By the early 1970s, with the Age of Aquarius rapidly succumbing to a thousand cuts — at the Lorraine Motel, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Spahn Ranch, Saigon, Altamont Speedway and eventually the Watergate Hotel — large swaths of the generation that came of age listening to the Beatles had resolved to try something different. For some, spurred by the growing environmental movement and the rise of publications like “Mother Earth News,” that something different was the back-to-the-land movement, which called on adherents to drop out of the urban life and head to rural America, where cheap land, a low cost of living and scant government regulation promised the kind of utopia many had dreamed of but few had accomplished. A lot of them ended up in Arkansas, where wooded, spring-fed acreage in the Ozarks could be had in those days for as little as $50 an acre.
Though the true numbers of how many young people decamped to the boonies in the heyday of the back-to-the-land movement will likely never be known, sociologist Timothy Miller, in his book “The 60s Communes: Hippies and Beyond,” says the exodus could have been more than 1 million people nationwide. How many of those people actually stayed on the land is just as hard to pin down, but it’s clearly a tiny percentage of those who set out for greener pastures. Living in the backwoods miles from where the paved roads and power lines stop isn’t for the faint of heart, and in many cases the ideals that sent a lot of young people looking for nirvana in the hills seem to have lasted just about as long as their first hard winter, their first pregnancy miles from a hospital, or their first long spell of intermittent hunger because they had no reliable income.
There were some who stuck with it, however, often because they mastered a traditional craft that allowed them to earn a semi-reliable living. All of the people we talked to for this story live either mostly or entirely “off the grid,” relying on solar panels and banks of batteries for their electricity. Several of them haven’t had air conditioning or indoor plumbing for decades.
While that might seem primitive to someone sitting in a suburban house, every one of those we talked with said they feel they have a more meaningful existence unplugged from the world, more in touch with nature and themselves. The question is: Would you trade your flush toilet and curling iron for fulfillment?
The first thing you notice about master cabin builder Robert Runyan is his beard and ponytail, a mountain man’s spill of off-white hair, usually framing a smile and a twinkling set of eyes that have a good bit of devilment still left in them at age 64. Then you notice his hands and forearms, corded with muscle, the hands and arms of a man who has sweated his way into being the best at what he does.
Runyan, who was named an Arkansas Living Treasure by the Arkansas Arts Council in May, is one of the state’s greatest living practitioners of the only traditional art form you can live inside. His white oak cabins — like the one he built on a ridge of Mt. Gaylor near Winslow for a Fayetteville surgeon over the course of two years in the 1990s — are a revelation of detail, skill and craftsmanship. The timber is set using a technique called “Scandinavian scribe,” in which each log is painstakingly coped until it fits exactly into the natural contours of the log below it. The resulting joints are so tight that you’d be hard pressed to find a place you could slide a credit card between the two logs. Maybe even more amazing is that — with a few exceptions — Runyan normally uses no power tools or mechanized equipment in his constructions, relying instead on hand tools, ropes, blocks and tackles and a matched set of giant mules.
Originally from Newport, where his father ran a small architectural firm, Runyan always had a sense of being an environmentalist, even before the term was popularized. In high school, he worked part time as a surveyor, and was struck by the waste of clearing the land for farming. “We’d go out and survey big blocks of woods,” he said, “and the next day they’d go in, push it up in a big pile and burn it — 300 acres, 160 acres.”
Though a football knee injury saved him from Vietnam, many of his friends joined the Army or Marine Corps and were shipped off to war. The world had changed by the time they got back to the states. Disillusioned with life in conservative Northeast Arkansas, Runyan said, dozens of young people he knew migrated to Northwest Arkansas over a two- or three-year period in the early 1970s. He moved to Northwest Arkansas in 1971, working as a stonemason on projects by the famous Arkansas architect Fay Jones and his proteges.
“Northeast Arkansas was a whole different world from Northwest Arkansas back then,” he said. “We had a mass exodus of people who came up here in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I’ll bet there were 40 or 50 of us that migrated up here from the Jonesboro/Newport area. … Jonesboro was pretty rigid and still is, so we had our bumps and bruises along the way.”
Though Runyan’s wife, Dorothy, has a more conventional house that’s hooked to the power lines near the top of Mt. Gaylor on U.S. Highway 71, Runyan is working on a cabin on property he’s owned for years a few ridges away in the watershed of Lake Fort Smith. That property is completely off the grid, with electricity provided by solar panels. While Runyan eventually got interested in the environmental aspects of solar power, he said its first appeal to him was the cost.
“They wanted $10,000 to run a power line in,” he said, “and that was back in the ’70s. So I backed off. Right now to this day, I might have $10,000 invested in my [solar] system. It’s set up now so you can run power tools, refrigeration, fans, lights, freezer. Plus they wanted to put a power line through the most pristine part of the property. … I said, ‘No, I’m not going to go there, either.’ “
After most of a lifetime spent as a steward of the forest in Northwest Arkansas, Runyan is saddened by the environmental waste he sees creeping into the area. A lot of the old-growth timber there is spontaneously dying, he said, possibly because of prolonged summer heat and drought in recent years leaving the woods susceptible to disease. Logging, he said, has become slash and burn, with high-dollar operations requiring high-profits and speed, neither of which allow for preserving the smaller trees that get in the way.
“What I call the old-time loggers — which is a couple of generations in front of me — they were fairly conservative,” he said. “They knew they could go back in 20 years and go through it again and make a living. Now it’s [cut] everything: from pulp, to crossties, to high-grade lumber. It’s everything. It’ll take a long time for one of these clear cuts to come back.”
As has been his habit over the past 40 years, however, Runyan is working to push back against what’s fast and modern. “I’ve got a couple hundred white oaks I’ve started,” he said. “They’re in pots right now, but when they get big enough, I’m going to put them out.”
Hazel Valley near Durham
When we drove out to Don House’s place near the little dirt-road enclave of Hazel Valley, he was picking an herb related to chamomile out of the middle of the driveway. He planned to make tea from it before bedtime. It’s soothing, he said, and gives him interesting dreams.
A professional photographer who once ran a studio on Dickson Street in Fayetteville before moving to Hazel Valley in 1998, House, 62, is originally from Detroit. He said he fell in love with the area in the early 1980s while visiting his sister, who was teaching at the University of Arkansas. He moved to Fayetteville in 1984.
“A number of people that I was meeting had made the decision to change their lives,” he said. “It seemed like everyone I met had been educated or trained to do something different than what they were doing. They had made a decision to give up lucrative financial rewards and come to an area where minimum wage was the common salary. But what they got in return was the ability to do what they wanted to do — to live the lifestyle that they wanted to live. They were happy.”
House’s cabin and studio are set in hilly, wildflower-strewn terrain, at the end of a winding driveway. The entire property is off the electrical grid, powered by a small solar array House put together himself with guidance from Jimis Damet (page 19). When House and his then-wife built the 700-square-foot cabin there, they’d originally wanted to bring in electric lines but soon ran into a problem that’s familiar among those who went to solar as a plan B.
“They wanted to cut a 30-foot swath up the mountain for the poles, no exceptions, and it really would have ruined a beautiful view and the woods there,” he said. “You have to give them the right to do whatever they need to do to maintain it, including herbicides. So we decided to look at other options.”
That option is mounted on a post at the bottom of the hill: a series of solar panels, hooked up to several 6-volt forklift batteries, with the power run through an industrial inverter that converts it from DC to 110 volt AC. House said it cost him around $5,000 to set up the system originally, and the only major repair he’s had to do in 14 years is to replace a set of batteries that went bad. He totaled it up once, and figured that he spends around $30 a month for electricity. Though he doesn’t have air conditioning, he does run commercial photographic lights in his studio, along with computers, printers and large scanners. He has a small propane refrigerator. His house, with windows set against the high ceiling to let the heat rise up and out, was ten to 15 degrees cooler than the outside when we visited.
Behind a folding door in the kitchen is a small meter that shows him exactly how much electricity is in his batteries and how much electricity he is using at any given moment. When it was installed, he said, he was amazed at how much electricity normal appliances and electronics — radios, TVs, chargers — use when they’re not turned on or in use. Now he has cutoff switches for everything.
A lot of people take the wrong approach to the idea of going solar, House said, asking how many panels it would take to live as they do now, instead of trying to consume energy in ways that are better suited to the technology. “They’re asking the question, ‘How can I get all this electricity from solar?'” he said. “Instead, they should look at, ‘How can I reduce the amount of electricity I’m using first, and then get the panels to fit that?’ That’s a much healthier and less expensive approach to getting off the grid.’ “
Living where he does and how he does allows him to think more deeply about his craft, House said, paring away distractions and lending a “spiritual quality” to his life that helps him in his work. Though House is clearly living a simpler life than most Americans, he resists the label of “simpler” because of the connotations.
“You say simpler and they might picture me and my sweetie sitting around a candle on a table trying to read,” he said. “I would say that instead of a simpler life, it’s a more conscious life. You’re more conscious of the energy that you’re using. It’s not an inconvenience of it at all once you’re more considerate of it.”
Near Red Star
Red Star, around 50 winding miles north of Clarksville, might well be the dim singularity at the middle of nowhere. From there, drive until you hit a washboard road that snakes through the woods for four miles. Turn, then head down a narrow trail rough enough to make you imagine punching a hole in the gas tank followed by a spark and explosion, trees pressing in so tight in some places that the branches touch the car on both sides. A mile and a half of that, and you’ll finally emerge into a fair and sunlit glade, crowned with the rambling dome house owned by Jimis Damet and his wife, Patricia Powell.
Damet, the owner of the solar installation business Rocky Grove Sun Co., is the sole remaining member of a commune that fled civilization in 1973, the group paying $8,000 for 80 acres of some of the most beautiful and least-accessible land on God’s green earth. One by one, his partners cashed out. Most of them live comfortable suburban lives now, having left their dalliance with communal living behind 40 years ago like a handful of wild oats.
Damet, 65, was born in Tulsa and attended college at the University of Arkansas. By the time he graduated, the back-to-the-land movement was kicking into high gear. He and five other idealistic compatriots went in together and bought the property, moving their families to the property near Red Star.
“It’s really fun for the first two years,” he said. “Everything’s novel and nothing is too serious at first. You’re just out there, and you’ve got so much energy that first year. But once people get down to how comfortable this lifestyle is going to be, and how they’re going to have to be in charge of their own comfort, and maybe they don’t think that can do it, it gets old quickly. The other thing is economics. Most people who lived out here two years being broke eventually got the reality of making money. Some of them had babies pretty early, and that made them move away.”
It was the reality of making money that pushed Damet into the solar business. By the 1980s, he’d gotten a few photovoltaic panels, intending to start building furniture for a living. When other off-the-grid people heard about his solar system, however, they started asking whether he could help them set up their own or help them acquire parts. So he started his company. The first few years were very hard, but as costs dropped and technology improved, so did his business. These days, Damet has three employees, and installs 20 to 40 systems per year all over the state.
While living so far out and off the grid is a “higher maintenance lifestyle,” he said, “you’ve got to like all that. You’ve got to like the purity of it. There’s got to be something that makes you satisfied that you’re doing something in a kind of zero-emission way. You’re not contributing to consumption or pollution necessarily.”
Damet and his wife recently installed a very efficient AC unit to cool one room of their house on hot days. He said he has everything he wants on the property. They’re comfortable there after 40 years, he said, in a world created by their own blood, sweat and tears. It’s difficult at times, but it’s clearly preferable to the alternative.
“A lot of people end up spending their time in a job they don’t like,” Damet said. “Maybe they like the money they’re making, but they don’t like spending all that time. So it’s all about doing what you want to do. It’s not about money.”
SAGE AND TOM HOLLAND
In the tiny studio she shares with her husband behind Mellon’s Country Store in Mountain View, Sage Holland heated a blob of glass until it glowed a dull red, then deftly touched it over and over with a thin wire of colored Italian glass, turning the bead in a blue cone of flame as she worked. Slowly, as her husband and I talked about their life off the grid 20 miles west near Fox, the world-renowned artisan, who has been making glass beads for over 25 years, added glass layer on layer until she’d fashioned something like a nebula captured in a drop of water.
Right now, when they aren’t in their studio or on the road to shows, Tom and Sage Holland live in what they unapologetically call a shack — a tiny cabin with no indoor bathroom on 44 acres, only connected to the outside world by a telephone line run three-quarters of a mile over the ground. They have a bank of four solar panels and several batteries. They’re working on a larger house with a cistern in the basement, a flush toilet and 20-plus solar panels. They hope to have it done by next winter.
Tom, 60, a well-known beadmaker in his own right, was raised in Cape Girardeau, Mo., while Sage, 55, grew up in Southern California. They met at a bead-making conference in Washington, D.C., in 1990, and Sage moved to Arkansas from Bellingham, Wash., in 1993. Tom said that living an off-the-grid lifestyle has been an aspiration of his since he was young.
“I read a book when I was a freshman in college called ‘Replenish the Earth,’ ” he said, “and it stated that one American uses as many resources to survive as 45 people in India. It’s only gotten worse since the ’70s. … I always wanted to go down kicking and screaming, at least being part of the solution instead of part of the problem.”
Tom said that the Baby Boomers are a “freak anomaly in the history of mankind.” Being born after World War II allowed them to reap the benefits of an economy powered by the fact that most of the rest of the world’s economic might had been destroyed.
“You have a generation of people who had time to stop and think,” he said. “Then, all of a sudden, you had an unjust war like Vietnam that unified us into one common cause. … We were on this youthful, idealistic fun trip. But when it came for the down and dirty of it, we realized it was a lot of work and we became disillusioned with it. The same with the back-to-the-land movement. There was disillusionment. People realized how hard it was.”
Tom said he can tell story after story of idealistic people who crumbled in the face of the reality of living out in the boonies. “I can take you to unfinished foundations way out in the woods where people had this grandiose dream, and they never got any further than the foundation,” he said. “But there are a few of us that have held on.”
Sage said the enemy of living off the grid is the “comfort zone” that tells people they have to exist in a world never hotter than 85 degrees or below 70. She said when people visit their property, she has found that many of them are downright afraid of nature.
“You have to have a hearty spirit,” she said. “You can’t be a wimp. It’s not for the weak of heart down here on the creek or anywhere in Arkansas in the woods. We’ll bring people from the city who are wanting to learn in an environment that’s away from everything. If they’re the kind of person who is afraid of a tick or afraid of a snake, everything goes to a mode of trying to coddle them.”
There is, Sage says, a certain kind of person who has an open place in their mind that allows them to handle the pressures of being self-sufficient. “I’m sure most people don’t even know it’s possible,” she said. “So they close their minds to it. If they ever visited a place that’s totally solar that was comfortable, then their minds would be open. But they have to see that place and experience it, and they don’t.”
The lifestyle, Tom said, is well suited to how they want to live: low impact, environmentally sound, close to the culture and the earth. Part of what drew him to the Mountain View area, Tom said, was the feeling that the world was becoming all the same. He’s a bit wary now that there’s a McDonald’s in town. “When I first moved here,” he said, ” I lived next to an 85-year-old lady who had never been more than 45 miles away from where she was born. That’s why I moved here. I saw this country becoming homogenized — same, same, same. And, by golly, Stone County had culture back in those days. It was a different part of this nation that had identity, and I loved that because I saw it being lost.”
Sage said she feels like she’s doing something positive by living the way they do. She feels like they’re doing something good for the earth, and setting an example.
“You feel like you’re helping further an alternative energy future,” she said. “You don’t have to worry about the power company coming and tearing the woods up. And it can be fun. It’s good for your brain to not surrender to the way people tell you it has to be done. You have to be a bit of a rebel to live this way, I suppose.”
Near Mountain View
Another long, rough trail through the mountains near Mountain View brings you to the cabin of Owen Rein, who has devoted his life to making traditional while-oak baskets and masterful rocking chairs. Now 58, he moved to Stone County in 1980. Before that, he’d been living in Massachusetts. Unemployed, in the middle of a recession, with no other prospects, he said he tried the only thing he could think to do, trekking into the middle of the forest and building a 12-by-20-foot log cabin, where he would live for the next three years. For him, he said, going back to the land wasn’t an ideology, it was just a lack of options.
“I remember being on unemployment lines that went out the door and down the block,” he said. “I didn’t have any other opportunity, and I couldn’t pay rent — out of college, sharing a house, $60 bucks a month, and I couldn’t pay rent. What was I going to do? So I ended up going back to my childhood idea of building a fort in the woods. I built a log cabin in the woods. That was plan B. That was all I could come up with, and it worked.” Everybody brings up Thoreau when he tells them that story of a cabin in the woods, Rein said, but he reminds people that Thoreau’s mom brought ol’ Henry David dinner every night. Nobody was bringing him dinner at his cabin, Rein said with a laugh.
After a few years of living “hard and primitive,” saving money where he could, Rein bought land near Mountain View — where the acreage and taxes were cheap and the oak and hickory trees were plentiful, he said — and built a cabin. His current house, a 900-square-foot clapboard cabin situated in a clearing in the dense woods, sits just up the lane from his workshop. Inside the workshop are only two large pieces of equipment: a homemade foot-treadle lathe for turning the tenons on stretchers, and a long, narrow shaving horse, where Rein spends his days alone by the stove with a drawing knife, sighting down a stick of wood with a practiced eye as he shaves down a chair part, cleaved minutes before from the heart of a log outside, until it is ruler straight and square. His rocking chairs, hand-whittled with the grain of the wood for strength, sell for $1,200 each. Both former U.S. Sen. David Pryor and President Bill Clinton own Rein rockers.
“Part of the plan of moving here and setting up here in the method I use now was to set up my own business without the financial pressure of a traditional woodworking business,” he said. “That’s really high, and it’s really hard to make a go of it. It’s very competitive and you need a lot of capital to invest in power tools if you’re going to compete. With the traditional methods I use, it’s a few simple hand tools and the technique gives me access to the timber. I can go cut a tree down by myself with simple hand tools, take it through the whole process.”
His resolve and that method was tested during the Great Recession of recent years, including one spell in which he didn’t sell a single chair for nine full months. Owning his property and having access to the materials — being “vertically integrated” as he calls it — allowed him to use that nine months to focus on new designs and getting inventory done instead of sweating about where his next paycheck was coming from.
Rein said that he feels he’s doing good and valuable work. His property is powered by solar panels, but that’s only since 1989. Up until then, he’d lit his world with kerosene lanterns. These days, his only bills are his phone and Netflix. He used to have a computer, he said, but he got rid of it when he found he was wasting too much time.
There’s a peacefulness about living the way he does, Rein said, a feeling that he’s not hurting anybody. While driving to see his daughter in Conway a few summers back, he noticed that he saw only a handful of people outside the whole way. Now, he can’t not see it when he’s driving in the hot months: the un-air-conditioned world, full of beauty, but emptied of people. As for him, Rein said, he tries to give and take the way all the rest of nature does, from the birds to the bees to the termites.
“When I go cut down a tree, I see the hole I make in the canopy,” he said. “I see the other, smaller trees that I crush if I don’t land a tree right. That’s the warehouse for my business. So it’s profitable for me to try to get the most out of what I take from the forest without diminishing it. It’s not an ideological concept. It’s just a very practical business thing. I’m making chairs and the trees are growing wood. We work together to achieve each other’s needs.”