‘A Continuity Of Place And Blood”

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When finally he noticed me he stopped face-on, his expression a turbulent mixture of astonishment, defiance, and panting exultation. He was one of those I recognized, though we had never spoken and didn’t then. It occurred to me to be glad to be armed, but he made no threat-just turned and went quickly back the way he had come, toward a beaten pickup truck that no doubt waited on some overgrown timber trail.

Much as you might hate his errand, it is possible to understand that man. He was in his thirties, one of a class the Ozark people call “branchwater folks”—meaning too poor or too shiftless to dig a well. He squatted with his many kin in a ruined house in a failed hamlet in the river bottom near a sulphur spring.

His people had been early residents of the area, though they were landless and penniless now. All of his life had been spent being affected by others. By the people who had ruined the country and the new ones who came to own it. By the game agents who told him when and what he might catch or shoot. By the farmers in whose broken shacks he was permitted to lodge.

There is no human being so wretched that he will not seek some means of denying his powerlessness. The blackening of a thousand acres of forest is a spectacular assertion of one’s ability to affect others. That very night, in the privacy of darkness, a match was struck and that piece of woodland burned.

An acre of Ozark land worth three cents in 1803 and twentyfive cents in 1900 could be bought for as little as a dollar in 1930 and for twenty dollars or less as late as the 1950’s. Much of it changed hands on courthouse steps, auctioned for the recovery of unpaid taxes.

Two world wars called young men out of the hills, and many of them, after tasting the amenities of a different way of life, did not return. In areas where profitable agriculture was possible, mechanization meant the consolidation of farms into larger units, sending people off the land and into small towns nearby. Then many of those towns withered in their turn, victims of the pull of jobs and services in such larger centers as Fort Smith and Harrison in Arkansas, Springfield and West Plains in Missouri.

The log cabins of the creek-bottom settlers were rotting back to earth. And now, throughout the region, a profusion of barns on marginal ridge farms leaned broken-spined against the sky, and unpainted board houses, weathered gray as polished slate, stood open to the work of vandals and time.

As they had during the Civil War, although for different reasons, great areas of the hill country were again being emptied of people. This was no regional phenomenon, of course. It was part of the national rural-to-urban demographic trend, although more striking because of the already low density of population in the hills.

Meanwhile, other benchmark changes were occurring. First outside private capital, then the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, set about damming the Ozarks’ major waterways. Bagnell Dam, completed in 1931 by Union Electric Light and Power Company of Missouri, backed up the Osage to create the Lake of the Ozarks. One hundred and twenty-nine miles long, with a total shoreline of thirteen hundred miles, the impoundment at the time was the largest artificial lake in the world.

The impact of these reservoirs has been mixed. They brought construction money, and later tourist money, into the region. They also drowned tillable valley acres, swallowed communities, and displaced thousands of Ozarkers from lands on which, in many cases, generations of their ancestors had lived. The expansion of state and national forests took more acres out of private ownership, and fire prevention efforts put professional foresters in direct-and occasionally violent-confrontation with the prevailing fire culture.

 
 

The most scenic of the Ozarks’ remaining free-flowing streams are within a few hours’ drive of the major Missouri and Arkansas cities, and floating those fast rivers by canoe or johnboat has long been a joy for the city-bound and a source of modest income for local outfitters. When the choicest float streams were threatened by still more projected dams, conservation groups generated a successful move at the federal levé] to preserve them unchanged as National Scenic Rivers. In the course of this protection, more private property was taken to prevent damage to watersheds and forestall commercial exploitation.

In nearly every case, these publicly wrought changes in the Ozarks met resistance and left a residue of bitterness. It is a bit unsettling to be told by a river man, as my wife and I were some years ago, that we would do well to end our float at a different take-out point, since a landowner near the usual place had lately taken to shooting at canoeists. As no one had yet been hurt, it seemed likely the shots were only an innocent, if reckless, gesture of frustration. In the hill country, men usually hit what they truly aim at.

The fact is, Ozarkers are as rational as anyone else. A great many of them will admit privately that probably it is true the splendid rivers could not have been preserved except as a public trust; that a forest of real value is to be preferred to a scrub-oak brushland repeatedly swept by fire; that the reservoirs and the tourists have, indeed, been of immense economic importance to the region.