Saturday, June 14, 2008

Who says you can't go home? (for a visit, anyway)

I went “home” a few months ago. That is, I visited the place where I grew up. It was my first visit to Newton County (AR) in about two and half years, so somewhat overdue. OK, it was especially overdue for someone who professes such an attachment to place, who writes about rural attachment to place – for someone whose family (both sides) has been in a place for five generations. (Photo top, city of Jasper, county seat, from Round Top Mountain; photo left, entering city from south on Hwy. 7)

Of course most folks can literally go (visit) “home,” but social re-entry is another experience altogether. Over the almost quarter century (yikes!) since I left to go to college, I’ve increasingly felt like an anthropologist when I visit Newton County. I am one of them, and yet not. I now observe the place, which I once took for granted just as it was, with a new eye for all sorts of practices and norms that sometimes seem peculiar. Peculiar, yet I understand them and find myself with at least some capacity to explain them to my husband, who now accompanies me.

It is easy to let one’s childhood home – especially a place as relatively static as Newton County – get trapped in a sort of time warp in one’s head, thinking that nothing ever really changes. In fact, I’ve been aware over the years that many things have changed. I was even more keenly aware of that on this visit, perhaps because I realize, now that I write about rurality, that Newton County has always been for me the quintessential rural place for me. It therefore bears scrutiny.

So here are a few things that have changed since I left:

  • Apartment buildings have been constructed in a town where there were once only single-family dwellings. Two of the three facilities are federally subsidized, I believe, and house the elderly and other low income residents.
  • The “city” of Jasper, population about 500, has a nice town park with a softball diamond, even some lighting.
  • The church in which I "grew up" is now a building that the school uses for home economics classes (are they still called that?); a new church building was constructed about a decade ago.
  • The old nursing home now houses various county offices, and a nice new nursing home sits on the other side of town. Two funeral homes were built in Jasper, both branches of the ones in Harrison, 20 miles away. One has since closed and is now home to a nifty senior center where folks can get a hot meal at midday, use the exercise equipment, or just socialize.
  • Ecotourism has taken off, kinda’. Certainly, many more accommodations are now available for tourists driving up Scenic Highway 7, coming to float the Buffalo National River, to hike its trails or those through the Ozark National Forest. When I was growing up, there were three little motels in Jasper, but now there’s great competition for tourist dollars – from log cabins to my own great-grandfather’s stone house, for rent by the week-end or week.
  • Over the years, I have subscribed to the Newton County Times, the weekly newspaper, off and on, so I knew the population of the county was not as static as when I was growing up. “Newcomers,” the transplants are called, those without roots in Newton County. They include folks with school-age children. There are now as many kids in the current school year book whose families as I don’t know as there are that I do. Heck, even the owner of the landmark Ozark Café, right there on the courthouse square, is a newcomer.

But I became aware of even more changes – saw them with my own eyes – when I was there in March.

  • What used to be the Dairy Diner – the burger joint I rode my bike to get ice cream cones and such – is now the Boardwalk Café. It serves only organic food. It was good, but pretty expensive. I wonder if the locals can afford it, or only the tourists.
  • There is now banking competition, right there in Jasper. Not only is the Newton County Bank no longer the Newton County Bank (but rather the Bank of the Ozarks, a regional bank), a bank from neighboring Carroll County is building a nifty new building.
  • Single-track dirt roads – often driveways to single homes – now cut across hillsides that were previously completely forested. A pricey dude ranch sits at the bottom of one of them.
  • There are organic farms, advertised as such.
  • Air Evacuation services are available to a “better” hospital than the little regional one 20 miles away.
  • The streets in Jasper have names, with signs to mark them. The houses have numbers. I guess this makes it easier for emergency services to find homes, which once were, for example, the "old Margaret Jones house" or "across from the Methodist Church."
  • The elementary, junior high, high school buildings and gymnasium of Jasper School have been joined under a single roof with a nifty, attractive clock tower. Perhaps this is a positive consequence of the school consolidation that followed a 2003 ruling of the Arkansas Supreme Court declaring the current school funding scheme unconstitutional.

Maybe I’ll write another post soon about what has not changed. It’ll start with the fact that oncoming drivers 'round the county still lift their pointer finger in a gesture of greeting when they meet me on the road – even though I am in a rental car and they don’t know who I am. A lot may have changed, but it’s still that kind of place.

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