Sunday, December 2, 2007

A rural life (as distinct from "The Rural Life")

Effie Lea Shatwell, Lisa R. Pruitt and Elver Shatwell,
at their home in Vendor, Arkansas, 1995

A rural life ended this week with the death of my maternal grandmother, Effie Lee Shatwell of Vendor, Arkansas. She was 92 and is survived by six children, 18 grandchildren, 36 great-grandchildren, and 10 great-great-grandchildren.

Reflecting on the life of "Grannie Shat" has served as a reminder of so many of the aspects of rural living that have drawn me to think and write about rural people and places. Certainly, her life and times were worlds away from "The Rural Life" depicted by Verlyn Klinkenborg in his popular blog by that name. While Klinkenborg makes a good living as a writer and keeps a farm in Columbia County, New York, as an avocation, my grandmother spent the vast majority of her life actually eking a living out of a subsistence farm in the Ozark mountains of Northwest Arkansas. Born in the community of Red Rock in 1915, she married my grandfather in 1939 and lived out her adult life in nearby Vendor. Both of their families had already lived in the area for several generations. She and my grandfather made their living almost entirely from their hill farm, putting in a full garden every year until my grandmother had a stroke and went to live in a nursing home more than 9 years ago. That year, my grandfather's last, he put in and harvested the garden without her.

Throughout her married life, my grandmother canned and stored all summer to have food to get the family through the winter. Only a few years before her stroke did they stop keeping chickens, pigs, cattle, and a mule to pull the plow. They sold eggs, milk and butter to their neighbors, and supplied them also to their grown children. As the mother of young children, my grandmother took money earned from selling eggs and other produce to buy dry goods to make all the kids' clothes. The fabric was used again and again, as girls' skirts were turned into shirts for the boys, then quilt tops. The food I most associate with my grandmother is a pot of pinto beans with a big ham hock in it for flavor. Second to that, there was the "big mess of squirrel" she'd fry up after my grandfather had gone hunting.

My grandfather worked as a logger in the timber woods and did some work stints in Kansas City when there was no work to be had in Newton County. Only after I moved to California did he tell me of his stint working in a cooperage in Oakland, presumably during the Dust Bowl era. "I hated California," he said, "and I wanted to be back here, so I caught a ride back to Arkansas in the bed of a pickup truck as soon as I could." In their latter years, my grandfather brought in a little extra money from carving miniature wooden plows and making birdhouses to sell at the tourist stops along nearby Scenic Highway 7. My grandmother never worked outside the home, never paid into Social Security, but I have no doubt that she contributed as much to her family's survival as my grandfather did.

Many of the themes of rural living that we have discussed this semester are reflected in my grandmother's life: poverty, hardship, and deprivation (she and my grandfather got indoor plumbing in their home only in 1990; they drew water manually from a well at the corner of the front porch, and you can see part of the wringer style washing machine in the photo above); the informal economy (as noted above); social and spatial isolation (my grandparents came to the county seat, traveling in part on dirt roads, every Saturday to buy feed for the animals and what few foodstuffs they didn't grow); and attachment to place (although no one has lived on the farm for almost a decade, my mother and her siblings have been unwilling to sell it).

And then there's law's relevance to rural lives like those of my grandparents. Or, perhaps I should say complete lack of relevance (except, of course, to the extent that the rule of law permitted them to own their farm and live there in peace). Perhaps law has become more relevant only in their absence. My mom tells me that a meth house is operating down the road from their vacant farm. Now that I think about it, maybe this doesn't represent change in terms of a role for law. Law remains largely irrelevant to their lives (or more precisely, those of their heirs) if law enforcement resources are so strained, or so influenced by local considerations, that the meth house is ignored.

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