Last Word: New to the Area

Making a home in the Ozark hills

MY FAMILY’S MIGRATION south began before my wife and I met, when we (both Illinois natives) went to college in Indiana. Four years later, we married and followed a job to Kentucky. Now, departing that job, we’ve uprooted and moved to Arkansas.

I call this a migration because it feels so instinctual. I find myself in one of life’s winters—facing the challenge of survival as a young professional writer—and I have a toddler and a newborn to think about. It feels somehow primordial to unplug from technology and the city (where I’ve spent my adult life) and to pursue a more natural state of being.

So I’m new to the area—to the South, to Arkansas.

The state school where I accepted a position is like a town unto itself—urban on a small scale. Yet one border seems at war with greenery. Grass, foliage and trees are indistinct in their stolid press, swallowing homes along the east side of campus, transforming hillside roads into chlorophyll-tinted tunnels.

The growth along most of the streets here is thick. The trees seem to lean toward you, no matter where you stand. This is all different from the domesticated flora I’ve seen all my life. Fields lie fallow in the Midwest, but even “fallow” anticipates the till. The landlords giving us tours here seemed resigned to the feral shrubs clawing the upper windows of their buildings.

Even the earth here takes adjusting. In one sloping parking lot, I set down my 1-year-old and watched him reorient to a world askew. He walked left toward the building first, lifting his knees to scale the incline, then turned and toddled uncontrolled toward the street, arms splayed, laughing. I swooped him up and perched him on my shoulders, and for the rest of the apartment hunt, he held handfuls of my hair and shrieked gleefully when we crested each hill.

Midway through the day, the air turned gray and electric, forcing us into a newly made friend’s house before a thunderstorm struck. Rain pounding the roof, my son napped.

THE APARTMENT we found is small, but it has windows on three of its four sides. Although it’s near a bustling campus, it has a small field behind it in which our kids will soon play.

We’re not settled in yet, but our dining-room table will almost certainly end up beside the large back window, looking out on trees, and I will almost certainly end up planted on one end of it writing each morning and night. And as with most of my writing these days, I’ll have to actively resist social media as I do it.

For me, Arkansas is a sort of escape. The job I left before moving required me to tweet, post and respond to comments on my articles and videos—in the job description: “to cultivate a social media following.” Cultivation is in some ways an appropriate term for the care and attention social media requires. But cultivation also connotes an other-centeredness—a giving over of one’s self to, say, a sprout with its tender green leaves open like the beak of a baby bird, all with the joyful hope it will soon grow into a zucchini.

Social media, by contrast, easily becomes an opening of one’s own mouth—not to give the self, but to sell it.

Outside the back window, a bird I’ve never heard before warbles, pulling me away from my laptop for a moment. It alternates between whistles and throaty clog’s, like the sound of brook water lapping over stones. When I Google the bird, matching its calls to recordings, I find it (the brown-headed cowbird) to be indigenous to the states where I’ve lived for years, yet I’m only hearing its call for the first time.

This seems like yet another reminder of how city life has curtailed my consciousness. In cities, trees are penned inside parks, bounded by highways. Even in the country, they’re only conscripts, standing at attention in fields to guard against erosion, often pruned into Y’s to allow the passage of electrical wires.

Here, even in our apartment, it seems I am the interloper. With the creep of trees comes the presence of the brown-headed cowbird. And with the bird’s presence, a warbling declaration. Here nature encroaches on my space and attention, not to colonize, but simply because it is nature’s way.

I’VE FOUND a home in universities for years, partly because of the draw of knowledge. The more I know, the more that becomes articulable—what more could a writer want?

This sort of knowing has mastery in mind: If I can understand facts, then I can control my reality. But the omniscience promised by the internet doesn’t come with a matching omnipotence, and that can be maddening.

Knowledge of nature comes without promise of mastery. And this, to me, is perhaps the draw of Arkansas: With knowledge of nature comes a hope of relationship. I don’t need to learn the genus or even the name of the brown-headed cowbird to know its call. I don’t need to learn the elevation of Fayetteville to know that fog here slicks fields with dew so thick it looks like frost in the summer. These types of knowledge seem somehow more real, more tactile.

And this, I think, is what our little family’s migration is for: to know our world more by claiming to know it less. To re-sensitize us to the world’s mystery.

Of course, my whole romantic vision is, to an extent, self-defeating. I chose Arkansas to escape a world of technology and commodification, only to demand that the Ozarks render me that escape. In four years, the land could feel just as alien. Worse, it could feel as banal as the country I’m abandoning now. All it takes is a closed window or headphones to ignore just as many birds as before.

But perhaps a respite from technology—a relief from the self—doesn’t require nature’s consent. Perhaps it simply means going on a walk with my boys. And I’ll point out the dogwoods to my elder son when the buds are still a gentle purple, noting how they look like the sky on spring evenings, and he will return each day, waiting for them to flower for the world, for him.

I’m new to the area, but I plan to stay awhile.

David Priest is a Master of Fine Arts candidate at the University of Arkansas. He lives in Fayetteville with his wife, Lindsey, and his sons, Idris (pictured above) and Atticus.