It’s hell, sittin’ here.
I grew up in the hills of Newton County, Arkansas, the place that my direct line had hacked out and settled in the 1850s, when the first white settlers moved in. Being a native Ozarker has its advantages and disadvantages.
When I married and moved one county north, it almost seemed like sacrilege. The next phase of my life seemed almost opposed to my first, but God blessed me with a wife who also had a deep Ozarks heritage. As I type this, I find myself gazing out the window at a gorgeous view. However, as time passes, I see more of the deep, red and orange scars on the surrounding peaks, signifying the ‘extra people’ moving in and building their ‘McMansions’ on a hilltop overlooking the beautiful land that my people bled for.
The Ozarks is a land closely related to Appalachia, both in culture and poverty. My people had little to give but a lot to tell. Place names to this day are told in names of folks who were long dead before I was born. Telling someone to turn at ‘Johnny George’s’ would bewilder most, but home folks know right where that is. Our attachment to this land is part of our heritage. Land stayed in the names of the people who owned it for generations. A good portion of it, thankfully, is still so.
The government intervention in the creation of the Buffalo National River robbed many of the ‘home folks’ of their ancestral lands, and lives on infamously in our local lore. The loss of so much of our home county (and, therefore, tax revenue), robbed the local government of an income and hung us with being one of the poorest counties in the state. Those that hung on and catered to the tourist trade did a brisk business, and thus opened the door to the pervasive ‘tourist trade’ as a living that is, sadly, so common in our beautiful Ozarks.
I was blessed to grow up and know some of the traditions that my forebears had intended. I was raised on Holt Hill near my ancestral home and knew nothing but my family in my formative years. My great-grandparents lived just up the hill, and my grandparents just across the holler. Cousins and other close kin were always nearby. I rode a 3-wheeler with my great-uncle, who became one of my mentors, and learned to drive a stick-shift in my grandpa’s ’82 F150, hauling hay. I never knew life was anything but what I knew.
After my college in North Carolina, I returned home. In the late 2000s, not much had changed, but there were interlopers who had moved in. We all regarded them with suspicion until they revealed who they were (and where they were from, a trait I learned from my forebears), and watched how they assimilated to our society. The patriarch of a great family who moved in during the 1960s once told a friend of mine (upon him mentioning that ‘new people’ were coming in) that “Hell, I’ve lived here 30 plus years and I’m still ‘new people!’”
As the older generation died off and their children took over their land, there were many differing ways of handling it; some stood true and locked it into their children’s names, staying on the family farm and doing their ancestors proud.
Others, however, were not so scrupulous.
They sold out to outsiders and so began the infusion of ‘them’ into the pristine county that will forever be my home.
As land skyrockets in my part of the Ozarks, I see more and more of these places being erected, people who know nothing of my land and culture. People that come here for the clean air and would gladly spit on the graves of the people that tamed this land (if they could find them).
They know NOTHING of my people.
They never walked the hillside fields and pitched rocks with them. They never put a hand on their back during their times of sorrow. They never watched them toil just to live and be glad at eventide that they were still here with their families. They never bled, sweated, or even had to walk uphill across the land they so cheaply buy and inhabit, then denigrate the names of the ‘hillbillies’ who lived there. They never held the hand or stood by the bedside of those same pioneers as they died, nor would they care to.
I was blessed to watch the latter life and death of my great-grandfather, Linnis Wayne Holt, as he aged and oversaw his kingdom. He lived the life of a true Ozarker, living off the land and being content with what little he had. He had little and asked for less. He and his wife, Edna, had little and asked for nothing. They put back what they could and left their children an inheritance.
I write this as a proud Ozarker. Not as a eulogy of me and my people, but rather as a point of defiance.
I dig my heels in and proudly say who I am and where I’m from. They have came before, during the 1970s ‘back to the land’ movement, and now they come again. I pray they are repeating a pattern and will soon be gone, but no matter. THIS is MY home. It was the home of my ancestors, some of the first to settle and cultivate this land; they left their children a bit better than they had, and their children did the same, unto my present generation. I shall do the same for my children.
Growing up, one was oft labeled a ‘hillbilly’, which many took offense to, as being a ‘one gallus’ kind of guy.
Anymore, I find I have reattached myself to my ancestral ways. I wear my overalls proudly as we work our garden, and turn the Ozark dirt to make food for our children, same as our ancestors did.
Every now and then, I get the urge to unsnap one gallus and take my shoes off.
This is home. This is where our families are raised. If you won’t fight for that, what will you fight for?