illegality is like a political thing that’s in our time.” I said, “When my mama was a young woman, alcohol was illegal. So she grew up thinking that her uncles were these horrible sinners and really it was just beer, just a little corn squeezin’s they were drinking down there. They weren’t doing anything wrong on a Saturday night. They went to church Sunday morning with straight faces.” It is illegal and I have discussed that with C because it worries her.
She has a little friend who has two lesbian moms, you know. This little girl is so thrilled that she can come to our house and be herself and talk about Jay – now Jay is a woman, so quit pretending that Jay is a man, like she does at school. I want her to not feel embarrassed, to relax. She’s a little girl. She shouldn’t have to create subterfuge to cover for her parents. I want to be able to help her – because I believe it takes a village to raise children – so she can see somebody stand up and say, “You know what, B, – it’s OK.” As a matter of fact, this last weekend, we confided to her that my oldest son is a gay man. She was so relieved.
My 20-year-old daughter appears to be heterosexual, but she took a girl to the prom. I was so proud of Kingston [school], because I was ready to go to bat for the girls. I was ready to give the school a hard time, but they didn’t bat an eye. I went in the office and told those ladies how really proud I was of them because they could have made an issue of it.
Once, as an activist we met the foresters up in the woods. See when Newton County Wildlife Association was doing their whole big thing – they’re over on the Buffalo, see, and we’re on the Edgmon side. We didn’t have any group. There was nine of us standing up in the woods, no support whatsoever. We read that poor park ranger, I mean, we read him the riot act. We had him up against a tree for awhile. He was really good, gave me his personal number and everything, because I told him, “Number one, I didn’t even get notified. My property borders this land, but because I only have forty little acres and friends of ours own 196 – they didn’t even live here and they got it in the mail.” I said, “I know we’re just a small little group, and it’s going to happen, it’s after the fact. It’s happening right now. We should have been notified.” I said, “Where did you read that, that you can cut the woods and it doesn’t affect the waterways? You don’t live here,” is what I told him. “Obviously you don’t live here, because the truth of it is, it does. It’s truly foolish, and I’m not going to argue the point with you.” I told him, “You have your college degree, but I live here and I know.”
I know that my grandfather cut timber, but he cut timber with mules and would have never considered it proper to do what they do today. And he didn’t have chainsaws or anything. And then, my mother and father were sharecroppers, and their concept of working hard on something that wasn’t theirs was passed down to me. It stems from the fact that that’s what they had to do to survive. My mother took that after my father was gone and made it an issue in our lives. She said, “I want you to get an education, but I also want you to know how to live off the land in case you have to.” So my whole focus of getting on the land wasn’t just from one point of view. It was presented to me in a way, like when I bought all my books and I was all excited that you can learn things from books. But there’s some things you just have to do. And without the experience of my upbringing making me more confident, I might not have found the connection. I never knew how rewarding it would be. Even when I was living under the bluff, camping out at night, feeling like, you know, this must be what my ancestors were doing thousands of years ago, they were sitting up by a campfire guarding their children. At least, I don’t have to do that. There’s no wolf going to jump out and eat my kids. I might have this drunkard up on the main road down here after awhile, but that would be the only thing, you know. It wasn’t a frightful thing to me. Concerned maybe. I’m not much of a scaredy cat.