“My last trip to town was to get the chainsaw on this side of the mountain. I picked up more dog and chicken feed. I was careful to ask if I could hurt anyone else by taking too many bags of feed.” – Cathy (last name withheld)
I grew up on a dirt road in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas among self-sufficient people who chopped wood, gardened, canned vegetables and raised bees and chickens. Many of them, like my parents, were part of the back-to-the-land movement in the 1970s and sought out rural places where land was affordable, like the Ozarks, and where they could work at building a way of life that was sustainable and based on connection to and respect for the land. Susan Gateley*, a retired nurse who moved to Johnson County in 1980, said of the folks in her neighborhood, “We talk about coronavirus and we talk about gardens.” Gateley said she was in self-quarantine, but the rhythm of her days was much the same as ever. She fed her horses. She tended her garden. She ordered seeds. She took long walks.
As the coronavirus has spread across the United States and Arkansas has seen an increase in cases, I’ve been thinking of the rural people I grew up with in Johnson County and how they are dealing with COVID-19.
Dennis Hargiss, who studied religion at Harvard University, lives near my parents with his girlfriend, Anne Wenzel, in an old farmhouse that lacks indoor plumbing but has an expansive library. Hargiss moved to Johnson County decades ago as a part of the back-to-the-land movement. When I asked him how he had prepared for the coronavirus, he said, “I am reminded of a song by Jon Anderson of ‘Yes’ many years ago when he sang, ‘Let the forest be salvation long before it needs to be.’ We came here along with so many others back when we back-to-the-landers often needed to explain or defend our lifestyle choices to others.” Hargiss, like my parents, had wanted to live his life more in tune with nature, with the land, and to grow his own food. In addition to those reasons for moving back to the land, Hargiss added, “perhaps now one can add ‘prudent’ to the list.” For Hargiss and many others in rural areas, being prudent means tending to a garden, collecting rainwater, investing in solar energy and trying to be more self-sufficient in ways that make a smaller carbon footprint.
Cathy, a retired schoolteacher, moved with her husband to Johnson County in 1970 as a part of the back-to-the-land movement. She asked that I withhold her last name for fear that at some point during the spread of the coronavirus, people desperate for food might try to find her well-stocked house and garden. She described life in self-quarantine with her husband as relatively unchanged, except for rare trips to town — and more worry. She was thankful to have grown up working a garden and raising chickens, which meant she wasn’t as dependent on commercial food supply chains.
When she went to pick up their chainsaw from the repairman last week and returned home, she described practicing her new home protocol: “You get to the front porch, you strip those clothes off and they go carefully into the laundry, wash hands, jump in the shower, take the diluted bleach sprayer out to the car, wipe down anything you touched there and wipe down anything you touched on the way in.” One thing that has changed is that Cathy’s daughter, who lives nearby and often comes by to use the wireless internet connection, now sits in the yard when she visits, at a distance from her parents.
Gateley, the retired nurse, like many others I spoke with, was worried about the local response to the coronavirus. She was worried that many businesses, including construction, were still running. She admitted, too, feeling torn about being retired because she knew her skills could be useful in saving lives. “Medically speaking, I sometimes feel bad because I’m retired, but on the other hand, I’m 65 years old. If I get it, it could kill me.”
Iris D’Andrea, 72, who moved to Hagarville (Johnson County), population 129, in 1972, is part of a high-risk group because of her age and her emphysema. “My granddaughter brought me groceries,” she said, “and I asked her to leave them on the porch. I soaked a rag in bleach water, and when I went out on the porch, I wiped everything down before I put it away.” She described how neighbors had left her food on the porch. “You know how sweet country people can be. People are bringing me stuff from their garden.”
As for the future of the coronavirus and its effects, she acknowledged that it scares her. “The casinos — everything is closed — so that tells you that things are a lot worse than they are letting on,” she said. And she’s taking advice on how to stay healthy from doctors like Dr. Anthony Fauci, the National Institutes of Health director who has been the public face of the COVID-19 pandemic: “I’m paying more attention to what they are saying than what Donald Trump is saying.”
People in rural communities have long tended to get pegged as either one type of person or another, and the same is true in the time of coronavirus. Gateley mentioned the “stereotype of people who live in the country and their guns and their stash of stuff,” but said, “I don’t know too many people around here that way.” Hargiss also talked about stereotypes about back-to-the-landers that evoke “images of apocalypse, stockpiling and isolationism” but said, “That’s not us. We envision a simple, more sane, engaged and harmonious life with all our relations. With the virus, if anything, this has only deepened.”
As for Gateley, as she walks her land in the early morning light each day. She thinks about how this moment is “both terrifying and beautiful. I don’t know if paradox is the right word. It can really terrify you, but on the other hand I think of the planet’s ability to regenerate itself. The bees are back. The bugs are back. And the peepers [frogs]. And then you hear the wild turkeys in the woods. And I think, ‘Everything is going to be OK because this planet is going to survive with or without humans.’ ”
This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.
*A previous version of this story misspelled Susan Gateley's name.