By Betty Taylor
First published as Mother Earth News Blog
It is our destiny to draw the dragon’s fire while mainstream culture hides behind its disintegrating deficit, damning us for its complacency. —Gene Logsdon from and describing “The Ramparts People”
Persimmon Ridge shares its secrets only in the wintertime. Most of the year, a tangle of ankle-grabbing vines and prickly briars guard its entrances to foot traffic, obscuring old roads and lanes. Biting hordes of ticks and chiggers join forces with the green wall to keep out intruders. But in winter, the vegetation recedes and the little beasties sleep, if only briefly.
My struggling little honey-and-goat farm sits at the western base of the ridge. My drive way was once an old road that wound through my property and on up to the ridge top. The eastern slope of the ridge is home to a small settlement of mostly related African-American families who have been there forever it seems. Between us live only flora, fauna, and ghosts.
Between us lies a forest upwelling of persimmons, red and white oak, hickory, sycamore, beech, and other hardwoods--home to deer, wild turkey, raccoons, possums, bobcat, owls, hawks, squirrel, rabbit and, the neighbors and I believe, sometimes a mountain lion. The ghosts I speak of are in the bones of the old unpainted houses and of the barns built without nails that decay into the ground along the old road. Trees grow up around and through these old houses and their outbuildings, obscuring them from view on a casual walk.
For many winters now, I have frequented the ridge. When it is passable, I walk the road that disappears into the underbrush behind my chicken coop to start the climb. As I amble along lost in thought, I often look up to find haunted windows, shedding splintered panes of glass, staring back at me.
The midden piles around these homes give me clues to the people who once lived here. Homesteaders. They did not have running water, but they did have springs and wells. They had chicken coops, barns for livestock, and corn cribs. An abundance of old mason jars tell me they had gardens and put up their own food. Old whiskey bottles around the out buildings tell me how they spent some of their time and that this activity occurred away from the house, probably away from the womenfolk. Blue glass milk-of-magnesia bottles hint of constipation, probably a wintertime and late spring malady when fresh vegetables were scarce? A riot of daffodils in late winter tell me that no matter how poor and humble these abodes, their inhabitants loved beauty and looked forward to the bloomtimes.
Hair product tins discarded among the refuse reveal that the inhabitants were mostly black, perhaps descendants of the slaves from the Sowell Plantation that sat just west of my little farm and was cradled by the Duck River. In one old home, a yellowing Readers Digest, dated 1961, suggests the ridge was abandoned sometime during and after the Great Migration in the decades after World War II.
Whoever these people were, they’re all gone. The only visitors now are the occasional hunter and the curious winter hiker. But the ghosts of these people haunt me as I go about my chores, tending livestock and a modern homestead at the foot of the ridge. How did they live? How did they tend their homesteads? What did they grow in their gardens? How did they feed their animals in winter? What knowledge did they take with them that could help me now if only I knew? They had knowledge of how to live on the land passed down to them since the beginning of humankind—knowledge gone in a generation.
We modern homesteaders stumble about relearning, reinventing the wheel. This trial and error can be frustrating when all of our hard work ends in failure but oh so rewarding when things work out and we reap the benefit of our labor. So I look for clues and glean what I can from my winter walks along the ridge. If I build a chicken coop or a goat shed in the same manner they built their outbuildings--the posts not sunk into the ground but resting on flat stones—will they stand as long as these old buildings have?
Out of the Past Into the Future
I am not trying to return to some idyllic past. The old homesteaders had it much tougher than I do now. Their very survival depended on making a living from the land. They could not run to the Piggly Wiggly if their gardens failed or if their hogs failed to thrive. And a woman alone trying to homestead in those days? Probably would not have been allowed. I am grateful that I am living here now and not back then. But the longer I live this life and the more I learn from the land, the more I appreciate their strength and know-how and mourn its passing. I wish I could sit behind an outbuilding with them, share a sip of whiskey, and pick their brains.
Yes, the modern homesteading that I practice is far different from the do-or-die homesteading of the first inhabitants on Persimmon Ridge, but we also have something in common. Their ridge top homes meant freedom from slavery, a home to call their own, and a place to conduct their lives as they saw fit. They went to the ramparts, away from the plantation, but outside the fortified towns and cities as well. They had to depend on themselves and their neighbors.
After a lifetime of wage labor, my homestead, providing for my own needs as best I can, and bartering with other homesteaders has freed me to live on my own terms. I too came to Persimmon Ridge to claim my freedom. Will I and all the other modern homesteaders still be in places like this in twenty years? Or will our efforts be but memories swallowed up by what comes next? However it turns out, I am grateful for my time here now and so grateful that fear did not prevent me from claiming this beautifully difficult but fulfilling life.