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Beyond the city, Florence Wheeling pursues a life less complicated.

The December chill can't keep her inside, and her smooth gait shows no hint of the painful shingles she suffers from. She is shielded by a denim jacket and a scarf atop her graying blonde hair.

As the years march on, and this area of eastern Henrico sees more development, Wheeling's kind is becoming scarce. But even as more of the area gives way to urban sprawl, spurred by a 40 percent population increase in the last 20 years, such change doesn't stop Wheeling from continuing the ways she has always known, here on what she calls "the garden spot of the world."

"Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God," Thomas Jefferson once said. And if ever someone cherished such sentiment, it's Wheeling. So it's no surprise that she doesn't take well to questions about whether she'll ever sell the land, all 25 acres, and retire. "No, ma'am," she says fast and defiantly. "I'm gonna have to pass out, and they'll have to move me that way."

In Wheeling's lifetime, the way people live has changed dramatically. In 1950, about half of the state's population lived in rural areas. Now in an age of the single-crop, government-subsidized, and heavily regulated agricultural system, the proportion of people on farms has shrunk to less than a quarter. Along the way, Virginia's farmland has gone from 12 million acres to about 8 million.

But that change doesn't stop Wheeling from trying to preserve the only life she knows. This land, which is also a Civil War battle site, has sustained her, and she has done the same for it; nearly everything she eats comes from here. With the help of her friend, 72-year-old Bill Goodale who rents the other home on her property, she farms year-round. In turn, the seasons give order to her days, while yielding some 30 fruits and vegetables throughout the year. Speak to her and she'll tell you that she's just a "country girl," that she's never been anywhere. There's truth to that. Sure, she once went to Pennsylvania to visit her "daddy's people," the Pennsylvania Dutch. There was a visit, too, to North Carolina. And in Virginia, the farthest she's ever gone is Petersburg. But she's had her share of visitors, including a girl from Israel, of whom Wheeling inquired, "How'd you get here, by boat?"

Her travels are limited but not her good judgment, which is born of practicality. She has a strong sense of tradition and place, and always, always prefers the concrete to the abstract. In an age of rising angst and antidepressants and ambition to celebrity ("Everyone wants to be big," she says, "Why be big?"), she's more of an anomaly than anything else. And in her ways, there is much wisdom.

"What's no good for you, you don't do it," says Wheeling, who describes herself as a "firecracker," born on the Fourth of July. When asked if she thinks she'll live to 100, she replies, "I don't pay no attention … you eat good food and leave the rest alone."

A storehouse of knowledge on nutrition, she eats three meals a day, never skips. "I try to eat the good food," she says, and adds that her study of health started decades ago when she began reading about nutrition in the hope of finding ways to keep alive her ailing mother, Lelia, who had congestive heart problems. She'd pray for Lelia every night. Wheeling's mother lived to be 90. "I don't eat no trash," says Wheeling, who swears by an egg a day, cod liver oil, vitamin E, garlic. She doesn't touch white bread, insists that store milk and eggs aren't good for you — unlike the eggs and buttermilk that she sells — or for that matter, her homemade butter, the recipe of which she won't divulge.

Everything about Wheeling's place speaks of time: the General Electric refrigerator and stove from 1949, the Singer sewing machine that's even older. Tucked in a small shed, there's a 1970 Dodge that she no longer drives. Last time she ventured out, she accidentally crossed over the yellow line and a cop pulled her over. "I don't go nowhere no more," she says. If she does, Goodale drives.

The whole of her life has played out in Varina. Born on a 240-acre farm down the road, she grew up loving the land; as a girl, while her three sisters would sleep late, she was always up early to work in the fields with her father, Harry. "I always worked like a little boy, I guess," she says, recalling days when she'd pick English peas and turnips. She spent her earliest summers picking berries and used the nickel she earned for every filled bucket to buy school clothes. When those clothes got old, she would patch them up. As she has said, "We patched clothes until there were no more patches .… We saved everything. I'm still saving."

When, at 19, she married, she and her husband, Hinton, a North Carolina native, continued the farming tradition. And in 1949, when he saw a little hilltop home in the area, he told her, "This is where I want to live till I die." He got his wish. Hinton Wheeling is gone now, as are Mrs. Wheeling's sisters, none of whom liked farming much. Only Wheeling remains; she is the steward of the land.

But she doesn't live some agrarian myth reminiscent of some Grant Wood farm-scape painting. She has no children to inherit the land. And her friend of 16 years, Goodale, is facing his own struggle — cancer. There are nights of late when she finds it hard to fall asleep at her usual time of 10; instead her mind wanders amid worries of what tomorrow will bring if Goodale loses his fight and she's left to care for the farm alone. But those worries aren't enough to offset the routines of her life. She's here to stay on this land, she says, for as long as she lives. Some days, amid her worries, she also faces the shingles, which can get so bad that she becomes hunched over. But she always straightens up. Anything else would be unthinkable.

"Because," she says, "I can't see the sun if I'm bent over, now can I?" S


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