‘A Continuity Of Place And Blood”

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The pine was cut first. Then the hardwoods for flooring, bridge timbers, and crossties. An expert tie-hacker, working freelance in the woods and choosing oaks just large enough to be properly squared by scoring and broad-axing, could produce twenty ties a day and get for them maybe a nickel apiece. The art survived into the early 1950—s.

In Arkansas there was a brief turn-of-the-century run on native cedar to feed the pencil industry. And over the region in general, a modern cut from the 1930’s onward of surviving oaks for whiskey-barrel staves. Finally, the mature “trash” trees bypassed previously were found usable for today’s low-value pallet lumber.

The overriding catastrophe, however, had been the early, systematic destruction of the prevailing oak-hickory forest. Removal of the mature overstory opened the woodland floor to sunlight. Stump sprouts and the emergence of less-desirable oak species turned the cut-over country into a jungle of what the natives termed “redbrush,” often practically impassable on foot.

To deal with the brush growth manually was impossible. Thus came into general use the practice of immense burnings-off and the annual march of wildfire across most of the Ozark highlands. There had been burning in the hills before the white man’s coming. Indian hunters no doubt left careless campfires behind. Burning may have played some part in primitive agriculture. But never had fire ruled the Ozarks on such a ruinous scale.

The inferno might rise in any month between frost and greenup time, but, for some unexplained reason, Easter Sunday was especially favored. Families would go home from the sermon to dinner, then the men would take to the woods. Many of the fire sets were what was known as “string jobs.” The technique would be as simple as walking crosswind through the hills, striking and dropping wooden matches in the leaves every several steps, or as exotic as dragging a lighted kerosene-soaked burlap bag behind a horse or even tying it to a wild creature.

The brush went, and with it the leaf mulch. Spring rains beat the barren land, carrying the ash away and the thin soil with it, washing the hills to naked beds of chert, then washing the gravel down, too, to fill the streams. I once heard an Ozarker describe the eroded slopes of his farm as “so worthless the only way you could grow a crop would be to tie two rocks together around a seed.” The man was a factual reporter.

Their fertility gone, the unproductive fields were abandoned and, where any soil at all was left, went back to woodland, largely to blackjack oak—unsightly, given to rot, and without commercial value, but extremely fire tolerant.

The transformation had been as comprehensive as it had been swift. In less than a man’s lifetime, the greater part of the Ozark forests had gone from stands of pristine timber of beauty and great worth to an annually charred scrub country, barely capable of supporting life.

A number of characteristics recur in descriptions of the world’s developing countries, used both to define and account for their backwardness: geographic isolation from the mainstream of commerce and culture; substandard means of communication and transport; a large proportion of the population engaged in subsistence agriculture; few resources, with the exploitation of those surrendered to outside interests; a paucity of political integration and hence of political power; and poverty by such objective measures as rates of illiteracy and of infant mortality.

In some degree, each of the above can be invoked to describe and explain the Ozark highlands. The population of the region increased substantially during the turn-of-the-century boom years as the railroads’ expansion began drawing the Ozarks into the national economy. Lead and zinc mining continued to be-and remain to this dayman economic blessing to parts of the region.

But one of the principal resources, replenishable, if at all, only over the course of a century or more, had been the hardwood forest. When it was gone, and the timber companies gone with it, the people left behind-like those of the moribund Appalachian coalfields two decades ago-were a people a burgeoning nation had forgotten.

When I wintered in the Ozarks, burning was still widely tolerated, even tacitly approved, in areas not protected by the National Forest Service or the state forestry fire protection districts. And I came to know some of the incendiarists of that neighborhood by name and reputation and several by sight.

One of them I met firsthand.

For most of a week that late winter the night skies had shown sullenly red from the direction of the Osage river bottoms several miles to the southeast. A neighbor in that direction had lost his barn, with a combine harvester in it. In the mornings, the roof of my cabin was dusted with fine white ash. Then the wind shifted to north and west, and the long front of the fire turned back upon itself and burned nearly out.

The next day I went out with my beagles in the unburned scrub timber to shoot a rabbit for the pot and was standing against a tree, waiting for the little hounds to bring supper to the gun, when I first heard and then saw the man coming toward me through the woods, pouring gasoline from a glass jug as he walked.