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Annie-Rose Strasser wrote a fascinating article that came out on Think Progress today about the act of memorializing the dead who are lost in massacres or tragedies. On the third anniversary of the mass killing in Norway by a racist fanatic, she recounts the moving, artistic tribute that is being created to memorialize the event.

The article got me thinking about the most powerful memorials I have ever experienced. To me, the two that I have found most profound are the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the NAMES project’s AIDS Memorial Quilt.

The common element in both those memorials is the act of naming, but I don’t think that’s essential to all memorial artwork. The magnificent Tribute in Light that commemorated the World Trade Center’s destruction was entirely abstract. I have not yet seen the new WTC memorial so am unable to describe it.

What the effective ones do have in common, I think, is that they are works of art, and are conceived as such. Even the AIDS Quilt, while not a work of art in the more traditional sense, draws upon the traditions of folk art and the loving acts of beauty created by many hands to achieve its power. The Norwegian memorial is so striking because it is, paradoxically, so beautiful. It takes a horrendous event and in its beauty renders it tragic, rather than simply horrible.

Likewise, the Vietnam memorial is not just haunting; it’s a fully realized work of landscape sculpture. The World War II Memorial just up the Mall from the Vietnam memorial has never had the same effect on me, even though I lost a relative in that war and it was an event that profoundly affected my family. You can sense the difference between the two memorials simply by walking around in them. At the Vietnam memorial, voices are hushed, and there is an air of solemnity; at the WWII memorial, people stroll around, chatting, taking photos as they would at any tourist attraction. I think it’s the artistic coherence of the Vietnam memorial that gives it its power.


The Norway memorial by Jonas Dahlberg



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I come by my snake-phobia honestly; my mom was the fiercest anti-snake crusader I’ve ever known, with the possible exception of my Aunt Gina. Even a four-inch ringneck would arouse her antipathy. For her, there were only two ways of approaching a snake – with a shovel or with a shotgun.

That’s why sad news such as this week’s death of a man at Sam A. Baker State Park after picking up a copperhead is not just sad, but enlightening. I would no sooner pick up a snake – any snake – than I would pick up a lit firecracker. Whatever you think of snakes, misunderstood outcasts of the animal kingdom or symbols of the Devil himself, the fact remains that they are wild animals that survive by biting things. Anybody who thinks they can pick one up without getting bit had better be a trained herpetologist, or else they’re in for an unpleasant surprise.

Over the years I’ve managed to calm my snake-a-noia to some extent, although not entirely. When we first moved to the farm where I grew up, the house had been used only on weekends for several years, and wild things had retaken much of the territory. I often ran over copperheads while mowing the lawn, and on one memorable occasion actually stepped across one before noticing that it was underneath my stride. Those kinds of childhood experiences tend to, shall we say, fix themselves in the subconscious.

Currently, there’s a four-foot blacksnake (now officially referred to as the Texas ratsnake) living around our backyard. I’ve worked out an uneasy truce in my head with it, and I recognize its value in keeping down the mice and voles. (The bluebird boxes are another matter, currently surrounded by a protective barrier.) But Lord help us both if I ever step on that sucker in the dark some night.

Two New Books by Leland Payton


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Missouri Squarely Seen Ozark Prairie Border

I was fortunate enough to obtain advance copies of these two new books recently, and I’ve been dipping into them section by section and page by page ever since. They are both essentially photo books, although both contain judiciously selected text (essays, comments, reminiscences) as well.

Subtlety is something of a lost value in our current esthetic environment. The outré and shocking gather attention and acclaim, encouraging a spiral of provocation in which each new art work must be more shocking than the last. But these books are subtle, and they take time to appreciate.

I’ve gone back and forth as to which is my favorite, but I think I’ve finally settled on Ozark-Prairie Border (176 pp.). This book depicts the area between Kansas City and Springfield, where the Ozarks slope down to wide bottomland and prairie, and where the beauty of the landscape takes more than one look to see. One response many people might have to some of these photographs – a wire fence enclosing a grassy field, a dilapidated building in a small town square, a bulletin board in a country diner – is “I could have taken that picture!” But would you? Would you have seen the unexpected richness of color in that field? Or the rhythm of the rural architecture, the beauty in small things that is celebrated here? The images on these pages reward contemplation. They are visual meditations on the rural places of western Missouri, and I find myself looking at them again and again.

Missouri Squarely Seen (114 pp.) ranges more widely and narrowly at the same time. It covers the entire state – landscape, people, buildings – but all images were taken with a square-format camera and retain that shape. Like the form of a poem, the square format of the image both constrains and challenges the photographer, demanding and rewarding a fresh compositional approach. The photographs in this book are rarely conventionally beautiful; in fact, the traditionally “photogenic” subjects are often treated ironically. In the square format, the Kansas City skyline, ripe for panorama, occupies only the middle fifth of the frame, with a street in the lower two-fifths, a kid climbing a weedy embankment beyond the street, and a Fifties-postcard-blue sky stretching much too far above the buildings for a conventional composition. The result is a somewhat comic distancing and diminishment of the classic landscape view. In some cases, though, the square image does not distance us, but rather focuses our attention on some person or object placed at a strategic spot within the frame.

Payton has a remarkable eye for color, and both these books are filled with richly saturated images in which the colors collide, harmonize, joust, or disappear into unexpected darkness. Both books are rich, rewarding, and beautifully produced. If you love photography, or Missouri, or both, you should get yourself copies. They’re available from Lens & Pen Press.

Favorite Ozarks Places – 14


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Davis BasketsDavis Baskets is the real deal — an old-fashioned “roadside attraction” on U.S. 54 south of Camdenton. Anybody who’s ever driven from the Lake of the Ozarks to Springfield has noticed it, no doubt. You might even have stopped in to use the restroom, and to browse the stacks of comical signs, postcards, hats, plaques, toys, souvenirs, and God-knows-what. And of course baskets.

I’m told that it was founded in 1949 by Delmar Davis, who still runs the place today at 88. I was told all this because if you do stop in, as I did earlier this year (I needed a new hat for float trips), Delmar Davis will start talking to you and will not stop till you are out the door. He’s an immensely friendly gentleman with a million stories and opinions, a World War II veteran with a zest for history. In an era when people just want to reach their destination with as little deviation or delay as possible, Davis Baskets is a reminder that stopping along the way can be as rewarding as getting there.

And just south of Davis Baskets is Macks Creek, where unexpected stops on the highway used to be the town’s primary industry . . . but that’s another story, as they say.

Delmar Davis

Delmar Davis (photos from the Davis Baskets Facebook page)



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I have avoided discussion of the word “hillbilly,” for the most part, on this blog because I think it’s an endless distraction. But I have to thank my good friend Bill Hopkins for this amazing disquisition on “hillbilly,” from a 1960 court decision in a divorce case, in which one of the “general indignities” that the plaintiff (husband) accused the defendant (wife) of was that she referred to his family as “hillbillies”:

“In respect to plaintiff’s evidence that Minnie once referred to relatives of the plaintiff as hillbillies: We suggest that to refer to a person as a “hillbilly,” or any other name, for that matter, might or might not be an insult, depending upon the meaning intended to be conveyed, the manner of utterance, and the place where the words are spoken. Webster’s New International Dictionary says that a hillbilly is “a backwoodsman or mountaineer of the southern United States;—often used contemptuously.” But without the added implication or inflection which indicates an intention to belittle, we would say that, here in Southern Missouri, the term is often given and accepted as a complimentary expression. An Ozark hillbilly is an individual who has learned the real luxury of doing without the entangling complications of things which the dependent and over-pressured city dweller is required to consider as necessities. The hillbilly foregoes the hard grandeur of high buildings and canyon streets in exchange for wooded hills and verdant valleys. In place of creeping traffic he accepts the rippling flow of the wandering stream. He does not hear the snarl of exhaust, the raucous braying of horns, and the sharp, strident babble of many tense voices. For him instead is the measured beat of the katydid, the lonesome, far-off complaining of the whippoorwill, perhaps even the sound of a falling acorn in the infinite peace of the quiet woods. The hillbilly is often not familiar with new models, soirees, and office politics. But he does have the time and surroundings conducive to sober reflection and honest thought, the opportunity to get closer to his God. No, in Southern Missouri the appellation “hillbilly” is not generally an insult or an indignity; it is an expression of envy.”




Interview Podcast


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Interview Podcast

Here’s a link to my recent interview on It Matters Radio. My portion of the show starts at about the 38-minute mark, but the guest before me is a record producer with several really good acts. So if you have the time, listen to the whole show! Some nice musicians on there. Thanks again to Monica and Ken.

Time for Learning



I pride myself on knowing most of the flowers, trees, and shrubs of the Ozarks. So I was caught aback when this plant caught my eye while I was on a walk:


At first I thought it was poison ivy, but the red berries threw me off. I wondered if there was a variety of poison ivy that had red berries, or perhaps that it was poison oak, but a little research disproved both those theories.

After searching and searching both in my reference books and online, I finally spotted it — it’s fragrant sumac! No wonder I mistook it; it’s in the same genus (Rhus) as poison ivy and oak. Turns out that fragrant sumac is used as a native ornamental as well, although these plants were growing wild. I don’t know why I never noticed it before. My guess is that I have seen it many times, but only registered the three-leaf clusters, thought “poison ivy — stay away!” and never looked any closer.

So something new learned. Always a wonderful moment, and I never tire of the joy of learning new things.

Favorite Ozarks People – 7


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Robert E. Smith

I met Robert E. Smith in the 1970s, when I was publishing Ozark Review along with Doug Pokorny and some other great folks. We had sent out a general call for submissions, and one day in the mail came an amazing package stuffed with poems, personal essays, and other writing that defied categorization. Accompanying many of the poems were snapshots of paintings. It turned out that the poems originated from the paintings and were essentially descriptions of what was happening in the painting.

To say the least, they were unusual. “Where Is Santa?” was a painting/poem about Santa being abducted by aliens. “Bloodshed in the Butchershop” recounted a butcher who got, uh, a little too enthusiastic. And “Birds Taste Good” was . . . mmm. Let’s not go there.

The paintings were flat-out amazing, filled with color and action from corner to corner. The wild subject matter only added to their appeal. There was something about the abandon of the paintings–even from the snapshots, we could tell that they were colorful, thickly laden with the brightest acrylic paints possible, and utterly original. We published a poem called “Nighttime in the Forest,” which included the memorable line, “The dog howled, and a dinosaur walked by.”

Later that year, we threw a picnic at Montauk State Park to celebrate the magazine’s launch and invited all the writers and artists. Robert showed up; if memory serves, he had hitchhiked from Springfield. And he had a gunny sack full of paintings for sale.

I remember thinking, “Well, he’s kind of shabby, probably needs the money,” so I bought a painting for $50, the price he quoted me. It was called “A Winter Adventure,” and it involved another spaceship, plus a sleigh with some drunks tumbling out of it, a burning log cabin, a parrot, a bear, a deer, and several other items.

Imagine my surprise, a few years later, when I visited the National Museum of American Folk Art in Washington, D.C., and there was a painting by Robert E. Smith on exhibit! It turns out that Robert had developed quite a following among artists in southwest Missouri, devotees of visionary art, and people who liked unique viewpoints. Robert was later commissioned to paint a mural in downtown Springfield, was the subject of a book, and even acted in a movie!

“A Winter Adventure” still hangs in my house, and I love to gaze at it.

The mural in Springfield

The mural in Springfield

Speaking Events


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I’m setting up speaking events for the fall. If your library or civic group would like to have me as a speaker, contact me! Nonprofit groups get a super-low rate through the State Historical Society/Missouri Humanities Council’s “Show Me Missouri” speakers’ bureau. The Show-Me presentation is on Missouri utopian communities, of which there were a surprising number. I am also working up a presentation on Missouri after the Civil War, which ties into the themes of This Old World. That one is not part of the “Show Me” program, but I’ll have it ready by fall for groups that have already heard my Missouri utopias talk. And needless to say, I’ll include a bit of reading from the new novel.

I love talking to civic groups and libraries. You meet so many interesting people, all with stories to tell!


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