To me, the term hillbilly isn’t a bad thing. I took offense during a training seminar a few years back when some woman from New York told everybody we shouldn’t use it. Well, people from New York should stay in New York and not come here to tell hillbillies what to do. I grew up in hillbilly territory and none of us were anything but proud of it. If you’re a hillbilly, you might not have the best education or the best tools or enough money to buy solutions to problems, but you find a way. That’s part of the good challenge of living so far below poverty level that what looks like disaster to the Middle Class represents a good year for you.
I am the real thing and there’s no question about that. Many of the “older neighbors” I talk about when I write for the Marked Tree are the same people who shoed mules and made soap on the Beverly Hillbillies when they did their “local” shows and went home to visit. Not many are left now, most died of healthy old age after a lifetime of hard work, bacon and white flour biscuits made with real lard. I try to keep that in mind when I cook vegan food, and try to cook because it’s good instead of because some desk-bound expert thinks it’s healthy. If you live at the poverty line you eat what you get. The simple foods seem to do less harm.
I don’t think I’ll ever visit the Ozarks again even though I have good memories of it. Things have changed and it’s tourist country now, about as friendly as Vegas. Most people who live there, moved there and brought money, live on the country as a temporary feature instead of living in the country and being a permanent part of it. The new people knock down old barns so they can plant hobby gardens in the rich soil underneath, not knowing who built it or even caring. It was odd to me to hear these new residents telling me the history of their property, all the way back to the “original owner” who turned out to be the guy who bought the property from my father and subdivided it. Amazing how quickly local history gets lost, no one knew about Sofie Botton and her husband who farmed there for years before us and suddenly decided to move to Honduras after WWII. What sort of people are these who can scrabble for a living and barely survive, and then just decide to move to Honduras and start a successful coffee plantation? Maybe there was good fishing in Honduras. They left behind a crumbling old farmhouse with a mysterious earthen basement, a hand-dug well long gone dry, and a garden that kept producing food even without them. Plum trees, peach trees, spearmint, gooseberries and herbs we didn’t even know — all of it, bulldozed down to bedrock a few months after the developer purchased the land. A lot of interesting history went into that pile of dirt at the bottom of the hollow, not just of the Bottons but of my own family and the three families that homesteaded there before all of us, before the Civil War drove them out. Lots of good stories vanished into that rubble, and the people who live there now think they’re the first ones to try it, that before them there was nothing there but trees.
Most of my life I’ve lived in other places, but I’ve lived large pieces of life in the Ozarks and took some important lessons from it. I tend to live with problems rather than eradicate them, and the swamp across the road here is a good example of that. It’s a artificial problem, caused by a drainage culvert that collapsed some years ago after the county started running short of money. Complaints might get it fixed, but my Indian ancestors considered swampy ground some of the best ground and I’ve been trying to understand why that was. After about nine years here I’m starting to comprehend the idea. I’d miss the swamp if they fixed it now. This past summer the farmer who owns that property stopped to ask me why I was digging trenches in my garden and I explained about the water. I think he hadn’t thought of it before and might have taken some offense at my apparent criticism of it. He spent quite a lot of the summer cleaning out the cattails and the underbrush and trying to raise the ground level by hauling in more clay. Now the swamp is back better than ever, wider and deeper, and I expect the cattails have somehow survived. Should be a good crop this year, I hope. When the frogs move in again, they’ll love it there.
Every now and then, something I learned from my older neighbors comes in handy, whether it’s a trick about cooking something the old-fashioned way or just a philosophy and a simpler approach. Mostly I feel like an artifact caught in a time-warp, about ten thousand years out of phase with where I should be, but every now and then that changes and I get to be useful for a minute or two. At one of my restaurant jobs years ago I was helping take the trash out and when we opened the dumpster we found a possum inside. Actually that was one of the saddest possums I’ve ever seen, all covered in tomato sauce and despondent in spite of his full stomach, he must have been sitting there for hours thinking of the irony of his situation. There was a lot of discussion about what to do, whether to build a ramp of trash or call Animal Control so the professionals could handle it.
I reached in and took hold of the possum’s tail and lifted him out. As soon as I set him down, he took off. Problem solved. I was surprised that it made me locally famous for a day or two. The same fellow who would check my hands for calluses when I came home to visit, and snicker at me if I didn’t have any, taught me that possums won’t bite you in the daytime. I won’t completely vouch for that, but it worked at least once. Unless you’re a hillbilly, I don’t recommend it.