Welcome to Pleasant Living
a newsletter on farm life and rural living from two folks in Western North Carolina
It feels important to start at the beginning, although there’s been lifetimes of beginnings before the one illuminated here–– the one where I’m married to a farmer and we’re building a life together on a farm in rural North Carolina. His homeplace, my chosen home.
The short story is this: I’m a writer turned baker who married a chef turned farmer. We met when, once upon a time, I wrote a story about him. I was fascinated by his thinking: a farmer who grows vegetables with the mind of a chef. He intrigued me. The connective and intimate ways he considered a plant in its entirety, root to leaf to bolted flowers.
The rest, they say, is history.
When I first met my husband, I innately understood that I was falling in love with a person unlikely to ever leave the state of North Carolina. I’d tell people, “He’s a North Carolina boy through and through,” and the idea of him living anywhere else didn’t suit. Maybe it was his propensity for farmer plaid, his distinct gap-toothed smile, or the way the word “woo!”–– staccato and country as hell–– exited his mouth when he put an exclamatory point on something. After a while, it became clear that if I was going to make a life with this person, North Carolina would be the place, and more specifically, Cleveland County—one of the small conservative counties of the Western Piedmont.
Jamie Swofford talked of North Carolina things. Not Tarheel basketball or Lexington barbecue, but where the walnuts accumulated at the bottom of the pasture and the secret patch of violets he’d visit every spring. He enthralled me with the way he scanned the forest floor for mycelia after a steady rain, and his ease strolling in the woods or rounding the curve of a back country road. Jamie embodies a connection to the foothills in a way that attracted me, a person for whom the idea of home is a complicated subject. A decade of telling food stories for a living connected me to people and places with history, generations of them, that shaped their identities and cultures. I was routinely fascinated by folks whose entire being was informed by their environment, their place. A body feeling at home within a certain landscape is enviable to me.
Jamie has been a farmer for the last ten seasons. For the two decades before that, he worked in restaurant kitchens, and before that he was a rural kid–– a Boy Scout who played church basketball, got into trouble, and couldn’t leave the county fast enough. Incidentally, the two-lane road where Jamie grew up is the place we make our home today, in Shelby, North Carolina.
When people ask me where I live, my typical reply points to Charlotte and Asheville, the more well known cities positioned an hour east and west of us.
If you head west from Charlotte to the mountains of Asheville along the four lanes of US-74, you’ll hit Shelby at the halfway point. People who experience Shelby in this context know nothing of the charming small town dubbed “The City of Pleasant Living”, but only a desolate pass-through littered with fast food joints and the Cleveland County grocery store of choice, Ingles. There are, by the way, four Ingles within ten miles of each other. You might hear of the longstanding Red Bridges Barbecue, with its famous red slaw and neon sign jutting into the skyline. If you don’t know how to cut towards the center of town, Shelby is an exhaust-filled artery shuttling transfer trucks and people driving “somewhere else”.
Folks familiar with Shelby, North Carolina, a small Southern town built on agriculture and textile money, know its small town USA vibes–– tree-lined streets leading to mom and pop shops surrounding a picturesque courthouse with a gleaming silver-white dome. This courthouse is now a museum named after native son and three-finger picker, banjo savant Earl Scruggs. On its west side, a monument to confederate “heroes” still stands.
Though my zip code claims Shelby, I don’t live in the quaint town center (known as “Uptown Shelby” to locals), or near the clogged commercialized bypass of US-74.
We live “in the county,” which is a nice way of saying that we live in the rural outskirts, outside of Shelby proper. To reach us, hang a right onto US-226 North from Highway 74 and drive past a startling parade of right wing flags, a disappointing but unsurprising landmark worthy of a trigger warning to visiting friends. After that, it’s another ten or so miles past cow pastures, eight churches, a Dollar General, the discount grocery affectionately known as the “Little Lots” (like Big Lots, only way smaller), and the singular Mason lodge. Hang a left at the only stop light in Polkville and drive the final three miles to Crowder Ridge, the two-lane road where we live. Look for the collapsed chicken barn on your right, a remnant of Jamie’s grandfather’s vocation in the 1970s, running one of the largest single-house egg operations in the county.
Thanks to the church-affirming sacrament of marriage, at least in the eyes of my in-laws, we were deeded a 2.5 acre plot, an old hay field, that we are slowly transforming into a farm. Side note: We were married in a brewery.
There’s still so much to say about how we got here to this particular beginning, how this life was a distant aspiration at first, a struggle second, and now that it’s real, a sincere responsibility.
This newsletter will chronicle stories from this place. We will speak of the realities of farm life and the truth behind pastoral notions and rural myths, and what it takes to build something without gobs of generational wealth at our backs. We will share our lives and observations as people who believe that rural places deserve our attention. We will talk of food systems and the seasons. We will share about ourselves, and our attempts to disrupt the old ways of thinking. It will be a peek into a life in motion, a commitment made between two people to build something worthwhile together, for better or worse.