I spent a lot of time with my grandparents as a kid, and my favorite person was Rex Hill, my dad’s dad. Both my grandfather’s served in WWII, but I had a special bond with one grandpa: we both were blessed (or cursed) with wandering spirits.
Now, my grandpa was an orphan, so he never knew if he had siblings or even parents that were living. Maybe this is the reason he formed such deep relationships. He wasn’t very social, but the friends he had were incredibly dedicated to one another.
One such friend was Old Man Johnson. I have such fond memories of visiting his farm. My grandpa bartered a lot with vegetables, hogs, and flowers. (My granny and I swore he could get a rose bush to grow from a single pedal, such was his green thumb!) Old Man Johnson was one man that Grandpa visited, traded with, and befriended over years of cultivating a relationship.
There’s just one thing though: Old Man Johnson was a hermit! That’s right. Growing up the Ozarks, it was easy for people to have a valley and hillside that was theirs with a barely-there road leading up to a shack. But it was theirs! Old Man Johnson had this sort of set-up, and he only went into town for provisions a couple times a year. The road that led to his…cabin (let’s call it that) was a rutted mess in the driest season and impassable most of the time. My grandpa and I would load up in the truck with whatever we had to take to Old Man Johnson and start heading toward his hillside.
Old Man Johnson’s farm had a large vegetable garden, ducks, geese, chickens, guinea fowl, mongrel dogs, cats, and a couple of goats. Of course, there were also all the non domesticated animals, of which Old Man Johnson might have been too. When we bartered with him, we usually did so on nice days and visited outside standing around my grandpa’s blue Dodge. We always “brought up the mail” from the box on the county maintained road. No self-respecting mail carrier would drive the road to the cabin!
I was young, and there were dogs and cats to pet; guineas to pester; stories to hear. I only entered Old Man Johnson’s cabin once that I recall, but it made a huge impression on me. We caught him after one of his infrequent trips to town, and he had picked up some sort of soda; an unusual item for him to have. He offered me one and told me to run into the house and get one from the fridge in the kitchen. Grandpa nodded his consent and off I went.
Opening the door is what changed me. Not only was Old Man Johnson a hermit, he was also a hoarder…of books. There were shelves of books on every available wall and stacks of books and magazines and Extension publications everywhere. There was a trail through them to a chair with a lamp and onto the back of the house where the kitchen was. The table in the kitchen was littered with more books and magazines. He probably had every Jung Seed Company catalog since the company started in 1907! It was remarkable and left a huge impression on me. I thought Old Man Johnson was a burly mountain man who lived alone and hated most people, my grandpa being an exception. That was only partially true. He bartered knowledge as well as small livestock. He seemed to know so much about so many different things not because of the life he lived before retreating to his place in the Ozarks, but because he was a lifelong learner who was connected with the outside world through the mail carrier.
As I made my way through the stacks to the kitchen, I was careful not to disturb any of his books. There were a few well-worn children’s books that I was surprised to see, but the sheer volume of reading material was awe-inspiring. I will never forget it!
Another remarkable thing: the absence of thick dust. These weren’t books for show; these were books for knowledge and enjoyment. As odd as Old Man Johnson was, it brought a whole new appreciation to the existence that he eked out on the side of a hill in the Ozarks.
This is the essence of intellectual wellness, and its important because it helps you have a balanced life. Exploring new things and a variety of different subjects might not be required for your job, but it does inspire curiosity and further exploration. These lead you to try new things and develop understanding between people and the environment.
Intellectual wellness makes you a better member of society, even if you’re a hermit. I’m sure Old Man Johnson had moments of loneliness, but his desire to learn things about his surroundings allowed him to find the best arrowheads, grow great produce, and raise geese that were gentle (unlike my grandparents’ demon gander). His like was full even without an abundance of people. He was aware of the world around him and was understanding of those around him who were different from him, which was pretty much everyone I knew.
You don’t have to be a great reader to be well read. You just need to start with one magazine or one book. You can check the free stack at the library or get a library card to get started. And the content doesn’t have to be immediately of interest to you. That can come later as you find what you like and don’t like. Even then, you’ll find things that speak to you even if the subject isn’t something you thought would hold your interest. Read because it is important to your wellness and to your community because it makes you a better person.
If all you do is work each day, come home, watch TV, and go to bed, you’re missing it. You’re missing the thing that Old Man Johnson had in spades: a thirst for knowledge. He had great intellectual wellness.