No More/Know More

By Marianne Williams


-Zach Feuer, in an interview with Annie Armstrong from Art News,

Over the past year, in an attempt to put myself on an information diet, I have unsubscribed from newsletters, unfollowed most of my social media, not owned a television, not had a Netflix account (whether my own account or “borrowed”). I’m trying to re-train my lizard brain to focus. And like most diets, these efforts have mostly failed as I continue to gain heavy loads of information. My brain feels bloated by the end of most days, because being an even moderately-informed human in 2018 entails being force-fed news, opinions, tweets, and constant emails like a goose being finished on figs for foie gras.

I know the plotlines of television shows I’ve never seen, I know that Nicki Minaj is fighting with Cardi B, I know that one of the Kardashians had a secret pregnancy, I know that oversized blazers in bright primary colours are in for spring 2019, I know that there are 30 amazing skincare products for your combination skin, I know the names of new restaurants in Los Angeles (a city I’ve never been to, and have no immediate plans to go), I know, I know, I know…

For my job, I’ve been researching the Back-to-the-land (BTL) movement in Northwest Arkansas. I find myself echoing many of these idealistic young people a generation later. The BTL movement consisted of mostly white, college-educated twenty-somethings who were sick of the Vietnam War, the destruction of the environment, and America’s growing inequality. In looking to reject the middle-class values of their parents, they packed up their Volkswagen vans, left their urban and suburban homes, and went “back to the land,” disavowing capitalism and embracing sustenance agriculture and communal living.

And while many had utopian visions of sharing meals and plucking guitars in the wilderness by a campfire with all of their friends, the reality of living in an undeveloped and unforgiving rural part of Arkansas caught up to many when winter hit or the locals

protested and expressed hostility against the “long hairs with soft hands.” Although many left after short periods in the Ozarks, some stuck around and ended up weaving many of the radical ideas of the 1960s counterculture and intentional living into the cultural fabric of Northwest Arkansas. A thriving, but small, local food system is one such example, but there are many, many more.

I see these ideas recycled and reimagined in Instagram feeds (#vanlife) and the evergreen anxieties over gentrification in Northwest Arkansas specifically and neighbourhoods all over the United States more generally. It hardly surprises me when I find out that Bernie Sanders, my generation’s would-be saviour from the ills of capitalism and corruption, was a BTLer in Vermont in the 1960s and 70s, where he bought and lived in an old maple syrup shack. One can trace a direct lineage of the socialist memes and millenial discontent of today to the BTL movement. Although, if it didn’t work then, why do we think it’ll work now?

Yet because I am a white, college-educated twenty-something who is also sick of the state of American politics, concerned over the environment, and disgusted by the ever-deepening chasm of wealth and opportunity in the world’s most baffling superpower, I, too, fantasize about disappearing into the wilderness with all of my friends. I dream about shutting off my phone forever, disconnecting from WiFi, hiking deep into the Buffalo River Valley and staying there, eating wild persimmons and swimming with my pals. I want to have a little garden, I want to build a campfire every night, I want to forage comfrey and sassafras, I want to sleep under thick wool blankets, I want to make my own soap, I want, I want, I want…

So, instead of all this knowing and wanting, I’m trying to listen in Northwest Arkansas in 2018. I listen to the cicadas hum at night, to the directions of how to cook a bitter melon from one of the farmers at the market on the Square, to the band playing at Backspace, to my friends as they tell me about growing up here, to the jokes about Texans, to the real estate agent telling me they will demolish this house built in 1905 to build a new apartment complex, to the trans activists who’ve upheld Arkansas’ ability to list X as a gender on driver’s licenses, to the public lectures I go to at the University of Arkansas.

I hope that listening will prove to be the antidote to my information glut. I’ll be so busy listening, I’ll stop knowing, I’ll stop wanting. I’ll let you know when it starts working.

*This essay was originally published in print in Parlor Issue #1.