‘A Continuity Of Place And Blood”

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Isolation has bred also a sense of neighborhood and an unconquerable resourcefulness. Because much of the highlands’ agriculture is so marginally productive, men make do with old machines, traded in the commerce of farm dispersal auctionsmachines with the life already wrung out of them, that an lowan twenty years ago would have sent to the ditch. Such equipment breaks often.

In one Ozark locality I know there is a man named Morris Underwood, whose neighbors swear that if he ever moved away, or quit fixing things, farming for miles around would simply have to stop. They come towing their sick machines up the lane to his hill—a hill on which there have lived so many generations of . Underwoods that, on the topographic maps, it is identified by the family name.

Morris waits there, always smiling, not because he is glad for their misfortune but because he knows they are bringing him a new challenge. He is a huge, powerful man with great blunt fingers that can move as delicately as a surgeon’s. There are many kinds of genius in this world, and Morris Underwood has true genius in those hands. There is no other word for it.

I have never seen him refer to any diagram or manual. He has no need of them. The way machines are put together and the way they function are mostly governed by a sort of lovely, uniform logic. Cylinders must fire in a certain order, and in an engineany engine-certain things must happen to allow them to do that. If a shaft is stuck fast in place, there must somewhere be a key, a pin. Not sometimes but always . There are laws in mechanics as invariable as the laws of nature. Morris’ mind and hands are in harmony with this logic.

Once I watched him repair a tractor with a penknife. And I was there another time when an ancient hay baler was brought to him in grave distress. Something was wrecked in its innards. It would neither take hay in the front end nor discharge finished bales from the back end. When commanded to do either, it shook and chattered and made pitiable groans.

Morris walked around it and came back to the side where he had already decided the focus of the problem lay. His anticipation was plain to see.

“I’ve never worked on one of these,” he said, speculatively but without the least fear. “When I get done, I’ll know something, won’t I?” Then he took out his penknife and began probing under the grease for the pin that he knew, beyond any doubt, must be there somewhere.

When I get done, I’ll know something . It struck me that he had just expressed about as well as can be done the creed of a useful life. To have a gift; to apply it joyfully; to welcome problems for what they can teach; to go boldly onto new ground so that, tomorrow, you will know something that you don’t know today.

Unpaid accounts with Morris get embarrassingly delinquent. He never presents a bill. And if a settling up should eventually come, always he will accept too little. Genius, in those hills, seldom commands its fair reward.

There was an Ozark farm, owned now by city people, that had been untenanted fifteen years or more, the oak-post fences brought down by fire, the fields gone back to broom sedge and blackjack sprouts, the house unlived in. I once knew the place as a trespasser.

Raccoons denned under the foundation and wasps swarmed in the attic. A trumpet vine, thrusting a tendril under a crack of bedroom window, had made forced entry and found purchase in the plaster of a wall, thriving, flowering, carpeting the floor with leaves as seasons turned. Wind and rot and squirrels had opened a hole the size of a washtub first through roof, then through inner ceiling, letting in the rain. A few years more and the house itself would start to lean.

A man named John Lewis came there late one autumn, his health already broken, hard weather not many weeks away. He and his wife, Oma, stood inside together for long minutes, then came out, and she announced with a kind of crazy, proud defiance, “We’ve lived worse places.” Through sickness and evil luck, theirs had been a succession of new beginnings. So now they set about making yet another home.

Oma was a strong and loving woman. Among other things, she could bake a mock apple pie whose soda-cracker filling was as succulent as any apple that ever ripened on the branch.

As a boy, John had schooled some, and as a young man soldiered when asked to. He had dug for house coal in those Osage hills in what is called a dog hole-a two-man mine so cramped and wet that he’d had to work a hand pump to keep from drowning at the low place in the crawlway.

Wasted gaunt as the hounds he had loved to follow through night woods, he arrived in his fifties with more than a country man’s ordinary equipment of skills. He was a master carpenter, a fair farmer, a skilled mason. He could plumb a little and wire a little. On days when his breath came freer, he could carry a chainsaw into the timber and make more f enceposts in a day than any well man I have known.

And with all of this he was an intellectual, in the honest meaning of that word. Sickness had led him to read much, first to pass time and then for pleasure. Ideas engaged him. He considered what he read. His own thoughts came out as finely turned as his carpentry, though always quietly, almost shyly spoken -for he seemed embarrassed sometimes by the richness of language he had come to command.