Most people have likely considered living “off the grid” at some point. Frustrated with human congestion, uninvited noise and disruption, the nonstop material maintenance of regular life, it’s easy to take solace in the idea of an unplugged lifestyle that would surely restore calm and meaning. Live intentionally, as those fluent in self-help say these days.
Turn on your television and there’s plenty to watch that’ll nurture this private wish — “Life Below Zero,” “Mountain Men,” “Alaska: The Last Frontier.” But television’s primary function is the promotion of fairy tales; shows demonstrating the seeming ease of living off the grid scrub any suggestion of long-term disaster and heartache — that is, anything that can’t be neatly solved in a 22-minute episode.
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Imagine going “off the grid,” though, in the 1970s, when research was conducted in a physical library using a card catalog (on actual 3×5 cards) and letter-writing was an efficient way to stay connected. Jared M. Phillips, assistant professor of international studies at the University of Arkansas, has written an absorbing book, “Hipbillies: Deep Revolution in the Arkansas Ozarks,” about “back-to-the-landers,” the very people who made a return to nature, carving out a life embedded in it. The period Phillips covers is 1968 to 1982, when the movement was at its peak. He approximates the in-migration at this time between 2,000 and 6,000 across those 14 or so years. While the Ozarks has always had its share of so-called hippies and rural life devotees, this movement was markedly different from the traditional back-to-nature types. Namely, their motivation was largely political.
While back-to-the-landers supported the issues and causes that sprang forth the nationwide protest movement in the late 1960s, many believed that protesting was ultimately futile; that in order to achieve the way of life and spiritual vision they nurtured, they had to move back to the land and create their own small societies. The pursuit of “deep revolution” was the goal of these utopian revolutionaries. “Deep revolution” is a term Phillips uses to describe their motivations. It’s fitting, because only the most dedicated — the truest of believers — attempted to leave capitalistic society behind and head for the hills. Back-to-landers sought out a “pragmatic utopianism” which rejected the consumer culture and post-war politics. “A key component of the deep revolution was to leave behind the stagnant world of Cold War consumption and return ‘home’ to nature.” They sought to reduce life to its most elemental of struggles: that of man against nature.
Those that chose the Ozarks were overwhelmingly white middle class people in their early-to-mid twenties. Most had completed some college. They came from Chicago, New York, New Orleans and from elsewhere in the Natural State. Phillips links the seeds of this revolutionary movement to the literary works of Ginsberg, Kerouac and Gary Snyder as well as the nature writings of Thoreau, Wendell Berry and the environmental alarms sounded by Rachel Carson.
Phillips deftly narrates the individual stories of many who arrived in the Arkansas Ozarks during these years, most significantly a fellow named Edd Jeffords. Jeffords, an Arkansas native who had moved to Washington state and then to Texas, settled in Eureka Springs upon his return and immersed himself in the counterculture movement. He founded the Ozark Access Catalog, designed to be a reference tool for new residents. Ultimately, he only managed to publish four issues, but its impact resonated beyond its short existence. Counterculture guerilla presses that were common wherever counterculture thrived popped up in the Ozarks and began putting out various newsletters, with back-to-land-specific editions. Land in the Ozarks at that time was relatively inexpensive, but even the most well-intended homesteaders could run into snags born of inexperience. Take, for example, Cindy Davidson and a group from Little Rock, who inadvertently purchased a parcel of land with no road access whatsoever. The goal of Ozark Access Catalog’s publications was to share ideas and, more importantly, educate the new arrivals on life in the Ozarks and best practices for acquiring land.
If there is one constant in Phillips’s book, it’s hard work. Homesteading required nonstop work, often seven days a week. Some had to take on work in nearby towns to help make ends meet. Men joined work crews and spent weeks apart from their families. Women were left alone with the children and agricultural labor. The more fortunate parlayed their writing and journalism skills into freelance work to help ease the financial strain.
It cannot go unnoted that marijuana use was often a part of the lifestyle, as was LSD, which was used to reinforce spiritual harmony with the natural world.
Of course, not everyone could make a go of it. Some flat out failed; others stayed for a few years but eventually left. A few have managed to live a lifetime hidden away in the hills.
Even though the period Phillips covers reaches its conclusion by the early 1980s, the legacy of this important movement is obvious today. The back-to-landers were at the forefront of organic farming, environmental activism and the decriminalization of marijuana. Phillips has amassed a thoroughly researched and meticulously told account of this significant movement in our state’s history. But it shouldn’t be read as an Arkansas story. The beliefs that spurred the development of this utopian idea in the late 1968s, of self-reliance, of a fairer and just world, still flourishes today, within and without the Arkansas state lines.