December 1977 | Volume 29, Issue 1
The Seasons of Man in the Ozarks
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.
Nearly twenty years ago I passed a winter in a woods cabin in that neighborhood and got to know an older man, part Indian, who remembered his grandmother telling of the natives’ removal. The story (or legend) was that the chief of that group above the river stayed behind with his daughter when their kinsmen were sent off to Oklahoma, and that the two of them fasted to death in protest of the loss of their wilderness home.
Pothunters long ago dug up and carried off anything of worth from the flour-fine, never-rained-on dust of those shelter floors. But the evidence of two thousand years or more of habitation is not so easily erased. Scrambled by careless shovels, to be surebut not obliterated.
A profusion of chert flakes tells where a man sat pressing a deer antler against the edge of his stone blank, shaping a projectile point. A bowl-sized depression worn to perfect symmetry and smoothness on the top of a boulder beside a shelter entrance evokes the imagined sound of stone pestle falling, falling, in the stolid rhythm of a life.
It was a band of the Osage that used this particular bluff, or at any rate used it last. No wonder that they found it appealing. The dry shelters afforded comfort. The river gave nourishment and transport. The level floodplain on its far side was fertile for planting. The setting gave protection.
With the slope falling away so sharply as to forbid frontal attack, with the path along the bluff too narrow in most places for more than two men abreast and with fine promontories on the upper rim from which lookouts might hoot warning, the location was beautifully defensible against any enemy except passing time.
The Osage were the last of the Ozarks’ dominant native peoples, and there is no knowing with any certainty how long man occupied the highlands before them.
Clovis projectile points, fashioned some twenty-five to thirty thousand years after the crossing of the Bering land bridge from Asia by the first small migration of Paleo-Indians, have been found in the Ozarks, though not in association with any datable materials-bones, the ashes of a primitive hearth. Had they in fact been dropped there by casual hunters? Or had they perhaps been traded for as curiosities millenia later? We do not know. But we do know that by the end of the prehistoric period, the Osage people had come to occupy the greater part of the region. Their area of heaviest settlement was along the river in Missouri that bears their name, though they dwelt and ranged freely through the interior and western Ozarks, resisting the pressure of the Caddo people from the south and the Illinois and Quapaw from the east and southeast. Wrapped in the fastness of their hills, selfsufficient, provincial, suspicious of contact from without, the Osage clung to their woodland ways.
One recent fall morning I walked a small crop field in the central Ozarks with a sixth-generation hill man who, since boyhood, has been fascinated by the beautiful stone tools left buried in the ground by the people who preceded his forebears to that valley.
Shredded stalk litter covered the earth and made any artifacts hard to see. We had given up and turned back toward the truck when a glint of chert in the harvested corn row caught my eye. It was a piece of a corner-notched woodland point, possibly as old as three thousand years or as new as three hundred. And not a foot away from that in the row, where the plow had stirred them out of time, were two settler potsherds. We rubbed the point and sherds clean and straightened to survey the place.
From the evidence in our hands it had been first the site of an Indian camp or village and then of a pioneer cabin. It was surrounded by tillable land, yet on a distinct prominence far enough from the stream to be safe from any sudden rise of water.
It was plain to see why men over the centuries had wanted to live exactly there. But in that common wanting there had been unredeemable loss for some.
“I begin my tour where other travellers have ended theirs.…” Henry R. Schoolcraft, ethnologist and explorer, noted in the first entry-Thursday, November 5, 1818-of the journal of his Ozarks expedition. Schoolcraft had a flair for self-dramatization, if not for exactitude.
In truth, Schoolcraft and his companion on the journey were lamentable, though plucky, tenderfeet. They struck off from the mining settlement of Potosi, the westernmost Ozark outpost of any consequence, full of the spirit of adventure but ill-provisioned and carrying guns unsuitable for the region’s game.
A fair share of the time they were lost, wandering along and across rivers they called by the wrong names. They sprained their ankles and exhausted their shot and prodded their pack horse into a stream over his depth, wetting their remaining powder. And at the end of these exertions, after having clawed through enough greenbriar and topped enough steep ridges to conclude that Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana purchase for three cents an acre had been “dear at the price,” Schoolcraft and friend arrived at the confluence of the White River and North Fork in Arkansas-to find that quite a vigorous, if still widely dispersed, vanguard of habitation had preceded them there.
American farmer-frontiersmen had entered the land in the eighteenth century, and their numbers grew after the 1803 purchase of the Louisiana Territory. Theirs were the isolated valley cabins Schoolcraft stumbled upon during his trek. Ambition, restless romanticism, and the pressure of expanding population were propelling Americans west. The two decades from the mid-1820’s to the mid-1840’s were the main period of initial Ozark settlement.
The natives of the highlands soon gave way before the thrust of white occupation. The Osage surrendered claim to most of their lands by treaty in 1825, and during that same period, a few years either side of 1830, the region’s other tribes also were being relocated. Finally, the Cherokee crossed the highlands on their “Trail of Tears” from the Southeast in the winter of 1838-39. Some strayed from that sad march and were assimilated into the hill population. But by 1840, at the latest, the Ozarks had been emptied of all but scattered handfuls of their original inhabitants-and these, too, were gone by 1875.
Just as the interior of the region had forbidden heavy Indian occupation, so it would support only a thin salting of white settlers, and to travel the area even now is to understand why. Civilization moved principally by water, and many of the rivers of the Ozarks were only seasonably, if ever, navigable. Generous valleys were rare, and tillable land in the narrow stream bottoms limited. Steep hillsides were densely timbered, often shallowly underlain by rock. Through the rest of the nineteenth century the main body of western settlement would push through and around the highlands. And in relative numbers, it would leave the Ozarks but lightly touched.
The Indian trails, usually following uplands and ridgetops, became wagon roads, the lines of early white commerce. Later those would become military routes and much after that, in some cases, macadam motor road or even Interstate highway.
Commercial water transport was feasible only on the major rivers of the northern, eastern, and southern Ozark borders—the Missouri, Mississippi, and Arkansas. Economic and cultural isolation prevailed over much of the interior. The creek-bottom farmers coaxed a subsistence from their cultivated plots and from lean hogs, ear-notched and loosed to root for survival in the forest.
In the 1850’s, the first railroad lines came probing into the country from the east, drawn by the rich lead mines of the northeastern Ozarks and the early timber exploitation. That civilizing intrusion was interrupted, however, by the outbreak of the Civil War. The major battles in the Ozarks—at Wilson’s Creek and Pilot Knob in Missouri and Pea Ridge in Arkansas-left the Union in nominal control but neither side in physical occupation of the region.
The armies concluded their set-piece engagements and moved on to fight elsewhere, abandoning the hills and their people to the prédations of the Southern sympathizers called bushwhackers. In the regime of terror that ensued, great areas of the Ozarks were unpeopled and quickly returned to wilderness, the residents fleeing for sanctuary to the nearest fortified towns.
Not all of the Ozarkers deserted their stream bottoms and hollows. Many stayed to defend their holdings and many of those were murdered for their trouble. Today’s painful memory of the Civil War—passed down in the oral tradition of family history-is not of identification as Yank or Reb, but rather of a long, lonely ordeal of capricious, purposeless, and unasked-for pain.
The forest, when first man saw it, was an oak and hickory climax, with the native shortleaf pine interspersed in pockets-sometimes very large ones-on the favorable south and southwest slopes. As late as 1880, except for cabin building and the occasional cleared field, much of the highlands’ interior had never felt a blade.
The look of such a hardwood forest can only be imagined now. The great leaf crowns interlaced above in a canopy that blocked the sun, retarding undergrowth. The forest floor was spongy with the duff of all the rotting leaf-falls from time immemorial. Elk, bear, turkey, and smaller game harbored there in profusion. I know of just one place remaining where such trees grow as must have then. It is on a narrow shelf beside one of the major Ozark streams, and why loggers bypassed the spot so long ago cannot be said, unless perhaps even they were humbled by the majesty they saw.
The trees in that grove are white oaks, as grand as the pillars of any cathedral-so large that it would take four or five long-armed men together to reach around one; forty feet to the first branch; each tree containing enough sawable lumber to build several good-sized houses. Someday, when the largest of these oaks dies and is felled to prevent its damaging the others, I would very much like to be there and count the rings to know how many hundred springs ago it burst its acorn and became a switch.
The big timber companies of the East, having cut out the best of the white pine in the northern lake states, turned their eye on the interior highlands. And with the Civil War’s end, the railroads took up their unfinished task of driving a network of commerce into the region. In the brief timber boom that was to follow, from about 1880 to 1920, the physical character of the Ozarks would be changed for generations and, at least arguably, forever.
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.
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.
But the issue is not logic. The real kernel of resentment, I suspect, is that in none of these matters were the views of the Ozarkers themselves taken into much account. Again, as through all of their history, decisions affecting the lives and lands of the hill folk were being made by people outside.
The larger towns, particularly those to which transportation routes, mining, recreation, or hospitable surrounding farmlands gave some special advantage, have thrived. But through much of the interior highlands there prevail today the conditions of what Dr. Robert Flanders, history professor at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield, describes as a “semi-arrested frontier.”
Isolation has left the hill people medically, educationally, legally, and economically disadvantaged. They suffer also from a generally low quality of public administration. The law of the town does not reach far into the countryside. Disputes can turn rather quickly to violence. Vigilantism and barn burning are part of the culture. Flanders speculates that this may be in some part a legacy of the Civil War bushwhacker experience, when townspeople found that they could live and prosper without the surrounding countryside being entirely pacified.
During prohibition, my wife’s father went into the hills occasionally to seek out and deliver paychecks to men who had worked as extra hands on state road projects. Not many miles out of town, other vehicles would begin falling in line behind his, all honking their horns. Soon he would find himself at the head of a blaring caravan that alerted backwoods distillers to the approach of this stranger in an unfamiliar car-a possible revenuer.
There’s a story of a visitor to the Ozarks during that period who was curious to see a whiskey still in operation and, after some inquiry, found a lad willing to guide him to one for a quarter, cash in advance. The man wanted to pay on return. “But,” the boy explained, “ you ain’t comin’back .”
The intent here, however, is not to reinforce the stereotype of Ozark people as lawless, depraved, stammering, shambling figures of comedy. Most of them are none of these things. They are proud, capable, independent, suspicious (with historical good reason). They also are loyal, warm, even tender, to anyone decent enough to offer uncritical friendship in return.
With the reversal in very recent years of the American ruralto-urban population drift, the region entered on a period of dramatic change whose economic consequences already have been great, but whose effect on highlands culture could be catastrophic.
The availability of land, lower cost of living, and the recreational appeal of Ozark woods and waters have attracted a tide of newcomers from the outer margins of the region and beyond. Some of these have been younger families, wanting to sink roots away from the press and problems of the cities. More have been older, retired couples-not uncommonly Ozark natives returning after working lives elsewhere.
It is necessary to wonder whether the best features of the highlands’ people and their values can survive this modern onslaught of tourists and immigrants, any more than the early forests survived the savaging by an exploitative timber industry.
In Harrison, Arkansas, recently I met a thoughtful and sensitive man named Dr. G. Alien Robinson, still an active physician in his eighties, who practiced medicine thirty-three years in New York before returning to his native hills. Forebears on both sides of his family came to the highlands from Alabama and Tennessee in the first half of the last century. In 1832 or 1833, his maternal great-grandfather, Peter Beller-miller, merchant, farmersettled on a stream near a cascade that took its name, Marble Falls, from a formation of red rock that the tumbling waters had polished.
Dr. Robinson lives on acreage at the outskirts of Harrison, in a home designed for him by another Arkansas native, architect Edward Durell Stone, and built of hand-squared timbers of ruined barns and cabins, floored with cut sandstone from settler hearths and chimneys. He took me out from there, on a bitter winter day, to visit the Beller grave and then to see the place where old Peter had helped quarry from the hillside overlooking the falls a great marble block for the Arkansas stone in the Washington monument.
The falls still exist as a feature of the landscape, but outside entrepreneurs have “developed” the spot: a hillbilly village in the valley, amusement rides, a cable railway up to the ridge, a short ski run with artificial snow. Snacks, curios, a surfeit of demeaning cuteness. The mailing address of what used to be the Marble Falls neighborhood is changed now to Dogpatch, U.S.A. , celebrating the cartoon Yokums who have shaped a nation’s view of Ozarkers. You may be sure that Al Capp is no hero in the hills.
This Road Crooked and Steep Next 20 Miles , the sign had said. Faithful to that promise, the macadam had left the ridgetop and curled down through a haze of gathering evening into that lonely, lovely section of the highlands in northwest Arkansas called the Boston Mountains.
Past a clearing where a hill woman was carrying the night’s stovewood into her cabin. Past a gray clapboard church, baled hay showing in the arches of its glassless windows. Through the village of Plumlee, and past a stone building-another church, or perhaps a school, also windowless-a stolid mass against the last peach-pink wash of skyline. Finally another cautionary sign: Hill, Use Gears. Three-Mile Grade . Then down abruptly into the valley of the Buffalo River.
In what remains of the expired mining hamlet of Ponca, the lights were just going out in the general store. Beside the store was the Lost Valley Lodge, a large old house converted into primitive apartments, to which for many years people have been coming to leave the world behind. That had been six o’clock in the evening, an hour in the dark of the year when life is indrawn to its most basic perimeter of walls and fire, and a silence of almost palpable weight claims the hills.
Now it was nearly nine o’clock, and, a slave to city habit, I was still awake, making my rude supper on canned beans and a bottle of soda pop from the store. Suddenly I became aware of a noise, quite pronounced but wholly unaccountable-a crackling hiss, as of a woods fire burning fairly near, or possibly someone running a faucet in one of the upper apartments. It made a considerable racket in the room.
Outside no fires were burning. Inspection of the upstairs revealed that I was alone in the place and that all the taps were closed. Yet back in the room, the mystery sound still could be heard. It was several minutes more before I discovered the source of that great noise which had asserted itself so distinctly in the quiet of the valley.
It was the sibilance of exploding microbubbles of gas in the bottle of soda beside my plate. Such is the stillness of the Ozark night.
Yet, merely to know that silence and the hills and waters, or even the lightless, mapless caverns underlying, is not to have made acquaintance with the quintessential Ozarks. For the region, in the end, is its people and their character and way of life. And getting to understand those is an enterprise of years.
Just past the town of Ponca in the valley of the Buffalo, where the pavement ends and the road forks, the right fork leads to a place called Boxley. And there a fine lady named Orphea Duty waits with her table always set for twelve. Anyone indelicate enough to ask might learn that she is closing fast on eighty. Her house, its core of logs invisible under white wooden siding and several enlargements, is the house she was raised in. Her father was postmaster of Boxley and she the postmistress after him, for thirty-seven years until the place lost its post office in the late 1950’s.
When she was widowed some years ago, Orphy Duty determined that her grief would not shut out the world. She has her church affairs, of course. And also her Tupperware business that takes her to parties around the hills. And the television.
But still she keeps those twelve places always set at her table. Travelers passing along the gravel lane in front of her house, whether they know Orphy personally or have only heard of her, may stop to warm or cool, as the season requires, or just to rest. They will be presented a choice with their coffee of two or three kinds of pie and one or more of cake.
Her visitors tell Orphy about their lives and the errands they are on and, in return, get as much of the history and the news of that area as their time will permit them to know. That is the hospitality of the highlands, although admittedly in rare degree.
Matters of kinship preoccupy. In another Ozark valley far to the northeast, in Missouri, Marjorie Bales Orchard-who is found at the cash register of the Bales AG Store on the main street of Eminence-says her project began with a mystery: who was the mother of Shade (Shadrach) Orchard?
In 1816, two years before Henry Schoolcraft struck westward into wilderness, a Tennessee man named Thomas Boggs Chilton already was.settled near the emptying of Hen Peck Creek into the Current River. From his cabin clearing issued many Chiltons to people Shannon County, and Shade Orchard’s mother, most certainly, was one of them.
Marjorie Orchard’s inquiry into the matter has grown into a family history of one thousand manuscript pages, being prepared for print at the newspaper office just up the street. The publisher of The Current Wave (“Shannon County FirstThe World Afterwards”) is Thomas Leroy Chilton, who declares matter of factly, “There’s few people in this town I’m not some way kin to.”
“Say, didn’t any of you Chiltons ever leave this place?” a friend demands to know.
“No,” someone else says, “they just ran other people out”—a reference to some issue of past seriousness that time has softened into the stuff of ritual humor.
The fascination with genealogy is both diverting and essential. Children begin to be instructed very early about such matters, so that no daughter of those hills arrives at the age for courting without having graven in memory the essential details of her relatedness-to whom, and by what devious percentage.
That is the Ozarks’ continuity of place and blood.
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.
Well, in time the fields lay mown and slick as they ever had. The derelict house, new-painted and made sound, stood safe against the passing of more years. And John turned to Oma near the last and, calling her “Momma,” said, “You know, we dug this place out of a jungle.”
Like genius, greatness has many definitions. John Lewis was the kind of man and friend you are privileged to know once in a lifetime. He has gone now to lie beside his brothers in a country churchyard in the hills.
The Ozark highlands are changing, and must change. A way I of life so charming at a distance can be seen, on closer look, to exact its price of hardship and disappointment and pain. A region and its people cannot be kept as a living museum. Even if that were possible, it would be wrong.
But it is not unreasonable to hope that, in the process of change, something of the character and values of the highlands might endure.
In May, several years ago, I went on foot to what I calculated then to be one of the Ozarks’ remotest spots, far from any passable road. And in that wild valley I came upon a place where a settlement once had been, probably in the first decade of this century. The route of the narrow-gauge tramline could be seen, along which logs had been hauled to the mill.
The wildfires of a great many autumns and springs had done their work, and nothing remained of the houses that had been there-not one board or shingle. Yet the number of the dwellings and their location along the stream could be placed exactly. In each dooryard, some caring hand had made a planting. And stubbornly, through the ashes of all those burnings, the flowers had come to bloom again.