Founder of Fondren “Funk:” Felder Rushing
Most of the time, he’s thought of as the guy who writes for the newspaper.
A quirky person, they call him.
But the long-haired rabble-rouser known as Felder Rushing should be known as a no-nonsense, “live and let live” national treasure — and he happens to make his home in Fondren.
A self-described libertarian, Rushing is a published author, writes a column for the local daily newspaper and hosts a program on public radio entitled “The Gestalt Gardener.”
Featured in Southern Living Magazine’s 25th-anniversary issue as one of “Twenty-Five People Most Likely to Change the South,” the accolades and accomplishments are lost on him. “I go to parties and I don’t talk about my eighteen books or Southern Living,” he says. “It blows my cover and I like to enjoy myself.”
When Rushing retired from the Mississippi State University Extension Service after 25 years as an urban horticulture specialist, he could have lived anywhere in the country. He mentions North Carolina, parts of Texas or the west coast as desirable. But the Mississippi Delta native couldn’t get the Magnolia State out of his blood.
“Mississippi has a feel to it that outsiders don’t understand,” he reasons. “No matter who you are, what church you go to, who your mama is, your sexuality, your race, we can argue about it, but then we go out and have a drink! It’s a place where you can be yourself, partly, because nobody expects very much.”
Rushing calls Fondren “a small town in the middle of a city.” On his website at felderrsuhing.net, he describes the neighborhood like this: “We live in an older mid-town neighborhood in Jackson that fell between the cracks when tastemakers passed through. The shops and homes are an eclectic hodge-podge of styles, and there is a vibrant artistic and musical community. We are relaxed, free-wheeling, tolerant, non-judgmental, and both broad and open-minded. A lot of artists, writers, and other creative people share our streets, and we resist being pegged.”
“We” includes Rushing himself. His home and yard reflect the laissez-faire, “let do” attitude he preaches. While a moderate sized house sits on the front of his Pennsylvania Avenue property, Rushing lives in his backyard. His cozy 250 square foot cabin, designed by architect Rick Griffin, was chic, long before the tiny house movement caught hold.
Included on the fenced in grounds is a 300 gallon cistern for rain water collection and numerous gardens, fenced-inular, where his trademark slow gardening method is practiced with little effort. “Over the years, I have found out what you can grow without artificial life support,” he explains of his hands-off approach. “If it needs to be coddled, I don’t have time. I travel all the time and I’m too lazy.”
Rushing doesn’t own a mower because there’s no grass to cut, at once the bane of his existence to his neighbors. “Why no grass?” he asks. “It started when I was a kid. I had to mow grass and then I studied turf management at (Mississippi) State and said, ‘When I get to be grown, I’m not going to have any grass.’” Rushing says his first summer in the home, he killed all the grass and the neighbors went crazy.
“But this is ‘artsy fartsy’ Fondren,” he says, “So shut up!”
A lover of folk art, which is reflected in his yard in metal sculpture, pink flamingos and the like, Rushing says Fondren is the only place in the metro area he can possibly live. “It’s like my small town,” he says, “and it’s really cool. (When we’re out and about), they know my dog Rusty’s name better than they know me. I can park my plant-filled truck out front and the worst they can say is, ‘Oh, he lives in Fondren.’”
Rushing talks of another of his claims to fame. “You know the ‘Keep Fondren Funky?’” he questions. “I coined that – ripped off from ‘Keep Austin Weird.’” He even made signs and put them in what he called “deserving gardens,” namely Don and Becky Potts‘ yard and Mark Patrick’s former yard, where a front-yard statue of Michelangelo’s David used to get dressed up for holidays on State Street. “There are so many quirky things here,” many pictured in a special “Fondren Funky” section of his website.
The 10th-generation American gardener and Vietnam veteran wrote the book on bottle trees. No, literally. Bottle Trees and The Whimsical Art of Garden Glass explores the folk art phenomenon that is seen at garden shows, farmers’ markets and, especially, in his neighborhood. “Fondren, Mississippi has the highest concentration and most bottle trees of any place on earth,” he says. “I’m not making that up. It’s a way to express yourself that’s acceptable. You’re saying, ‘I’m different, but I’m okay.’”
Rushing spends several months of the year on a cottage farm in the western midlands of England, a town called Shropshire. He’s become somewhat of a treasure there, too, regaling locals of his stories from the Deep South, a place for them that holds great fascination. “They ask where I’m from and I say, ‘near New Orleans,’” he notes. “Susan (Rushton, his partner of five years), says, ‘Tell them you are from Mississippi.’ Their eyes light up. You know, Mississippi is so cool outside the United States.” Rushton, who is from England, says the people there see the style, the culture and the character. “It’s a heritage, isn’t it?” she asks. “People there kind of get it.”
And when Rushton, a blogger, comes to visit Rushing, she sees what he gets about Mississippi, specifically Fondren, too. “It’s clearly a really creative place,” she explains. “There are lots of artists and you don’t get that in every city. Perhaps you take that foregranted.” Felder concurs, saying, “I like being myself and you can only do that in a place where other people feel okay being themselves. Collectively, we’re proud to be from a cool little town in the middle of Jackson.”
It’s kind of the way he sees Fondren, too. “The bell curve sets the endpoints,” he explains. “The endpoints are the extremes and everything else is in the middle. There are no endpoints in Fondren. You can’t say there’s a typical Fondren person.”
Nor is there a chance of an “average” and “normal” Rushing, nor even the remotest of chances of him moving on. Funky Fondren suits him just fine. “If I came up with the list of all the things I needed to live somewhere, I’ve got it all here. It’s fun and I do encourage people to enjoy themselves.”
Rushton adds, “And that’s what bottle tress and pink flamingos are all about, right? It’s not serious.”
Originally published in December 2014. Rushing beloved dog, Rusty, has since passed.