‘A Continuity Of Place And Blood”

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Sometime in the sleep of every year, between the browning of the oaks and the first greening of the spring wild grasses, that country flamed.

The rainless days would laze on in powdery file. The thin earth of hillside clearings turned to the plow would pale from brown to gray, and then begin to ride up on the wind. There was beauty in such days-a sense of reach and distance. But the rattle of dry leaves in doorway wood lots just at evening was terrible to hear, and anyone who neighbored with the timber did well, before retiring, to mark which quarter the wind blew from, and how strongly, and what it smelled of.

For when the fire burst finally up out of the creek bottoms and across the ridges, it came with a suddenness never quite remembered. Driving everything before it-deer, blind-flying birds, pigs gone feral in the greenbriar thickets, sometimes the people themselves. Raging barn-high up the dark flanks of the hills, turning rank meadows into white-hot lakes.

Men did not stop such a fire. And in absolute, admitted truth they did not care to stop it. The fire, they said, killed ticks, cleared the brushy undergrowth, and made spring grazing in the unfenced timber. And no matter that the ticks had been just as numerous and a man’s cattle as spare through all the remembered wildfires of a lifetime, this much was known and repeated like a catechism: the burning-off killed ticks, made pasture.

All across that country, long after the burning, could be found the remains of tortoises that the fire had overtaken on their way to somewhere. The olive, outer skin of the shells had peeled down to chalk-white empty helmets, wonderfully complicated in their jointing, that fell away in clicking segments when they were touched with the toe of a shoe. It was sad to find them so, pointing not away from the direction the fire had come, as might be thought, but toward their forgotten destinations.

Spring rains flushed off the ash, and the topsoil with it, into streams running milky gray out of their banks. The first fine grass came, then bird’s-foot violets. The healing seemed unfailing, the nearest thing to a miracle that could be claimed in those raw hills. But it was never complete. Always the ground was a little poorer, the game a little scarcer.

It is proper for lowland rivers to meander. But the streams of the Ozark highlands bend and recurve upon themselves in a way that upland rivers are not supposed to do.

Some 320,000,000 years ago, the seas that once covered much of this continent’s interior receded, leaving behind their heavy sedimentation of sandstone, shale, dolomite, and limestone, leaving also a network of estuarial rivers that wound tepidly through the emergent fern forests, sheltering the amphibians and watering the newer things that crept.

Over the next 100,000,000 years the humid forests flourished in the luxuriance of growth and the slow, slow burn of decay. Then, for reasons and by processes unexplained, an uplifting occurred. This event happened over perhaps 30,000,000 years. When it had ended, a dome more than fifty thousand square miles in area-as large as England-had been raised in the interior of the North American continent. The uplift, which we now call the Ozarks, included roughly the southern half of the present state of Missouri, the northern one-third of Arkansas, and smaller adjacent parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Illinois. It was bounded on the east by the Mississippi River and on the west by the beginning vastness of the central plains.

The tidal streams that traversed it were now highland streams, but captive still in the wandering channels they had long ago begun cutting down through the leavings of the sea. This carving of the dome continued until, in the succeeding 190,000,000 years, the streambeds have become a maze of convoluted valleys, many of them hundreds of feet deep.

I have traveled more than a few of those valleys, on foot and by water. One spring some years ago a journalist friend and I had come down a steep, narrow stream near the center of the highlands and drawn our canoe out on a gravel bar to make evening camp. The river muttered past over its stony bed-a river from which, that magical day, the two of us had caught and released seventy-six smallmouth bass.

Directly across from our bar was a towering limestone bluff, shelved and layered, a good deal of the geologic history of the region written on its face. The writing was in a language we couldn’t read, but still we were moved to speak of what patience it must have taken that little stream to wear its valley down.

 

It is satisfying to know now, at least in shorthand, why it is that Ozark rivers meander. And why, in the water-carved declivities of the highlands, a careful looker can find sharks’ teeth and the fossils of trilobites and sea clams and chain coral, so far in time and elevation from the primal sea.

A dozen miles upstream from the Missouri town of Osceola on the Osage River, in the northwestern Ozark borderlands, there is a series of cave shelters extending several hundred feet along a narrow footpath under the overhanging lip of the bluff.