About Those ‘Indian Trail Trees’ . . .

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An ‘Indian trail tree’ in Georgia

Every  so often I read something about “signal trees,” “thong trees,” “Indian trail trees,” or similar designations. These are trees like the one above, which supposedly were bent by long-ago Indians to mark trails, the location of water sources, food caches, and whatnot. I recall people pointing them out to me when I was a kid.

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Signal Tree sign near Stone Mountain, Georgia

OK, I’ll admit to some skepticism.

Make that a lot of skepticism.

The most significant Indian nation of the Ozarks, the Osage, were pretty well moved out by 1825. So any signal tree would have to be approximately 200 years old by now. Would the bending process really keep them that small? I’m not saying it’s not possible, but for comparison, here’s a 200-year-old tree (by ring count) that blew over in New Jersey a couple of years ago:

200-year-old-tree

Now that’s a big tree.

Second, would an Osage Indian really need direction on how to find water? Here’s a clue: Head downhill. The Ozarks are not exactly desert.

As for trail markers, I would have the same question. If you’ve ever gone out in the forest with someone experienced in woodcraft, you’ve probably marveled at their uncanny ability to know right where they are most of the time, not through any mystical reading of signs and symbols, but through the hard-earned knowledge that is gained from lifelong experience. I wonder if an Indian nation would have needed trail markers of this sort. And since the Osage were, shall we say, less than hospitable to strangers in their hunting grounds, they certainly wouldn’t have posted trail markers for those unfamiliar with the territory. This isn’t I-55, after all, where people need signs to the next rest stop.

And let’s remember that the Ozarks have been logged over multiple times. Granted, a logger wouldn’t stop to bother with a bent tree like these, but how about a charcoal burner? Or a stave bolt harvester? Trees just didn’t last that long unless they were in people’s yards, cemeteries, or other such protected locations.

These trees are curious and interesting to see, but for now I’ll ascribe their origin to a simpler explanation: a tree is blown over in the forest. In falling, it bends down its neighbor, which survives. Over time, the blown-down tree rots away, while the survivor sends up a new trunk from its bent-down position, causing the peculiar figure-four shape. And thus a signal tree is formed.

I’m open to persuasion otherwise, but for now, count me as a skeptic.

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Favorite Ozarks People – 12

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Stained glass window by Milton Frenzel

When I was a cub reporter, fresh out of college, many years ago in southern Missouri, I was looking for something to keep my mind active. I started attending a Great Books Club at the Ozarks Regional Library in Ironton, about an hour away.

And although I was a college graduate who had aced a couple of literature courses, and a working writer, Milton and Virginia Frenzel, who led the book discussions, were so deeply engaged with what we read, and on such a different level than most of my college professors, that they changed the way I thought about books for good. They didn’t just study them. They looked at them as living things, argued with them, demanded more from them. And by changing the way I thought about literature, they changed the way I thought about myself. And they weren’t even trying to do that. They were just being themselves, authentically and unselfconsciously, and in doing so opened up a new way of defining myself.

Milton and Virginia were an unlikely pair of Ozarkers: intellectual and urbane, they were among several artists who had emigrated from the St. Louis area to the Arcadia Valley, (others included Robert Harmon and Michael Chomyk). Milton and Bob Harmon designed stained glass windows for the Emil Frei Company of St. Louis, and Milton also painted. As I recall, Milton taught some art classes at the high school, although I don’t remember if he taught there full-time. I think they were largely in retirement by then. Virginia later served on the AV School Board.

That book group attracted some remarkable people, both natives and transplants. I may write about more of that group later. But for now, I’ll content myself by observing that if I ever dare to call myself an educated person, it’s a term that first began to become clear to me in a monthly book group at the Ironton library.

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— Another Frenzel window.

 

It’s Official Now

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My publisher, Blank Slate Press, an imprint of the Amphorae Publishing Group, has set the release date for my next novel–September 26! This is an exciting moment for me, as I’ve been working on this book since 2014.

We went around and around for several weeks about the title. I like titles with a lot of literary flair, while the publishers like titles that will catch the eye and sell well from a bookshelf—not that these two concepts are necessarily opposed to each other. But we definitely come from different vantage points; as my editor regularly reminds me, “Writing is an art. Publishing is a business.” But it all worked out in the end, and we have a title that suits us both.

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away quite yet. It’s fun to do a little buildup as the months go by, and launch events have not yet been planned. But I can give you a taste: when This Old World ended, it was 1866, and the people of Daybreak had wrestled with the aftermath of the Civil War with varying degrees of success. Some of them carried the wounds of war with them till their end, while others sought to heal by whatever means they could find—revenge, forgiveness, the remaking of self. But now, it’s 1887, the war is a fading memory for most although still fresh in the minds of some, and new challenges face Daybreak. Their agrarian way of life seems outdated as the Industrial Revolution transforms the country. And new people have moved into the valley. Some are sympathetic to the ideals of Daybreak, some seek to profit from them, and some keep their motives to themselves. The children of Slant of Light and This Old World are now in their twenties, creating lives of their own, and not everyone wants to hang on to the prewar utopian ideals that led to the creation of Daybreak. So the stage is set for change in the lives of Charlotte, Charley, and all the inhabitants of Daybreak old and new, change that will be profound, tumultuous, and potentially tragic.

The new book is The Language of Trees.

A New Author

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It’s always a great moment when you discover an interesting author who is new to you. That happened to me recently when I received a book by John Mort, who is not a new author at all, but an established author who I simply had missed.

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I should have heard of John Mort before now, but somehow had not. He’s an accomplished writer who lives in Springfield, and who has a bunch of books out that he’s either written or edited. I finished Goat Boy of the Ozarks in the last couple of days and based on that one, I’m going to go looking for more.

The “goat boy” of the title is Johnny Bell, a sixteen-year-old who like most boys his age struggles with authority, his sense of self, and inconveniently frequent erections. But unlike most boys his age, he is the poorest of the poor, parentless, largely friendless, and suspicious of the social-service foster family with whom he is placed, although in his isolation he also leans out for the scraps of affection they offer him as well.

At first I found the title off-putting, unsure whether I was in for some sort of Ozarks gothic story, nature idyll, or what. But when I discovered late in the book what the “goat boy” referred to, it came as an unexpected and refreshing surprise as the book took a turn into the deconstruction of Ozarks genre mythology, an activity dear to my own heart. I suppose one could say that the storyline of the book follows the coming-of-age pattern, but there are other springs flowing through this parcel as well.

The narrative style is curious; it’s a bit jagged, with elliptical moments in which we have to figure out what happened in the interim, but after a while I got used to that method. I could tell I was in the hands of a writer with serious purposes, which gave me all the incentive I needed to persist despite my uncertainty.

After reading Goat Boy of the Ozarks, I plan to seek out more of John Mort’s work and give it a look as well.

Two Books

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I’ve been reading a couple of books this month–Brooks Blevins’ Ghost of the Ozarks: Murder and Memory in the Upland South and Aaron Ketchell’s Holy Hills of the Ozarks: Religion and Tourism in Branson, MissouriI’ve followed Brooks’ work for a long time, but Ketchell’s book is new to me.

Ghost of the Ozarks is the story of one of the strangest murder trials in Ozarks history, a 1929 case in Mountain View, Arkansas, in which the supposed “victim” showed up during the investigation but whose identity was doubted by the prosecutors, who went on with the trial despite the presence of the “victim” as a defense witness. Holy Hills of the Ozarks examines the religious foundations of Branson’s entertainment tourism industry, starting with Harold Bell Wright and working from there to 2007, the date of the book’s publication.

Both are academic works, so I can’t recommend them for casual or light reading, but they’re both terrific pieces of scholarship. It’s reassuring to know that the shelf of books in Ozarks Studies is really quite impressive, once you start hunting around.

And More Parks!

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The announcements just keep coming. Yesterday the governor announced progress in the creation of a second trail-type state park following the old Rock Island railroad line across the south-central part of the state. I have written before about this trail-in-progress before a couple of times, and I think it’s going to be a wonderful addition to the network of hiking and biking trails in Missouri.

Old rail map Rock Island

Although this announcement doesn’t really tell us anything new, beyond the fact that the land transfer is going as intended, it’s still good to hear that progress is being made. One of the things southern Missouri has in abundance is scenery, so news that more ways are being developed to make that asset available to people is always welcome.

More Parks

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So the Missouri Governor’s Office has announced the creation of three more state parks in the Ozarks: Ozark Mountain, about a thousand acres northwest of Branson; Bryant Creek, almost three thousand acres in the deep forest southeast of Ava; and Eleven Point, more than four thousand acres in Oregon County, near Alton.

I’d heard of the Eleven Point acquisition already, and in fact I spoke about it (and the Echo Bluff State Park acquisition) at the most recent Ozark Studies Symposium. The local officials who opposed acquiring the Eleven Point land were, in my opinion, coming more from a political position than one focused on the long-term benefit for their county; as any county official in the Ozarks can tell you, parks draw tourists, and tourists spend money, with the added sales tax revenue more than making up for the lost property tax revenue. But you can bet that there will be a fresh chorus of opposition after this announcement.

Part of it will come from the timing. The announcement has an in-your-face quality to it, given that the term-limited governor will leave office next month. His successor didn’t win office based on policy proposals; his main argument for election was that he used to be a Navy SEAL. But his general tenor was of the small-government variety, and it’s hard to imagine him authorizing the aggressive acquisition of new parkland for the state.

The other part of the criticism will come from the source of the money. As the governor’s press release puts it with convenient vagueness, “Money for the purchases came from settlements reached with mining companies that had operated in the state.” More precisely, that money came from settlements that were supposed to mitigate the environmental damage caused by lead smelting operations in the southeast part of the state. Although the use of that money for these purchases is probably legal in the strictest sense, it’s stretching the definition of environmental mitigation about as far as it can be stretched to include the purchase of some scrubland north of Branson. Representatives from the Lead Belt regions will complain, and rightly so, that the money was supposed to be used in their area.

Still, it’s worth remembering that the Missouri state park system is just about the best in the country. Legislators who gripe that “we can’t take care of the ones we’ve got already” (I can hear it now) should remember that they are the ones who cause that lack of funding by their own decisions and party agendas. Although the details of this particular announcement make me sigh for the days when lawmakers from both parties would work together on a decision that was advantageous to the state overall, I have to recognize that we are not living in such times. I hope that a generation from now, people will take delight in these parks and leave the bickering over how they came into being for the footnotes of the historians.

 

A Writer’s Thanks

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Here are a few things I am thankful for today:

  • Readers who like what I do and who post reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and elsewhere.
  • Readers who have comments, questions, or criticism and post them or e-mail them to me. Honest criticism is always appreciated, believe it or not.
  • Book clubs! Some of the best times of my writing life have happened at book clubs.
  • A publisher and editor who collaborate, respond, and always keep the best results for the book in mind.
  • Organizations and civic groups that ask me to come speak to them. And especially libraries. Libraries are the secret weapon of democracy.
  • Those who quietly and unfailingly support me as I work. God bless them, and God bless you all.

Deer Season

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I am of the generation that got a couple of days off school every year for the opening of deer season. I don’t know how many schools in the Ozarks do that nowadays, if any, but it was common practice when I was growing up. For me, though, the opening of firearm deer season still carries with it an air of sanctioned hooky-playing, of hours spent in the woods in watchful silence.

My dad was an accomplished hunter and always took us boys out. I was never an especially good shot, and as a kid didn’t have the necessary patience to be a hunter. I recall one particular year after my restlessness had scared off at least two deer, I asked my dad what they were (meaning buck or doe). His reply, with controlled exasperation, was: “Well, they had white tails.”

Growing up in a hunting culture teaches a different sort of relationship between human and nature, one that can be less romanticized about the beauties of nature, although it has its own romantic notions as well. But it’s part of me, and I recognize that.

Another memory of deer season. The angriest I ever saw my dad get was when a carload of hunters parked on our farm (we were renting it at the time) and started to stroll across the field without asking permission. That was a violation of the fundamental rule of hunting on people’s land, and he confronted them. Their response didn’t suit him; even though we were on our way to church at the time, he wasn’t about to let it go, and things got heated in a hurry. To see that small, gentle man in his Sunday suit getting more and more furious as he robustly cussed out four armed strangers in hunting gear was something to behold, and ever after that we recalled it as “the day Dad got mad.”

Good times at Washington U.

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Every year, the men of Alpha Delta Phi at Washington University choose a Missouri author to read and discuss. This year I was happy to be selected, and here’s a picture of us after my talk! They are aptly known as the Eliot Chapter of their fraternity. We talked for more than an hour, and they had some great comments and questions. Thanks especially to Tarun Chally (third from left), who was my contact person/organizer for the event. And despite the general glow, we aren’t about to be transported into a spaceship . . . just standing in a brightly lit foyer.