hill country

Hill country is a term that has been associated with poverty, the reason being intrinsic to the nature of hills—erosion on sloped land: soil vulnerable to being washed away is poor. Another aspect of the nature of hills is relative inaccessibility. “The hills” are a place of isolation, meaning rural character. Think Appalachia: hillbillies come from the hills. Rural character traditionally suggests not only a coarse ruggedness but also toughness and independence. When richness of soil no longer matters, the hill country (like the Texas hill country outside of Austin) is ultimately sought as a place of authenticity, regionalism as a kind of aesthetic. Another feature of hills is that one can easily hide in them—as the Scottish highlanders, outlaws of the American West, and the mujahideen of Afghanistan have demonstrated; the hill country traditionally serves as a fortress also for fierce guerrilla fighters who descend from them to sack the cities in the rich flatland below. The hills as manageable mountains accord refuge—hence the Old Testament verse, “I lift mine eyes to the hills”—and were the refuge of anchorites who went to find religious retreat outside a nearby community. The shapes of hills form a knowable landscape. They connote permanence, something to go toward and back to, as Arlo Guthrie sings in an old folk song: “Way down yonder in the Indian nation riding my pony on the reservation in the Oklahoma hills where I was born.” Something familiar, remembered, home.

Susan Brind Morrow