Back to Walden

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I read Walden about once a year, or at least dip into it for refreshment. Lately I’ve been reading the “winter” chapters: “Former Inhabitants and Winter Visitors,” “Winter Animals,” and “The Pond in Winter.” These are much quieter chapters than the showy, occasionally verbally extravagant flourishes of “Economy” and “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” and they tend to get overlooked, I think. But I’m appreciating them anew this time around.

The “former inhabitants” section is a quiet catalogue of the abandoned houses and waste places Thoreau encounters as he walks around his Concord neighborhood, and a recollection of what he knows about the families who once lived there – which in some cases is very little. One might wonder what he’s up to with this melancholy inventory. I wondered, too, until I noticed, this time around, that the people he memorializes are almost all Black, poor, or both. All that is left of their life’s labor is an overgrown hummock, a portion of a cellar wall, a vague tale of their occupation.

This section of the book is a meditation on disappearance and loss, and it’s especially telling that this meditation focuses on the poor. Thoreau approaches their stories with his usual wry humor. In one instance he tells of a comical adventure with the volunteer fire department, when they respond to an alarm and mistakenly think the fire is some distance away, when it actually turns out to be an abandoned hut just down the road. But that scene is followed by the poignant description of the sole remaining member of that hut’s last family, who returns to the home of his childhood and pokes through the ashes for any remnant of his family’s existence, turning up only the hook from which the well-dipper was fastened. “I felt it,” Thoreau writes, “and still remark it almost daily in my walks, for by it hangs the history of a family.”

Disappearance, withdrawal, diminishment. These chapters are full of such things. The visitors are few; the animals go into hiding; even the pond itself, frozen over, is sawn into blocks and carried away, ice to cool the beverages of the privileged in distant cities. But this condition also yields new perspectives. Thoreau takes advantage of the winter to go out on the ice of the pond and observe, to take measurements and to peer to the bottom, activities that would be impossible during warmer times.

Winter brings clarity as the essential parts are revealed. There is melancholy in this, of course, but also opportunity for a deepened understanding. And of course, the chapter that follows “The Pond in Winter” is “Spring.”

Words to Remember

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A friend of mine, retired teacher/principal/superintendent Terry Adams, recently wrote this:

“I think this is the most beautiful fall I have ever experienced. The colors are still beautiful if a bit muted, and leaves are falling everywhere. The cattle herd settled under a huge oak tree and the cows were covered with leaves (a sure sign that fall is coming to an end).

“It seems that everything is beautiful in its own time. The peach trees are bare now, but in the spring when they flower, just before the frost kills the buds, they are at their best. The autumn blaze maple trees were at their peak a couple of weeks ago but today they look a little sad and adjusting to the concept that winter is coming. The burning bushes just keep getting more attractive. All the plants have plenty to offer, they just give you their best at different times and in different ways.

“People, it seems to me, are much the same way. As a young school administrator, a very wise experienced special education teacher told me that the special children learn just as well, it just takes them longer. When you pop popcorn, the temperature is the same for all the kernels but they tend to pop at different times. We would do well to accept that and try our best to help all children learn as much as possible in their own time. Some are lucky and seem to be able to do everything well. Some have special gifts in music or sports, or can build works of art in wood working classes. It is our responsibility to help all children and appreciate what they have to offer. Just like the trees, they are all beautiful in their own way and in their own time.”

The Land of a Million Smiles

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This photo is from a terrific essay in Medium by Joy Ellsworth – recommended reading!

When you drive through the Ozarks these days, you see fairly quickly that there are actually two “Ozarks” (or more, depending on how you slice it). There are the prosperous, tech-savvy, rapidly growing urban centers like Springfield, Fayetteville, and Bentonville, and there are the decaying, aging, deep rural counties with their tattered “Trump/Pence” flags flying forlornly in the front yard a year after the election, as if reality could be altered by an act of defiant will. The fancy word for this phenomenon is “inequality,” and to some extent it’s always been the case. The fortunate areas get rich, the less fortunate areas get left behind.

Some parts of the region get the latte bars, other parts get part-time shift work at the Dollar General.An astute observer of the Ozarks economic and cultural scene is historian Jared Phillips, and he recently published a thought-provoking article on this trend, which he describes as “rural decay coupled with corporate extraction and an expansion of inequality.” If you’re at all interested in the competing visions for how to revive the rural economy, you need to read it.

Here’s the link.

At What Cost?

Where Misfits Fit

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I’ve been reading a new book lately, Where Misfits Fit: Counterculture and Influence in the Ozarks by Thomas M. Kersen, who is a sociologist at Jackson State University in Mississippi. Tom grew up in a back-to-the-land community in the northern Arkansas hills, so he knows whereof he speaks regarding counterculture in the Ozarks.

The book, after a couple of chapters establishing its geographical and theoretical base, goes into a series of chapters about various groups that have existed on the cultural “edge” in the Ozarks: religious groups, music groups, alternative-living societies, and others. Although the book has an impressive scholarly apparatus, it’s clearly a work of love on Kersten’s part: he doesn’t shy away from the first person, describing his own experiences and his interactions with members of the various groups. This approach gives the book a more informal feel than many scholarly studies, which I welcomed.

Many of the chapters originated as talks given to the annual Ozarks Studies Conference, held in September in West Plains, so I had the privilege of hearing them in an earlier form as a member of the audience there. (Let me pause to give a plug to that conference, which is sponsored by Missouri State University – West Plains; if you’re at all interested in the Ozarks, it’s a great event to start attending!) But seeing them developed into book form gives me a better sense of the connecting threads.

What connects the chapters is their focus on groups and people who are at the edges of the social mainstream, what Kersen calls “liminal” regions. Inhabiting an edge region gives someone more freedom of behavior than a person or group possesses when firmly entrenched in a social structure. His theory is that the Ozarks themselves are a liminal region, and thus they attract liminal groups and individuals. It’s an intriguing argument.

Kersen covers a wide range of edge-dwellers, from music groups to religious groups to back-to-the-landers. It’s hard for me to pick out a favorite chapter, but I’d have to say the ones in which Kersen has personal experience were the most fun for me to read. He writes about well-known music groups such as the Ozark Mountain Daredevils and Black Oak Arkansas, but he also goes into great detail about more obscure groups such as “The Group” (known also as the Dan Blocker Singers) and Hot Mulch, the creators of the back-to-the-land anthem “Ozark Mountain Mother Earth News Freak.” A section on UFO-focused groups introduces us to the remarkable Buck Nelson of Mountain View, Missouri, whose booklet My Trip to Mars, the Moon, and Venus prompted a long string of spaceship conferences on his remote property.

It’s tempting to see these misfits as amusing eccentrics, but the book also touches upon groups that had a darker side, such as the Purple People, the Searcy County, Arkansas, group whose strange dress and religious beliefs were underlain by a repressive and sometimes violent set of behaviors. This direction is not the ultimate province of this book, though, but I’d like to see someone take it on. I find myself wondering: if the Ozarks has proven to be a welcoming home for communal groups and eccentric agriculturalists, so too has it been a comfortable place for fanatics, cultists, and plain old scary people. I’m old enough to remember The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord, a violent Christian Identity group that set up a compound in northern Arkansas in the ’70s and ’80s. They were not the first, and certainly have not been the last, and even today there are extremist groups up some of those dirt roads. Being a liminal region poses threats as well as offering opportunities.

Raise the Statues, Tear Them Down

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This post is adapted from a talk I recently gave to the Quincy, Illinois, Unitarian Church.

Recently, the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County, along with the Tri-States Civil War Roundtable, dedicated a marker in Woodland Cemetery at the grave of Edward Prince, a Quincyan who distinguished himself through service in the Civil War. Colonel Prince, who had been an attorney before the war, was the second-in-command of a daring cavalry raid in 1863 that diverted Confederate forces away from the defense of Vicksburg, allowing Ulysses S. Grant to move troops into position to take the city, a major turning point in the war.

It is right and proper to honor Colonel Prince’s leadership and valor. At the same time, I find myself wondering: What if Edward Prince’s father, instead of moving his family to Illinois in the 1830s to take up farming, had moved to Mississippi? Unfortunately, one scenario I can easily imagine is that Edward Prince would have distinguished himself in the service of the Confederate Army, and that his service would have been recognized, memorialized, and honored, and that today a controversy would be brewing over whether his statue should be taken down somewhere, or his name removed from a public building, or some other form of reconsideration of the meaning of his acts.

We all have our private forms of reverence. People we respect, honor, and seek to emulate. But reverence also has a public face, in which our society tries to single out people who demonstrate particular virtues, values, or actions, and that’s where things can get tricky.

For much of history, the idea of publicly sanctioned honor, and especially state-sanctioned honor, was tied up with power. And for much of the world, it still is. The emperor’s profile on coins, the triumphal arch in the public square, the dictator’s portrait in every schoolroom. These things show who’s in charge and whose will is to be obeyed. For the rest of us, our job is to admire from our lowly place, not aspire to their exalted status. But in modern times, we have adopted a more expansive idea of public admiration, one that does include an element of aspiration. We are called not only to admire these acclaimed people, but to be like them.  

The complication comes in the fact that people’s idea of what is admirable changes over time. Take Andrew Jackson, for example, first placed on the modern twenty-dollar bill in 1928, although his image has been on American currency, and thus a pre-eminent symbol of what it means to be an American, since the 1860s. What was it that led to his placement on such a widely used banknote? I’d have to say that for earlier generations, Jackson represented what many Americans liked to celebrate and found worthy of recognition: aggressiveness, domination, military prowess, distrust of elites and intellectuals, and boundless ambition. A lot of Americans today still think of those as admirable traits. So it’s no surprise that our former president placed a bust of Jackson prominently in the White House and frequently posed for pictures in front of it.

As for myself, I prefer the person who is being planned to replace Jackson, Harriet Tubman, as my virtue model. She was tough but focused, committed to human liberation in ways both large and small, and unafraid to risk her personal safety in the service of others. And she cared for her aging parents in their later years.

So our ideas of public honor change over time, and one generation’s heroes become the next generation’s problems. Will something similar happen in future years? You can count on it. So perhaps we need to think about how we as a society dole out praise. Maybe we don’t need a statue in the traffic circle to tell us how to act.   

It’s a commonplace among pollsters that when people name the person they most admire, they most frequently identify their mother or father. Favorite teachers come in pretty high on that list, too, along with more distant relatives like grandparents, aunts, and uncles. I’m not suggesting that we start putting up statues to our parents in the backyard, or even the household shrines that are commonplace in some countries. But I am wondering if our definition of heroism needs to be reconsidered, and whether it’s not as inaccessible as it might seem.

What is the phrase that heroes so often use when given praise for their accomplishments? “I was just doing my job.” I think we tend to attribute that comment to modesty, or maybe even false modesty, the idea that if someone says, “Yeah, I did great,” they’re crossing a line of appropriateness. But let’s take the hero at her word for a minute. Let’s say that’s the true and simple feeling. “I was just doing my job.” What does that say to us?

I think it tells us that if we’re looking for greatness, we don’t have to look too far. I’ll spare you any corny stories about everyday heroes because that’s not exactly what I’m talking about, but rather the simple observation that an action that may feel ordinary, even mundane, to the doer may have an impact far beyond its visible effects, or even its intended ones.

I am something of a worrywart in daily life, the kind of person who likes to plan and plan, and think of all the things that might go wrong, and as a result I sometimes rob myself of spontaneous enjoyment. I remember a friend of mine telling me once that on his kids’ birthdays, they would celebrate with a “Whatever Happens” day, deliberately unplanned, following the birthday child’s wishes as they unfolded and sometimes ending up with large blocks of empty time, whiling away a few hours engaged in what even a charitable observer might describe as goofing off. My initial thought about this was that it was kind of cheating, to make a tradition out of not planning anything, and part of me still thinks that. But looking at it from the other direction, I think about the birthday child’s perspective and what it feels like to know that your parent is clearing the day and letting you decide what to do. And if you want to spend the afternoon at the arcade, or go out for indulgent pancakes for breakfast, or just stay in bed until you feel like getting up, that’s what will happen. The implicit message of “Whatever Happens” day is: You matter. I will listen to you. Your wishes count.

And this is where I turn back to reverence, how we show it and how we perceive it in our daily lives. An ordinary encounter can be reverential. When we approach a conversation thinking equally of the other person’s perspective and needs, as well as our own, we are recognizing that individual’s fellow humanity.

But there are many obstacles to that kind of interaction, as we all know. For one thing, and let’s face it, people tend to be pretty selfish much of the time, focused on their own desires and needs and not those of others. I expect you’ve had the experience, as I have many times, of being in a conversation with someone and realizing that they were not paying any genuine attention to what you were saying, but instead thinking ahead to the next thing they were going to say. It’s not a pleasant feeling to recognize that you’re basically serving as a placeholder for someone else’s monologue.

And to complicate matters further, we are surrounded by a great deal of noise these days. How many times, when you ask someone how they’re doing, you receive the stock response, “Busy.” Now there are different kinds of busy. There’s the busy of someone who is trying to make ends meet, and that’s a busy we can all respect. There’s the busy of someone in search of wealth or status, something we’ve all engaged in, although we sense instinctively that this kind of busy has to be monitored so it doesn’t throw one’s life out of balance. And then there’s the busy of someone who is using busy-ness to avoid any empty moments, as if there’s something disreputable about sitting on the deck to watch the sunset, or standing out in the yard getting to know your neighbor, or catching up with an old friend through a note, an e-mail, or even a posting on our current villain, Facebook. Sometimes busy-ness serves as a protective screen, keeping us at arm’s length from the rewarding, but emotionally taxing, labor of more genuine interaction.

And of course the social media themselves are often part of the noise. For every rediscovered friend and engaging conversation, there are a thousand predigested memes, stock comments, and smart remarks that are momentarily funny but ultimately corrosive. I find myself posting less and less on social media these days, not because I don’t recognize their potential as a medium for true engagement, but because they have failed to live up to that potential again and again. In 1985, long before the arrival of the Internet era, Neil Postman wrote his famous critique of the American mass media, Amusing Ourselves to Death. I’m sorry to report that the trends he identified in that book have not slowed or reversed, but accelerated, so that today we find ourselves in a state of near-terminal amusement, drowning in hashtag blessings.

I realize that I may appear to have wandered from my original topic by now, so I’d like to try to bring things together and show the connections. My point is that we are presently caught up in a great debate, here in the United States and elsewhere, about what sort of public honor should be given to people, and what kind of people should receive it, and I don’t want to downplay the importance of that debate. Earlier this week, for example, the city of Mexico City announced that it was replacing the statue of Christopher Columbus that formerly stood along one of the city’s main thoroughfares with a different statue, a replica of a pre-Hispanic sculpture depicting an indigenous woman, known as the Young Woman of Amajac. This is a powerful shift in emphasis, from the conqueror to the conquered, and we should not minimize its significance.

But in our daily lives, we are not likely to have the opportunity to behave heroically, to lead troops into battle, free enslaved people, or anything else that might put us in a portrait gallery. But what we can do is what I’ve suggested here: we can engage with our fellow humans in an authentic and reverential fashion.

I was thinking about the Golden Rule a few days ago. It occurred to me that most of the time, we think of the Golden Rule in instrumental terms. Why do unto others as you would have them do unto you? Because it’s good business in the long run. If I honor my agreements, and keep my word, and that encourages you to do the same, we both come out winners. Kind of like the rules of the road. Drive on the right and you won’t wreck. But there’s another level at which the Golden Rule speaks to us. In treating others as we would like to be treated, we are recognizing our common humanity, the bond that joins us all regardless of race, gender, age, or any of the other accidents of circumstance.

When we treat someone with courtesy, listen to them without prejudice, and act with compassion and kindness, we are just doing our job. Our job as human beings. And not that it matters, but it’s possible that someone will be building a little statue of us in their heart as a result.

The Bright Future Ahead

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Telosa – artist’s conception

It’s been a chaotic year and a half, with disease ravaging the world and many political leaders in the U.S. taking advantage of the crisis to score points against their opponents instead of taking the obvious necessary steps to restore public health. Many people will look back on this time in history, I fear, with shame and regret.

Which is why it’s comforting, in a weird way, to read about a billionaire and former Wal-Mart executive named Mark Lore (pronounced, apparently, Lor – EE) who has announced plans for a mega-scale utopian community to be built somewhere in the American West, with a target population of five million inhabitants by 2050.

The underlying idea behind Telosa, as this new city is to be called, is not exactly new, and indeed we see it at work in community land trusts around the country even now. The social critic Henry George formulated its basic principles in 1879: the community owns the land, but grants a license to individuals and companies for the use of that land. It’s a sort of modified half-capitalist, half-socialist idea, and of course the devil is in the details of such an arrangement.

The most immediate curiosity about Mr. Lore’s plan is the idea that this city of the future will be located in the American Southwest, which is already starved for water and could hardly be imagined to take on another five million people. Appalachia is also mentioned as a possible site, which would make a lot more sense ecologically.

Also nothing particularly new is the prospect of a successful businessperson deciding that he or she has a great new idea for reorganizing society, and using the power of wealth to test out this idea. One of the most interesting communities of the late 19th and early 20th century was Leclaire, Illinois, founded by plumbing industrialist N. O. Nelson in what is now Edwardsville.

Leclaire started out as a planned “workers’ paradise,” where employees of the N. O. Nelson Manufacturing Company would have all their needs met in a comfortable environment that would, in theory, make them happy, productive, and committed workers. Things didn’t quite turn out that way, as usually happens when someone else takes on the task of deciding what’s best for you. The workers had their own ideas about what their needs were, and eventually discord came to paradise.

The park at the site of Leclaire, Illinois.

It’s tempting to scoff at the idea of a model city being created by someone who is a former executive at a company that is, let’s face it, not anyone’s idea of a worker’s paradise. But that’s the thing about ideas for social improvement: they just keep coming up, again and again, and sometimes from the most unexpected places.

Floating

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I am currently floating (metaphorically) because the University of Missouri alumni magazine just published a long essay I wrote about floating (literally). I love taking float trips on Ozark streams and tried to convey some of the feeling of those experiences.

They also assigned a writer and photographer to do a profile of me to accompany the essay. Tony Rehagen and Nic Benner both did wonderful jobs.

Here’s the link.

Testimony

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Stephen Dunn passed away a few days ago at the age of 82. He was one of my absolute favorite poets. His specialty was seeing meaning in the smallest of things, and his work had immense wit that was also quite expansive. His poems would often take on bigger and bigger meanings as they went along, yet they always stayed grounded in the real and specific. He had such a marvelous way of seeing!

In his honor, here’s his poem “Testimony,” which was published in the New Yorker not quite ten years ago.

The Lord woke me in the middle of the night,

and there stood Jesus with a huge tray,

and the tray was heaped with cookies,

and He said, Stephen, have a cookie,

and that’s when I knew for sure the Lord

is the real deal, the Man of all men,

because at that very moment

I was thinking of cookies, Vanilla Wafers

to be exact, and there were two

Vanilla Wafers in among the chocolate

chips and the lemon ices, and one

had a big S on it, and I knew it was for me,

and Jesus took it off the tray and put it

in my mouth, as if He were giving me

communication, or whatever they call it.

Then He said, Have another,

and I tell you I thought a long time before I

refused, because I knew it was a test

to see if I was a Christian, which means

a man like Christ, not a big ole hog.

Favorite Ozarks Places – 19

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The dining lodge at Sam A. Baker State Park. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

When I was a kid, a trip to Sam A. Baker State Park, north of Patterson, was a real treat. I had no idea who Sam A. Baker was, or what he had to do with the park. All I knew was that there would be swimming and either a cookout or dinner in the lodge, which to my young eyes seemed like the most impossibly rustic place imaginable.

As the years went on, I grew to appreciate the park more. It’s one of the oldest parks in the state, dating back to the Fish and Game Department days of the 1920s. Its namesake was an educator from Patterson who went on to be elected state superintendent of schools and then governor, and who encouraged the development of the state park system during his term in office.

We are so rich in state parks and conservation areas nowadays that it’s hard to think back to what the state was like a century ago. A lot of people thought the state had no business developing a statewide park system; taxpayer dollars, you know. (Readers of this blog know that I regularly bemoan the reactionaries who hold power in Jefferson City, but it’s worth remembering that rule by reactionaries is pretty much a norm in Missouri. The era of the Danforths and Bonds, McCaskills and Eagletons, bipartisan, consensus-seeking moderates, is more the exception. But I digress.)

The geography of Sam A. Baker State Park is a wonderful encapsulation of the eastern Ozarks. Much of its 5,000-plus acres is taken up by Mudlick Mountain, a steep and rugged hill that stands out from its surrounding terrain. There’s a fire tower on top of Mudlick, one of the many CCC projects of the Depression that created the face of the park. I must admit that I’ve never climbed up to it, but I can only imagine the view from there. This photo from AllTrails.Com gives an idea:

The CCC also built a hiking and equestrian trail that circles the park, with some stone cabins for resting along the way. Big Creek runs along much of the eastern side of the park, through a pretty shut-in area first and then with some shallows and swimming holes along the campground area. At the southeastern corner of the park, Big Creek joins the St. Francis River, and although the river is nowhere near as clear and fresh-running as the streams farther west, it still has outfitters for float trips.

When I lived in the area in the ’70s, the park hosted an annual bluegrass festival. In the fall it permitted black-powder enthusiasts to hunt for deer in a special season. It had, in other words, something for just about everyone. Decisions made in the 1920s were benefiting citizens in an unimagined future. And that is still the case today.

If people wonder why I am so enthusiastic about our state system of parks and conservation areas, they should visit just about any other state and see what kind of system is offered there. Few states have such a robust network of places to experience the outdoors, the result of decisions made years ago by people we scarcely remember. When I think about “public servants,” that’s what I think about — people who thought about the well-being of future generations who would not know about them or remember them.

And if you’re looking for places to experience the outdoors, perhaps some place you’ve not heard of before, you should visit the Facebook page of a group called Rollahiking. Those folks are the most industrious hikers I’ve ever seen! They visit some of the most out-of-the way locations in Missouri and Arkansas, and they always post great pictures.