Favorite Ozarks Books – 14


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Ozarks RFD

This review first appeared in Elder Mountain.

The newspaper column is a surprisingly difficult genre: strict word count limits, inflexible deadlines, and the necessity to be both original and familiar to a broad spectrum of readers. Jim Hamilton is a master practitioner of the form. For more than forty years, he wrote columns for the Buffalo Reflex, and a collection of his early columns, River of Used to Be, holds a valued place on my bookshelf. Now comes a new collection, Ozarks RFD: Selected Essays 2010-2015, taken from the most recent decade and published by a new press.

Readers of a certain age will remember when writing a newspaper column was a prestigious perch reserved for those who had proved themselves to be exemplary reporters and writers. On the national scene, Mike Royko, Molly Ivins, Jimmy Breslin, and others swayed political debates. In the Ozarks, Jean Bell Mosley and Thomza Zimmerman, Leonard Hall, and Sue Hubbell reported from their homes and farmsteads on the rhythms of life in nature and community. Hamilton’s columns are in that vein – observant, nostalgic, rarely offering comment on current events.

That doesn’t mean they are shallow, though. The columns regularly steer through emotional shoals. Hamilton writes with painful honesty about losing a wife to cancer and a daughter to a car crash, and about the more general disasters that befall a nation and a community. Faithful dogs and treasured fishing holes inhabit these pages, but so do wars and calamities.

I suspect, though, that the columns most readers will respond to are his reminiscences of childhood in the Ozarks. Hamilton has a gift for memory that reveals itself through precision; the word pictures in these columns are detailed, vivid, and evocative. Perhaps one of the signs of love is noticing, and if that’s the case these columns are just about as loving as one can get these days. Jim Hamilton seems to have noticed, and remembered, everything that ever happened to him.

Is there repetition among them? Sure. One of the pitfalls of a newspaper column is the obligation to produce material on deadline, again and again, week after week, and no columnist escapes the repetition trap forever. But even when he’s returning to a familiar subject or theme, Hamilton finds a way to approach it in a different way, shedding light from a different angle. Still, as with all collections of columns, these are best read in modest amounts. A newspaper column is literature in bite-sized form; as with all bite-sized things, they are better enjoyed when consumed at a moderate pace.

Hamilton’s columns capture a moment, dig deep into a memory, analyze an emotion. Each column is a finely crafted exploration of an experience or recollection, and although you can see their origins in the deadline-driven world of newspaper production, they transcend those origins and offer us lasting insights. There’s both sweetness and precision in these columns, a combination that is hard to pull off and even harder to sustain. This collection of work is a real joy.

Jim Hamilton

Jim Hamilton

Favorite Ozarks People – 16


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After my family moved from Fredericktown to our farm on the Black River, my mother wrote freelance articles for the Mountain Echo in Ironton, which was then owned by Richard and Isla Armfield. They were a lovely pair or people, old-fashioned newspaper folks down to their toes. Richard suffered from Parkinson’s disease, which ultimately led to their selling the paper, but when I knew him he just walked with an odd gait and showed a minor tremor in his hands. Isla was an elegant dresser and extremely cordial, who was engaged in all sorts of community groups.

But the person I’m thinking about today was one of the back-shop guys, a printer named Wilbur Larkin. Sometimes when my mom traveled to Ironton I would accompany her, and I always found myself drifting into the back shop to watch the printers work. Although the paper was printed elsewhere, the Mountain Echo had a thriving job printing business, with Wilbur and another gentleman whose name will occur to me as I continue (I hope – I think it was Kenneth, but can’t be sure).

Wilbur was the master of two machines. One was a Linotype, an honest-to-goodness Linotype, which fascinated me to no end. I remember the distinctive, horrid smell of molten lead that emanated from the machine when Wilbur fired it up; there was a container on top, where he would toss in some lead blanks and whatever waste pieces of type were lying around from previous jobs, and once the lead had melted properly, he would set the font size and line width and then begin typing the new job on a weird keyboard that bore little resemblance to the standard QWERTY keyboard used by everything else. Lead would run down a little channel and be formed, letter by letter, into a line of type (thus the name), which would then be ejected into a receiving rack on the side. I was always warned to keep my hands away from the finished product, because as you can imagine, it stayed hot for quite a while. It was like watching a cathedral organist at work: intense, concentrated hand movements on an oversized apparatus, incomprehensible to the casual observer.


By Unknown author – Popular Science Monthly Volume 40, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12205750

The other machine was a platen press. This one was electric, although there was a treadle-operated one elsewhere in the shop. Wilbur would daub a paddleful of ink (also strictly do-not-touch) onto the platen, then gradually accelerate into the on-off rhythm of placing a sheet of paper or posterboard into the frame in the moment of open space when the inked lettering was retreating from contact while simultaneously removing the newly printed sheet. Left hand out, right hand in. It was beautiful to watch, made even more so by the fact, repeated to me more than once, that despite the gentle, musical clanking of the machine, any finger that happened to be between paper and type at the moment of printing would be crushed. The platen press was mainly used for posters, and Wilbur kept several composing sticks hanging on the wall in which he would set the type; for the largest sizes, display type over an inch tall, he actually used wooden letterblocks instead of metal ones. I marveled at the cases of two- and three-inch type from which he would pluck the needed words: the number of letters was limited, so if your poster was something like “Massasoit for Assessor,” it might require two passes on the printing press so that the s’s could be reset onto the second line. Years later, I found a couple of job sticks and a type case at a garage sale; I bought them and still have them as souvenirs.

Wilbur was a soft-spoken man who didn’t seem bothered by my presence but didn’t exactly encourage it, either. But he tolerated me, let me watch, and answered my questions with patient good humor.

Few things in life are as satisfying as the sense of mastery: of a subject, a challenge, a tool, an activity. It’s always thrilling to watch someone who’s a master: I think that’s part of the reason for the popularity of professional sports, watching people whose skills are so clearly at a peak. But mastery takes many forms, all of which deserve honor. We tend to associate mastery with physical skills and to bemoan their diminishment. To some extent, that’s true; there’s aren’t as many master saddlemakers or quilters as there once were. But we shouldn’t overlook other forms of mastery. Over the years I’ve been fortunate to watch other masters, digital masters, at work, with design programs, data management programs, and others. And the speed and assuredness with which they work is just as thrilling to me. It’s just as amazing to watch over the shoulder of someone who’s creating a unique design on screen as it was to watch my dad peer into the innards of malfunctioning hay baler out in the field and diagnose its problem within a few minutes, or to watch Wilbur Larkin perform a sonata on the Linotype.

A Mind-Boggling Work of Research


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You’ve seen them along the roadside, those statues and markers that purport to represent the spot where an Indian maiden leaped to her death, typically from a high bluff overlooking a river or lake. Whether the cause was pursuit by an enemy tribe, pursuit by members of her own tribe because of a romance with an enemy, or just general lovelorn sadness, the maiden finds life unbearable. So off the cliff she goes, the heroine of a tragic, sentimental tale of love and longing, with the details of the incident lost in the swirl of time.

You’ve seen those markers and statues because, as we now know, hundreds of locations across the country – and the world – have borne the name “Lover’s Leap.” We know this because the photography/writing/collecting team of Leland and Crystal Payton have produced Lover’s Leap Legends: From Sappho of Lesbos to Wah-Wah-Tee of Waco, an astonishingly researched book that takes these legends, painstakingly documents their origins, identifies their probable original author, and tracks their variations from the general theme.

How the Paytons managed to track down all these stories, and to collect an amazing variety of postcards, souvenir spoons, posters, sheet music, brochures, souvenir pebbles (yes, I remember those souvenir pebbles, a.k.a “Apache Tears,” from a childhood trip to Arizona), and other memorabilia, is nothing short of amazing. If you’ve seen their other books, such as Damming the Osage, Mystery of the Irish Wilderness, or James Fork of the White, you know what you’re in for with this book: an exhaustive, copiously illustrated book that weighs in at 352 larger-than-ordinary pages  and traces every anecdote back to its first appearance, then for good measure throws in a reproduction of the 19th-century newspaper article where the story first appeared. This is clearly a labor of love.

The Paytons delve into the cultural implications of these stories, the restrospective positioning of Indian tribes as doomed and suicidal, without falling prey to academic jargon or overinterpretation. Though comprehensive, the book is down to earth, written in a conversational style that presents its research matter-of-factly. The 545 illustrations are sometimes smaller than I would have liked, but that’s the trade-off in getting 545 illustrations onto 352 pages. Unlike their earlier books, which tended to focus on Ozarks stories and locations, this book is nationwide in scope, and even devotes a chapter to international lovers’ leaps. While it is true that suicide by jumping from a high place is a real thing, and sometimes the Paytons do document an actual suicide attempt from a particular bluff or waterfall, the vast majority of these incidents fall into the category they call “fakelore” – bogus legends invented by a local storyteller or tourism promoter, intended to cast an air of mystery over the dramatic location.

Interestingly enough, the Paytons also document in great detail the almost immediate efforts at mockery and debunking. The book is dedicated to Mark Twain, the great anti-sentimentalist, and rarely does a legend emerge without a satiric poem or comedic play to make fun of it. To quote a 1906 filler in The Scranton Republican, “Judging from the number of ‘Lover’s Leaps’ at the various mountain resorts, the favorite amusement of the aboriginal maiden must have been jumping over precipices.”

This is, I believe, the only book-length account of Lover’s Leap legends in the United States and beyond, and it’s a terrific one. Folklorists both amateur and professional will find much to savor in this book. And did I mention that it has an excellent index, the sign of an author who has truly taken care?

You can browse the book at http://hypercommon.com/.

The Industry


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1024px-Concentrated_animal_feeding_operation,_Missouri_Occasionally on my drives through the countryside I’ll come upon a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (or CAFO), which is the “agriculture industry” name for what most of us call a “factory farm.” The first ones I encountered were big turkey and chicken operations in southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas, and of course there have long been the massive cattle feedlots in the western states. About twenty-five years ago I went to a protest for a big hog factory near Unionville, a protest that like many had no effect. The hog operation went in, one of about 500 such operations owned by Smithfield Foods, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the WH Group of China (that’s a picture of it above).

CAFO is a term that has been created in large part to sanitize the image of these operations; “factory farm” is a bit of a misnomer itself because they in no way resemble a farm. “Animal factory” might be a better phrase, but since “factory farm” is in more common use, I guess I’ll stick with that. Factory farms tend to hit the news when there’s a big failure; the disaster that happened in 2018, for example, when Hurricane Florence overwhelmed North Carolina, sending waste from the many factory farm lagoons in that state into rivers and streams. But for the neighbors to factory farming operations, the ill effects don’t need a disaster to be triggered. They happen every day, in the form of dust, contaminant leaching, and overwhelming odor.

I’ve not met Todd Parnell, the recently-retired president of Drury University, although his novel Pig Farm has been on my to-read list for a while. As it turns out, Parnell is also a clean-water activist, and recently someone directed me to his blog, River Rant. I’ll add a link to this blog on my sidebar for easy access. What prompted this direction was his most recent post, in which he describes the unsuccesssful efforts of some environmental activists to get the Springfield, Mo., City Council to pass a resolution criticizing a law passed by the Missouri legislature in its last session. That law prohibits any local government – a county commission, city council, or whatever – from enacting a health regulation on factory farms that is more stringent than state law. Given that the current Missouri legislature is, for all practical purposes, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Big Ag, it’s easy to envision the level of regulation they intend.

Parnell’s activism has focused on protecting Ozark streams, rightly so, since that’s his location, and since the degradation of Ozark streams is highly visible and psychically devastating. So far, the only large-scale, long-term disaster I can think of on an Ozark stream has been the 2005 collapse of the Taum Sauk reservoir, which wiped out Johnson Shut-Ins State Park for several years, caused about a billion dollars’ worth of damage, and turned the East Fork of the Black River into a muddy blob for quite some time.


Photo by Jeff Spooner, U.S. Geological Survey

There’s also the continuing concern over the oil storage tank farm at the headwaters of the Eleven Point River at Willow Springs, which earned its owner a slap on the wrist from the EPA in 2017.

But sluggish and muddy waters deserve our concern, too. Like most Ozarkers, I’m subject to clear-water bias; one of the important lessons I took away from Leland and Crystal Payton’s book Damming the Osage was that activists who opposed Truman Dam faced more difficulty because the Osage at that location was not especially “scenic” in the traditional sense. Unlike the uproar over the proposed damming of the Current, Eleven Point, or Meramec rivers, those opposed to the damming of the Osage couldn’t draw on the emotionally powerful images of lonely canoers, crystalline springs, and hidden caves. And thus we have Truman Lake, gradually silting up in its western arms, while the other rivers still flow free.

But back to the most recent act of the legislature and governor to shelter Big Ag from local regulation. The degradation of rural America sometimes happens in dramatic and visible ways, a hurricane or a dam collapse; but more often it happens invisibly, incrementally, through tax policies that cause neglect of essential infrastructure, ideologically-driven decisions that lead to the closing of hospitals and clinics, and laws like this one, which give large companies free rein to override the concerns of the communities where they locate. Apologists for Big Ag often resort to the “farmers feed the world” line, a classic example of the either/or fallacy, as if productive farming can only happen in a regulation-free environment.

These people invariably refer to farming as “the agriculture industry,” which reveals their underlying mentality. Of course, industrial methods have been used in farming ever since the Industrial Revolution began, and horse-drawn machinery was replaced by tractors. And farming can be a pretty noxious enterprise, even under the best of circumstances; ask anybody who grew up near a mink farm. And I resist the impulse to call farming a “way of life” as a contrast to an “industry”; that phrase has a fragrance of nostalgia that doesn’t sit right somehow. I think of farming, or agriculture if you will, more as a significant element of the rural economy and culture – not the only element, to be sure, and not an occupation that has a magical power that would free it from all oversight – but certainly something worth cherishing and guarding. And a factory farm is not a farm, but a factory.



Across the River


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Dam27_LGWhen I was growing up in Missouri, I didn’t pay much attention to events in Illinois, despite its proximity. I had a set of cousins over there, and our local TV station (based in Cape Girardeau) always covered Illinois news and weather, but other than those offhand connections I remained mainly unaware of the state’s history and events.

Now comes The American Bottom project, an interdisciplinary effort from academics and artists that provides an interactive map, historical and cultural commentary, and location guides to dozens and dozens of sites of interest, from Cahokia Mounds to Sauget and everything in between (culturally) and stretching geographically from Alton in the north to Kaskaskia in the south. The main participants in the project appear to be Washington University and The Art of the Rural, which is an interesting organization I follow on Facebook.

The interactive map looks to be still a-tweak, a little; I can’t always get the legends to show up on mouse-over in my browser, although the links all work, as far as I’ve gotten, anyway. Each link is a great bit of cultural history and I’ve already learned a lot. The East Side has been the overlooked side of the St. Louis metropolitan region for as long as there has been a St. Louis metropolitan region; its history is fascinating and troubling in roughly equal amounts. And in that mixture, I suppose, it reflects the American experience better than some of the sanitized, triumphalist histories we are accustomed to hearing.

Back to ‘Hillbilly’


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I last wrote about the concept of a ‘hillbilly’ five years ago, an eternity in Internet time, but the viewing of a sensitive and thoughtful documentary on the subject, available on Hulu, returns the topic to my mind. Sally Rubin and Ashley York’s film looks mainly at eastern Kentucky, with a few segments in West Virginia, but also broadens out to include a wider examination of the stigmatization of rural people everywhere.

Most provoking for me was the segment that showed popular comedians, one after the other, using the “hillbilly” stereotype as fodder for cheap laughs. Not to mention the famous Hillary Clinton “deplorables” comment, which pretty much sealed her fate with a lot of rural voters. I found it instructive to listen to that comment today, when we can hear it in retrospect and recognize just what a condescending, self-congratulatory remark it was, as compared with 2016, when Clinton supporters felt compelled to downplay how tone-deaf it was during the heat of the campaign.

If progressive activists and politicians want to win back rural voters — and let’s not forget, the entire progressive movement began as a rural movement — they need to re-learn how to listen to those voters and not stigmatize them as backward losers who couldn’t get out of rural America like their smarter counterparts who moved to the cities and suburbs.

Oh and by the way, here’s an image from the other movie entitled “Hillbilly” that came out last year:

Hillbilly thug image

Yeah, I’d say we have a long way to go in the struggle to avoid rural stereotyping.

Favorite Ozarks Books – 13


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History Ozarks - 2

I’ve written earlier about the first volume of Brooks Blevins’ A History of the Ozarkswhich was a most welcome addition to my bookshelf. The second volume came out this fall, and I’ve been working through it; I’m happy to say that I like it even better than the first.

Subtitled “The Conflicted Ozarks,” this volume takes us through the history of the Ozarks during the Civil War into the troubled years afterward, ending after the great timber boom of the 1880s. A third volume that will bring us into the modern years is promised.

A particularly illuminating part of this book is its treatment of slavery in the pre-Civil War Ozarks. I grew up hearing the common phrase that slavery in our part of the country “wasn’t that bad” because slaveowners typically owned only one or two slaves, rather than participating in the large-scale plantation system that existed farther south. According to this view, “slaves were treated as part of the family” and were happier with their condition than the unlucky slaves of the Deep Confederacy. Blevins addresses this conception with sensitivity, noting the essential differences between slavery in the Ozarks and other areas of the country, but also pointing out that even small-scale slavery is still slavery, and that slaveowners of the Ozarks, like slaveowners elsewhere, didn’t hesitate to break up slave families through the sale of spouses and children when it suited their economic interest. In fact, because of its intimacy, Ozarks slaveowning could evolve into deep personal animosity and mistreatment, with all the power on one side of the equation.

The book also gives a comprehensive cross-border treatment of the war itself. We tend to hear about the Civil War in the Ozarks from a single-state viewpoint, or even from a narrower one such as the history of the war in a particular region or from the perspective of a unit or campaign; it’s helpful to read about the war in a broader context. Similarly, the diverging paths of Missouri and Arkansas after the war are well described, along with ways in which the two states remained similar.

The first volume of this trilogy was challenged by its scope; covering prehistory, early Native American history, the colonial period, and the years of American rule up to the beginning of the Civil War is a daunting task. This volume, with its much more confined time period, feels tighter and more narratively coherent, and the vast increase in number and type of source material makes itself felt as well, with Blevins bringing in all kinds of material, from official documents to personal letters and diaries. The breadth of research is just a thrill.

Like its predecessor, this book belongs on the shelf of anybody who wants to be a serious student of Ozark history.


Remembering Robert E. Smith


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Several years ago, I posted a reminiscence of Robert E. Smith, a unique character and “outsider artist” with an unmistakable painting style and a sensibility that was nearly impossible to categorize.

I didn’t know this at the time, but it turns out that my fellow Ozarks writers Leland and Crystal Payton had a much longer and closer relationship with him. They recently posted some thoughts about him on his birthday, on their website, HyperCommon. Here’s a link. They also posted a link to a profile of Smith that they published in 1993, which contains many of his insights and comments about his artwork. Here’s a link to that one.

May they continue to flourish, the outsiders, the uncategorizable, the eccentrics and the oddballs. What a drab world it would be without them!

Old-Fashioned Words


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[A longer version of these thoughts was presented September 15 at the Quincy, Ill., Unitarian Church.]

People who hang around me long enough soon discover that I have a mad fondness for obscure, old-fashioned, and out-of-the way words. This is true for many people who love to write, but also true for others as well. There’s a special pleasure in finding a word that’s been lying around for hundreds of years, perhaps, just waiting for you to pick it up and put it in your pocket, like a coin on the sidewalk. A few years ago I picked up “petrichor,” which is the smell of earth after a rain, and ever since then I’ve been hollering out “petrichor” at every opportunity. A new old word is like a gift from the linguistic universe, a way of expressing something that previously seemed inexpressible. It’s a feeling similar to the experience I have whenever I get a new eyeglass prescription. Something that was blurry and indistinct, or perhaps even outside of my awareness, suddenly comes into sharp, precise existence. That’s what happens when you find a good, old, right word. The little dimple between your nose and your upper lip becomes a philtrum. And you’ve got a name for something previously unnamed. And what’s better is when you look up the origin of the word “philtrum,” and learn that it comes from a Greek word that means “love charm,” and now you’ll never look at a philtrum the same way again.

Other old-fashioned words are ones that you know quite well, but just never get the chance to use. Like steed, for example. Who wouldn’t love to be able to use steed now and then? But unless you’re willing to sound a little ridiculous,  the opportunity doesn’t arise, even if you do ride horses. But it’s a good word to have around. Still others are words that we might want to possess just because they’re so aesthetically pleasing. When you’re driving past a cornfield at sunset and see a flock of blackbirds or starlings all moving in unison, as if the entire flock is a single organism controlled by one brain, the word for that phenomenon is murmuration. I’ll probably never get to use murmuration in the wild, but I’m glad to know it’s there. Likewise with sillion, which is the name for the little furrow you make with a plow in preparation for planting seeds.

Old words reflect older ways of thinking, and thus they are a glimpse into history. I am struck by how many of our commonplace expressions and idioms have their origin from either agriculture or seafaring, two occupations that the great majority of Americans today have little or no knowledge of. When we talk about feeling in the doldrums, for example, we’re likely to forget that the Doldrums is an old word for an actual geographical location notorious for its lack of wind, known technically as the intertropical covergence zone. In the age of sail, getting caught in the Doldrums meant an extended period of forced idleness, debilitation, and inactivity that was not only tedious, but could even be fatal if your ship’s food stocks ran out. And who but the most dedicated farmers among us will recall that if you sow your wild oats, you’re likely to get a poor harvest, or none at all, and that you’re better off sowing those boring old tame, domesticated, tried-and-true oats. And what’s so bad about it when your chickens come home to roost? Nothing, it might seem, until you think about it in the original context of the metaphor. The original meaning of the phrase was that whatever you send out into the world will always come back to haunt you. In fact, the original expression was that curses are like chickens, in that they always come home to roost. As we might say today, karma’s gonna get you. So when I see an old-fashioned word, and understand where it came from, I am in a real sense looking back in time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe other side of this observation is that some old-fashioned words deserve the obscurity they’ve been cast into, for they represent a way of thinking that we have thankfully outgrown. I’ve been reading a book lately called “From Missouri: An American Farmer Looks Back,” by a man named Thad Snow. Thad Snow was a farmer in the Bootheel during the first half of the twentieth century; he bought land near Charleston in 1910 and farmed it for more than forty years. Now Thad Snow was a true radical, one of those classic curmudgeonly Midwestern freethinkers who popped up from time to time during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His most famous moment occurred in January 1939, when he partnered with a sharecroppers’ activist named Owen Whitfield to support a widespread sharecroppers’ sit-in across southeast Missouri after many of them had been evicted by their landowners. He was the only major landowner to support the sit-in, and he was branded a traitor to his class by the other large farmers, who fancied themselves to be a plantation aristocracy of sorts. But in his memoir, written in 1954, he repeatedly refers to Owen Whitfield, his colleague in the sit-in, as a “darky.” Even given Snow’s penchant for making provocative remarks, which seems irrestible to him, this use of language that was out of date and offensive – even back then – makes me think less of him, and to reconsider his stance on behalf of the sharecroppers. Maybe he wasn’t acting out of principle, but just out of foolish contrariness. His language reveals more about his thinking than perhaps he had intended.

And that’s where I am headed with my thoughts on old-fashioned words. In linguistics, there’s a famous and rather controversial concept called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and it boils down to this: Our language shapes our thinking. In greater detail, the hypothesis makes the case that all languages focus on certain aspects of life, and the difference in those focuses leads to differences in our thinking. It’s a more scientific version of the old “Eskimos have forty words for snow” idea. If we have the words to express an idea, it will get expressed; if we do not have the words, it likely will not. Linguists have studied the many variations in languages around the world, such as languages that do not have “count nouns” (such as one, two, three, and so forth) and languages that use cardinal directions instead of concepts such as left and right. As you might imagine, the speakers of these languages possess some interesting capabilities that English speakers lack, and lack some capabilities that English speakers own without even being aware that they do. To illustrate that point, linguist Lera Boroditsky points out that although speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre, an aboriginal language from Western Australia, do not have what we think of as the basic concept of left and right, they do have a remarkably precise sense of orientation to their landscape. Even a small Kuuk Thaayorre child is able to point north-northwest at any moment, while we advanced Americans would need to get out our phones and hope for the best. The inherent limitations and biases of language are the subject of Suzette Haden Elgin’s science fiction novel series Native Tongue. In this dystopian series, set in the 22nd century, women have been stripped of their civil rights, and a group of female linguists create a language for women as an act of resistance. In this language, called Laadan, there are distinctively separate words for a range of female experiences. For example, there’s a word for being pregnant, a separate word for being pregnant for the first time, and another for being pregnant joyfully.

The words we possess shape the thoughts we can express. If we acquire, and habitually use, the language of violence and exclusion, we enable violent and exclusionary thinking. And the opposite is also true: acquiring and using language of appreciation and beauty bends our minds in those directions. Ruth Dahl, the narrator and central character of Jane Hamilton’s wonderful novel The Book of Ruth, tells us how the verbal poverty of her upbringing has affected her:

We were the products of our limited vocabulary: we had no words for savory odors or the colors of the winter sky or the unexpected compulsion to sing. The language I had to speak to be understood is not the language of poetry or clear thinking.

One of the most repeatedly humbling experiences of my life is teaching literature to young people, because a lot of young people are not instinctively inclined toward literature in the way that earlier generations were. They’ve grown up accustomed to other modes of expression, and a lot of school work involves reading for main ideas and essential elements, not the kind of slow, savoring reading that literary study asks. So you have to re-teach them into different reading habits: don’t count the number of pages till the end, but stop and reflect every so often. Instead of reading for the general sense of a passage, read for every last bit of significance. And when you encounter an unfamiliar word, celebrate! It’s a gift. Needless to say, that approach doesn’t always go over in class. But once in a while, a student will pick up the spirit and discover the hidden revelations of old-fashioned words, the ferocious rigor of keelhaul or the sweet promise of bower.

Some Days . . .


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Bethesda group

Some days being a writer is just plain fun. That was the case on Tuesday, when I visited with some residents of the Bethesda Hawthorne Place assisted living facility in Oakland, Mo., just outside St. Louis. Their book group had been reading Slant of Light, and indeed to help some of the residents with reading difficulties some of the staff members had read the book aloud to them, chapter by chapter. So this was a well-informed bunch!

We had a delightful conversation that went on longer than I had expected, and we covered all kinds of topics, book-related and not. During a discussion of nineteenth-century utopian communities, one resident stepped out of the room. I thought she had just tired of the discussion, or perhaps needed to rest, but a few minutes later she came back with a magazine article on Nauvoo that she had been reminded of by the conversation. Some of the folks had memory issues, and others did not; but everyone got something out of the visit, especially myself.

I was reminded of how lucky I am to be a writer, and to have books that a wide variety of people can enjoy, and to have readers who are so engaged and attentive. And yes, they took me to task over certain plot twists that occur toward the end of the book, and which I will not go into here for fear of spoiling the story for future readers.

Those who underestimate old people do so to their own detriment.