In the spring of 2003 I moved from Perth, West Australia to Berryville, Arkansas with the intention of building an eco-homestead. Highway 62 runs through Berryville connecting it to Green Forest to the east and Eureka Springs to the west. On several occasions I saw a man walking along that highway with a walking stick and wearing a backpack. I remember he walked with a limp. I’m sorry to say that I never offered him a ride. His name, I learned later, was Darrell Michael (Hitchhikin' Mike) Heaster. He was fifty years old and lived on disability.
While I never spoke to him, I now know Hitchhikin’ Mike’s name because one day, twenty-four year-old Cory Lynn Howerton offered him a ride. Cory drove Mike about a half a mile down a little-trafficked logging road, beat him, took the $500 from Mike’s recently cashed disability check, poured gasoline on him and set him on fire. Hitchhikin’ Mike died 30 days later in an Oklahoma hospital.
This was not a routine occurrence in Carroll county, Arkansas. The old locals that I talked to about it said it was the kind of thing they thought only happened in places like Los Angeles. To the best of my knowledge, no acts of comparable brutality have followed it since then. So what’s my point?
In this blog I detail my impressions and experiences at the Ecovillage Training Center at the Farm, an intentional hippy community in Summertown, Tennessee. After last week’s blog post, Albert Bates, my host and sponsor here at the ETC told me that I seem to have gotten the wrong impression about the Farm and its relations with its neighbors. Albert explained to me that in the early days of the Farm, when it had nearly 2,000 residents (today it has fewer than 200) and it outnumbered the muggle population of Summertown, the Farm residents voted in a block. A solid block of 2,000 lock-step votes in rural Tennessee was a force that no would-be elected official could ignore, and the Farm residents made significant inroads into local and state politics and forged lasting relationships with the local movers and shakers which continue to bear good fruit to this day. The nearby town of Hoenwald, due in no small part to the on-going outreach efforts by denizens of the Farm, has officially set itself on the Transition Town path. As a result of the community-building efforts of the Farm’s founders, “You can cash a check on long hair anywhere in a 20 mile radius,” Albert tells me.
That said, Albert tells me that a certain segment of the population of rural Tennessee consists of scallywags and rascals and always has. The point being that acts of vandalism and larceny reflect the character of rural life more than they reflect any tension between “the locals” and the hippy culture of the Farm. The contracting legit economy here just isn’t up to the task of providing living wages to all of the folks who live here, and so folks make due with their given circumstances. The more brazen and/or sociopathic of the individuals who are getting by on the economic margins are the ones who make the headlines.
When I speak of headlines, I mean both the metaphorical headlines of informal conversation and the actual headlines of the local newspaper. Here is a full list of all of the headlines that appear on the front and back page of the news section of March 3rd, 2010 edition of the Lawrence County Advocate:
Resident returns to find pets killed
Injunction remains to stop ‘puppy mill’ dog adoptions
100 years, 100 miles
England candidate for Sheriff
Lawrenceburg man awakened by vandals
Resident warns of scam attempt
Summertown man chases prowlers from his home
Mobile home buyer is victim of fraud
Victim tracks down stolen property
South Lawrence Head Start taking applications
Do these headlines illustrate the moral poverty of rural life, or do they exemplify the media maxim of “If it bleeds, it leads?”
It’s also worth noting that the top story in the fyi section of that same issue of the Lawrence County Advocate opens with a full page story on Ina May Gaskin, the world’s most famous midwife. She is married to Farm Founder, Steven Gaskin, and she founded The Farm Midwife Center (It is mainly due to Ina May’s book, “Spiritual Midwifery” that my two children were born at home.)
Yes, there have been break-ins and vandalism on the outskirts of the Farm. The victim of one such incident told me that he thinks the locals in the immediate vicinity have a good opinion of the Farm and its residents and that the perpetrators probably came from some distance away. I asked him if he thought that the incident was a one-off or if his living arrangement required on-going vigilance. He said he remains vigilant, but he also thought that his relationship with the non-Farm locals was improving. He told me about trying to rent a video in Summertown. The proprietor was wary of him until she learned that he was associated with the Farm. Once that was on the table the tension lifted. “I’ve never had any trouble with those folks,” she told him. The implication being that she had had trouble with other folks.
Another of the younger folks who work here at the Ecovillage Training Center expressed some impatience with the very notion that there’s a conversation to be had about the relationship between the residents of the Farm and the locals. It just takes one or two rowdy jerks in a pick up truck to conjure up a conversation about “our relationship with the neighbors” when for the most part relations are amiable and generally a non-issue. What’s more, the land bordering the Farm is a patchwork of plots some of which are owned and inhabited by people associated with the Farm and by the so-called “locals.”
Gaining membership to the Farm is a long process which requires more compromise than some would-be residents are willing to make. The Farm, with it’s marked and defended borders, is a bit like a fort in Indian territory. Some settlers think they can set up housekeeping outside the walls of the fort and thereby enjoy the cultural benefits of living in proximity to the Farm without all the strictures of life within the fort. Then after having their homes violated and their property vandalized they decide that the security afforded by the fort’s perimeter defenses is worth the cost. I hear that that process works the other way as well; that the bother of internal Farm politics motivates some people to move out but not away.
What’s more, the line between hippy Farm denizen and “local” is sometimes blurry within individual people. So-called Dreadnecks, children who grew up on the Farm with friends out in the local community, embody the blurring of the categories. Which is not to say that all tribal affiliations are ephemeral or academic. As is true in just about every place I’ve ever lived, there are certain crowds and locales that common sense tells me to avoid.
This topic connects to several others that I hope to explore in the coming weeks, not least of which is the question of whether rural living is a responsible or even viable option in an energy descent environment. I won’t attempt to address that question today except to say that, without a massive Malthusian Correction, we’re going to need ecocities at least as much as we need ecovillages, and the quality of ecocity life will play a much larger role in human consciousness than will the quality of rural life. Again, sans an enormous dieback.