Dorinda Fox contacted Amy Fuji and I with the idea to write a series of posts about our shared native state, Arkansas. It was prompted by something she said in a reply, “Arkansas is such a lovely place as far as physcial beauty but also in its people. I consider it a blessing that most of the country knows little about Arkansas and ignores it. That way people in Arkansas manage to maintain a separate identity.” This is my contribution to Dorinda's call. If I get another insomnia attack, maybe there will be more. Dorinda's essay is here. Amy's is forthcoming.
I’ve always believed that the physical landscape people inhabit has a direct impact on who they are – emotionally, culturally, socially, spiritually. Mostly, I believe it because of what happened when I moved to Kansas. I grew up in a very small town in northern Pope County, Arkansas. My people are a mixture of farmers of various social classes that converged together with my GranDaddy who switched the family business to groceries. In my hometown, I woke up every morning surrounded by a blue undulating line of hills on the horizon. I got to Kansas and my ratio of horizon line to sky went completely out of whack.
I’ve said this before in an essay published in Divide (U of Colorado), so I’m just going to paraphrase myself. Every moment I lived in Kansas I felt like I lived in a glass box. I could see too far in any direction. There was nothing to break the sky. On rainy days, I sometimes couldn’t tell what was sky and what was land.
I always thought it was like a sailor would feel in small boat in the middle of the ocean. I felt exposed, vulnerable, raw. My whole sense of direction disappeared. I got lost in Kansas, a lot. This makes no sense in a state where all the roads are laid on grids. In Arkansas, I drove the Ozark back roads all the time. I knew every route through north Pope County. I could navigate 30 miles of steep, curvy, red dirt roads and know exactly where I was at all times.
I did not have grids engrained in my physical memory. I just could not mesh with the flat landscape. I needed organic shapes against the horizon. It slowly became a craving so fierce that I moved straight back home when I left grad school, even though I would definitely have more job prospects in a larger city.
Now that all the personal context is out there, I claim that Arkansas has its reputation and eccentric culture because of the state’s landscape. The history of early settlements in Arkansas is a pretty good example of why I think that’s true.
Arkansas has been a backwater for 400 years. Parts of it, like the Ozark Mountains, were probably backwaters for a lot longer than that. The Ozarks have always been good for hunting, but they’ve never been a productive place to settle down. A lot of pre-colonial Native Americans used it as hunting grounds, but very few people lived there permanently.
When the Spanish got a hold of the state, they pretty much ignored its existence. The French were the first whites to settle here, way out east on the Mississippi river at a place called Arkansas Post. These folks were mostly trappers. They lived out in the woods for months at a time and came to the post to trade. The people who lived in town were notoriously rowdy and uncouth. They really loved to party. The Catholic Church kept trying to send priests there, but all of them left out of sheer frustration. Finally, they just quit sending priests. The French government pretty much ignored the place too.
When the Americans bought the state in the Louisiana Purchase, nobody really wanted it either. It was too far away from St. Louis and New Orleans to be a real draw. Plus, it had so much working against it. In the east there was a gigantic swamp that was nearly impassible.
Heading west from the Swamps there was a huge river, the Arkansas, folks had to cross to head north. Up north in the Ozarks there’s pretty much just deep hollows, steep hillsides, and rocky, unfertile land covered in huge trees. The only place in the state that appeared to have any viable economic prospects was the southern Delta region. But it was so far away from everywhere else that it wasn’t on the top of the list for aspiring Plantation owners.
Geographically there’s a weird kind of North/South divide in the state. South of Little Rock is Delta country. This is where those plantation owners settled down. Jump forward 300 years and the majority of the state in the Delta is still populated by African-American descendents of slaves.
Up in the hills, there were other kinds of cross-cultural encounters going on. Anyone who lived in the Ozarks lived on hunting and farming. Some were white settlers who wanted to get into the booming trapping business and set up farms. Some of these settlers were members of the “Western Cherokee,” who came and settled in the Ozarks after signing a treaty with that no good Andrew Jackson. The Western Cherokee marched from Tennessee and settled down in a spot just outside my hometown.
After the Trail of Tears, the Ozarks did not change much except for the influx of the Appalachians, who are famous for their Celtic roots. Several scholars say that the Ozarks were settled by people with the same lineages and cultural background. They settled the Ozarks because it was a little bit like home. The Scottish Highlands, the Appalachians, and the Ozarks all have steep hills, an abundance of wild forest, hollows, and soil not suited for large scale farming.
Arkansas is not really on the way to anywhere, so once people got here, they didn’t much leave. The whites who finally took over the Ozarks in the Pre-Civil War period began to develop what I call Hillbilly Culture. They formed into a distinctive culture because they were isolated.
(My Personal Definition: A Hillbilly is just nice, normal folk who happen to be native to the Arkansas Ozarks. A redneck is some word that Jeff Foxworthy and all those “Redneck Wedding” shows make a lot of money from. Fun Fact: Folks in Appalachia don’t embrace the word “Hillbilly.” Folks out here do. Kentucky may be it's own special case -- see Jim Smith's comment below -- but I've not personally read anything about the word's usage in Kentucky proper).
Hillbilly culture developed certain traits. One was a distrust of outsiders. Vance Randolph, the king of all things Ozark Folklore, has collected hundreds of jokes and stories about fooling an outsider. The outsider is often seen as buffoonish, someone to deliberately confuse or even punish, but not always.
The state’s official poem, “The Arkansas Traveler” is about a Hillman who insisted on confusing and baffling a traveler while trying to “turn a tune” on a fiddle. Finally, the outsider got so frustrated he took the violin and finished the tune for the Hillbilly. At that moment, the Hillbilly ceased confusing the Traveler because he’d found a way that the visitor might be useful, and maybe become trustworthy. I’ve always considered it a perfect example of the hillbilly temperament.
Another trait is a penchant for storytelling that infuses every sentence. The entire populatiojn of the state of Arkansas can’t just tell you something that happened at work in three to five sentences. They have to tell you the whole context, the major players, how the plot worked out, and their predictions for further possible installments. I don’t have any real facts on this one, but I bet anybody who is from here can confirm it.
Then, there’s the tribalism that mixes church, family, and politics. The Hillbillies have long memories. Every kid knows by the age of five exactly how many people he’s “kin to,” including great uncles, second cousins, and “in-law kin,” or people related to his blood aunt’s husband.
When I moved back to my hometown, I couldn’t walk down the street without running into people who said to me, “Well it’s Auntie, My Word! I haven’t seen you since you were this high!”
I stared blankly back at them and they’d realize I had no idea who they were.
Then the people said, “Oh, I’m your momma’s daddy’s sister’s daughter” or “Oh I’m actually your cousin through your Wilson side, but I knew your momma growing up. I was around you a lot when you were little.”
This wasn’t necessarily limited to a family connection either. I think I had that same conversation with everyone still in town my parents went to high school with. I had that conversation on a bi-weekly basis the entire time I lived there before I ran off again to get a job. You can bet all that genealogy knowledge impacts local politics.
All that energy put to mental family trees is one way that I think Arkansas managed to become the beautiful, but eccentric place it is now. If you live in an isolated place, it’s kind of handy to know who your fourth cousins once removed are, in case you accidently develop a crush on someone “kin.”
On the other hand, “kin” can be a good thing. There’s always someone in your extended family that can help you out with a problem or open up an opportunity. I’m auditioning for the role of a writer for a monthly home decorating insert that’s part of the paper I sometimes write for. I went straight to the first source: my Momma. My Momma knows a lot of people. She hooked me up with perfect information and contacts in under an hour.
The whole state is kind of like that, in a way. I went to a film festival Gala earlier this year. The Governor, Mike Beebe, showed up to talk about film and economic development in Arkansas. He waited to go speak by standing right next to us, in range so close it would have been rude not to say hello. We chatted with him for five minutes before he walked up to speak. He was just as nice as any other folk.
I think there has to be something about the isolation, the hardness of the land, and the infertility of the soil that make most people default with cheery hellos and feel they have to speak to their fourth cousin once removed who doesn’t remember they exist. Paradoxically, there's also this impluse to distrust and to test outsiders.
Let’s take my own piece of the Ozarks. I'll inherit 50 acres of land surrounded by The Ozark National Forest. I don't live there full time, but fully intend to retire there. The two houses and the land are 100 miles from a liquor store in any direction, at least 20 miles from a general store that is open on weekends and sells gas. The nearest restaurant is about 45 miles away. The nearest grocery store is in Jasper, about 50 miles away. People drive up and down the road outside the cabin semi-regularly, but it’s pretty darn rare for someone to just drop in.
The chance of a stranger popping by is even slimmer. When it does happen, we assume he’s a meth head or a an escaped convict, put the gun nearby, and go out and greet the guy like he’s that long lost fourth cousin once removed. Once we figure out he’s just a neighbor we haven’t met yet (neighbors are separated by miles up here), we go back to sitting in the rocking chair, smelling the smoke from the cast iron stove, and looking at the most beautiful view of green rolling hills, close enough to touch.