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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.

More Mo’ Curious


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My interview with Trevor Harris for his Mo’ Curious podcast will go active soon. I’ve heard the first part, and it’s a great overview of “utopian” communities in Missouri!

In the meantime, here’s an excerpt from the interview that he published on his “Field Notes” blog.



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.

So That’s Who Watches Our Water


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Note: this is not the hog farm in question, as it has not yet been built. But it will look a lot like this.

A little while ago, I posted a commentary that touched upon a controversy over a proposed 10,000-hog factory in Livingston County, near Chillicothe. At that time, the Missouri Clean Water Commission was considering an “emergency” exception to its clean water rules that would allow the construction of the facility, despite questions about its impact on the local groundwater.

The debate over what constitutes “groundwater” and what doesn’t, which is where this controversy arose, is highly technical, and I won’t pretend to the level of expertise necessary to opine on it with any claim to authority. But I do need to update the information, because the Clean Water Commission decided yesterday that the proposed feeding operation can go ahead. The vote was 5-1, and you can read a thorough story about its discussion and vote here.

“Disappointed but not surprised” was the general reaction among the environmentalists and local residents who had argued against the permit. When I reached the end of the story, I realized why they had reacted that way.

The one vote against the factory farm came from a retired executive director of a rural sewer district.

The votes in favor came from the other five members of the commission, who are:

  • The executive director of a nonprofit organization funded by all the major ag associations, lenders, and companies;
  • A board member of the Missouri Farm Bureau;
  • A former member of the Missouri Corn Board;
  • The treasurer of the state Republican Party;
  • The former president of the MIssouri Soybean Association.

In other words, people for whom the idea of regulation is anathema to begin with. The Clean Water Commission is thoroughly stacked against any proposal that does not mesh with the profit pursuits of Big Ag in the state. They should probably start putting ironic quote marks around their name, i.e. the “Clean Water” Commission. If you’re hoping that the state government will act as any sort of counterweight to the pursuit of maximum profit at the expense of the public good, this is not the direction to look.

Humility and Pride



A week ago, I was fortunate to be part of the ceremony honoring the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award in Fiction finalists. It was a terrific ceremony, and you can watch the entire thing on this YouTube link.

Awards like this always inspire paired feelings in me. First, of course, there’s pride. I work hard at my writing, and it’s very gratifying to have a panel of judges, accomplished writers, literary critics, and teachers of writing, declare that it’s good. So I want to brag and holler.

But then I think…really? I’ve entered lots of contests, and not gotten a whiff of recognition. So you know there’s always an element of fortune involved. Were the finalists’ five books really the best out of the 419 entered? A different panel of judges could well have selected others. So any recognition needs to be taken with a significant dose of humility as well.

Today, though, I’m casting doubts aside and just basking in the enjoyment of being named a finalist. Perhaps in another year Scattered Lights would not have been selected, but this year it was, so I’m celebrating. Here’s the judges’ commendation, words which touched my heart and which I will cherish. They inspire me to keep working, and to keep trying to improve.

“In the last five years, it has seemed at times as if we are a nation of two permanently estranged tribes, doing little more than sending up angry flares at each other. But in Scattered Lights, a quiet, probing, masterful collection of stories set in his native Ozarks, Steve Wiegenstein tacitly rejects that binary and, in doing so, returns to a fundamental promise of fiction, that politics dissolves in the particular.

“Wiegenstein’s signal strength as a writer is in his characters – a girl reflecting with awe at herself on a kiss, a widow who refuses to take her predetermined place in a town’s society, a middle-aged man whose dispiriting new job suddenly and unexpectedly decides him in favor of courage and happiness. In all of these instances, the characters’ inner lives precede whatever lesson they may represent. Wiegenstein steadfastly and honorably refuses to invite catastrophe or revelation on his characters for the sake of a reader’s cheap excitement.

“Instead, he presents us with dozens of distinctive and real people doing their best, or not so best, but intermittently asking the same questions all of us do – why are we here, who loves us, what do we owe each other, what does it mean to be good? In the process, the pared, beautiful prose of Scattered Lights comes to seem less a style than an ethic – not to intrude, but to observe; not to judge, but to comprehend. The project founded on a final faith, present in great writers of short fiction, from Chekov to Grace Paley, to another of this year’s finalists Deesha Philyaw, that art is where our higher selves can meet, free from the transient furies of the news. The sooner we begin paying attention to each other as people, Wiegenstein argues, the more people we suddenly begin to see, no matter where we’re from.”

Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare



In honor of William Shakespeare’s birthday, or at least his purported birthday, here’s the opening of my short story, “Why Miss Elizabeth Never Joined the Shakespeare Club.”

They found Miss Elizabeth dead this morning, upright in her velvet Queen Anne chair, hands folded. When I heard the news, I was in the same pose; I had fallen asleep while crocheting, as I am prone to do in the afternoons nowadays, and the telephone frightened me. Unexpected phone calls always bring thoughts of death. My first reaction:

Now I am the only one left who knows Miss Elizabeth’s story. My second reaction: Perhaps I am the only one to whom it has meaning.

You can read the rest of the story in my collection, Scattered Lights. If you already own the collection, thank you! And be sure to leave a review on your favorite book-review website.

Same Old Same Old


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The Lake of the Ozarks, satellite view.

I’ve talked a lot about books on this blog, but one I haven’t mentioned yet is Traci Angel’s The Scars of Project 459: The Environmental Story of the Lake of the Ozarks. I’m not especially fond of the book; I think the title promises more than the book delivers, and it’s written in a choppy-sentence, newspaper-journalism style that wears me out after a while. (If you want a deeper, more comprehensive account of the lake’s origins, I recommend Damming the Osage, which I have written about before.) But whatever its perceived deficiencies, the book offers a great glimpse into one of the enduring truths of the lake: it’s all about the money.

The Lake of the Ozarks is above all else a developer’s lake, designed and built to extract as much possible money from all conceivable uses. For all their garish commercialism, even Table Rock, Beaver, and the other big Ozark lakes have an ostensible “flood control” justification, and once in a while that justification actually emerges. But the Lake of the Ozarks doesn’t even have that. It’s a commercial enterprise, start to finish.

One of the stories told in The Scars of Project 459 is the notorious “goose poop” incident of 2009, and the book is worth reading just for that. The sequence of events runs roughly like this: Department of Natural Resources routine testing reveals high E. coli levels near the public beaches of the park, right before a major holiday weekend. DNR sits on the report until the holiday weekend is over, then releases it. Howls from environmentalists and public health advocates over the suspicious timing of the report’s delay and release brings the governor at the time (Jay Nixon) down to the lake to announce a major cleanup campaign. Howls from local businesses lead to a new suspect in the E. coli reading: a flock of geese that had been loitering suspiciously in the area and a coincidental heavy rainfalll that had surely, surely, caused the spike in contamination. Heads roll at the DNR. Winter comes, the incident is more or less forgotten, and no comprehensive effort to manage the lake’s water quality takes place. A comprehensive effort, you see, would require two things that are anathema to the powers-that-be around the lake: the expenditure of money for a public good, and cooperation among the four counties that comprise its local government.

The lake watershed is indeed a complex system, and no single source of contamination can be blamed for all its environmental ills. A 2014 report from the U.S. Geological Survey and Missouri DNR about surveys conducted in later years didn’t exonerate the geese, but it also took notice of contamination from local sewage treatment facilities during the frequent times that rainfall causes overflows of those facilities, household septic systems that have outlived their effectiveness, and leaking septic pits from sources around the lake, including (ironically enough) one in the state park itself. If all those episodes teach us anything, it’s that understanding the lake’s water quality requires science, and lots of it.

Which is why it’s so dispiriting to read the news today and see the usual passel of Missouri congresspeople pressuring the EPA to take the Lake of the Ozarks and Truman Reservoir off its list of “impaired” waterways, where they were placed in November. The EPA’s list of impaired waterways included 481 bodies of water that both the state and the feds agreed were impaired, which is troubling enough. The state did not include the two big lakes and 38 other Missouri water bodies on its list, but the EPA disagreed with that decision, bringing the overall number up to 521. (On the semi-bright side, the two agencies agreed to remove 44 bodies of water from the list.)

So the state and the feds are in disagreement over the science on about eight percent of the total listings. So why are the congresspeople, none of them scientists or even remotely interested in science as far as I can tell, so worked up? A passage in the AP story gives the clue. “The letter said the impaired designations ‘would have significant impacts on families, landowners, small businesses,’ and on the state’s economy. . . . For example, the listing could force local governments to update wastewater facilities, potentially costing them millions of dollars, [Congressman Blaine] Luetkemeyer’s spokeswoman Georgeanna Sullivan said.”

Good heavens! Updating their wastewater facilities! What horrors. [Sorry for the sarcasm here.]

The congresspeople’s letter also says that fish kills at the lakes “were not verified by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources or the Missouri Department of Conservation.” Notice that it doesn’t deny that the fish kills occurred, which can easily be determined by looking at local news reports. Now again, the science behind fish kills is complicated; sometimes they occur simply through seasonal causes, and other times there are human-related causes. But the disingenuous phrasing of the letter reveals a desire to mislead, to cast doubt, where none needs to exist.

The more things change, as they say, the more they remain the same. Go to the lake and enjoy yourself, and if the water smells a little funny or looks a little green, don’t worry. It’ll wash on downstream eventually.

The Way Back


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A confluence of opinions came my way over the past couple of days.

On Monday, the agriculture columnist Alan Guebert, whose column “The Food and Farm File” appears in my local newspaper, took note of some alarming statistics that have been largely overlooked in the national media. The statistics came from a University of Massachusetts study that found that about 30 million acres of the cultivated land in the Corn Belt (which includes all or part of eight states) has completely lost its topsoil as the result of erosion. That’s about 35 percent of the cultivated area.

This study prompted an essay by Verlyn Klinkenborg in the Yale Environment 360 newsletter, which took note of some critical issues. Primary among them is that this shocking statistic is largely viewed in economic terms by those few who paid attention to it, as a “possible $3 billion loss to Midwestern farmers.” While that statement is true, it’s also terribly narrow, as Klinkenborg points out, because it views topsoil loss only through a short-term, economic perspective, not a systemic one. When you see an issue only as economic problem, you see only economic solutions. Losing topsoil? Add more fertilizer and ammonia. As Klinkenborg puts it, “The catastrophic loss of an irreplaceable resource — what you might call an essential part of our common earthly heritage — is construed as an annual loss of income to the farmers who operate those farms. The narrowness of these assumptions — driven by official U.S. Department of Agriculture policy and the shared economic interests of chemical and seed companies — has made it possible to farm in a way that is little more than slow strip-mining.”

Topsoil loss is not merely an economic problem, of course. It’s also a symptom of a climate catastrophe in the making, an increasing dependence on the industrial agriculture model that concentrates food production into the hands of an ever-shrinking number of mega-corporations, with the individual farmer relegated to the role of indentured contractor, as we already see in today’s chicken industry. In his previous week’s column, Guebert took note of this trend as it appeared in another form, the growing use of rural areas as dump sites for corporate waste.

Then this morning, my friend Jared Phillips, who is both a historian at the University of Arkansas and a farmer, made some observations on Facebook. He noted that 41 percent of the population of Arkansas is rural, and of its 75 counties, 62 are fully rural while the other 13 have large rural areas within them. “These areas have been losing population pretty steadily for a generation or more, and most of the jobs that remain are on average worth 14% less than urban jobs,” he wrote. “Most manufacturing has left, replaced—if it is—by service sector gigs. Small towns are emptying, the population is aging, and land is either going vacant or being bought up by absentee landlords needing a tax break (like the Walton family). Ag—one of the largest contributors to the state economy—is suffering as well, despite all the cows you might be seeing in the highlands or the soy crops in the news. Just look at dairy—milk is the state drink but the state has lost over 90% of its dairies since 1950.”

These things are connected. To corporate agriculture, the depopulation and impoverishment of rural areas is a good thing. It holds down the cost of labor, and it opens up more land for despoiling. As if to demonstrate that phenomenon, an opinion piece in the Missouri Independent today chronicled the efforts of JBS, a giant Brazilian meatpacking company (the largest in the world, in fact), to get around the environmental hazards of opening a hog factory (let’s not call it a “farm,” for God’s sake) in Livingston County that would house more than 10,000 hogs at a time, despite the presence of shallow groundwater at the site. JBS has been assisted in its efforts get around environmental regulation by none other than the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which is considering a rule change that would allow the hog factory to be built despite its threat to groundwater in the area. Given that the state’s record in this area has been to comply with whatever Big Ag demands of it, I would guess that JBS will probably get its way, another giant facility will be opened, and nobody will ever want to live within a five-mile radius of the place again.

Drive through rural Missouri in any direction and you will see this pattern. Drive through any rural part of the country and you will see this pattern. Small towns emptying out, with only a Casey’s and some Section 8 senior housing as the remaining stable operations. Is there a way back from this path?

I think there is, but it’s not easy. It would require rural people to become more activist in their politics and to demand that their representatives work to make their section of the country more attractive and livable. Phillips reminds us that the rural decline has occurred under both Republican and Democratic administrations, and has in fact become a de facto element of agricultural policy. Democrats ignore rural areas because they think of them as lost voters and they have become more focused on keeping people in the cities and suburbs happy. Republicans ignore them because they think rural voters can be bought off with continued agricultural subsidies and the usual drum-beating about gun rights and social issues. Rural people don’t need any more fake legislation guaranteeing the right to own more guns, or “freedom to farm” crap that only shields large corporations from accountability. What they need is aggressive effort on the part of government — local, state, and federal — to make rural places as prosperous and livable as urban and suburban ones. This means help to schools, hospitals, highways, broadband service, and all those other elements considered basic to a comfortable modern life. Without that effort, we will continue to see the slide of rural America into an empty, degraded landscape, dotted by the occasional monster animal feeding operation among the depopulated fields of corn and soybeans. Until the topsoil finally reaches a point where no amount of fossil-fuel fertilizer and ammonia can blast out a crop.

They’re At It Again


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I’ve had my issues with the Missouri Department of Conservation. But for the most part, it’s the one agency of state government that you can usually rely on to work in a nonpartisan way, with a clear mission focus and a modest ability to disregard the momentary winds of opinion. Take, for example, the department’s recent decision to create a bear hunting season in the state, which an overwhelming majority of the public comments disagreed with. If the department needed to bend to public opinion, it wouldn’t have shrugged off the public comments with such ease.

This nonpartisan emphasis, naturally, has been a burr under the saddle of the state legislature for decades. The idea that an agency of government could stand apart from politics is anathema to them. That agency could be such a source of influence, such a repository of bureaucratic jobs to fill, such a wellspring of votes! And so it has tried, again and again, to grab control over the Conservation Department, which is protected in its structure by the state constitution. Never mind the fact that Missouri’s Conservation Department is just about the only aspect of state government that is envied elsewhere.

The latest effort began as a bill sponsored by the representative from my hometown, and would have changed the membership of the Missouri Conservation Commission from appointed to elected, thus politicizing it completely. The representative claimed that members would run on a nonpartisan basis, but we know how “nonpartisan” that works in practice. So the new plan, which has passed a House committee, would insert both the House and the Senate into the nomination process, assuring that new appointments would have to pass the political scrutiny of legislative leaders before taking their positions. Even in this dressed-up version, it’s still such an atrociously bad idea that the House speaker had to pack the committee with a bunch of extra members to get the proposal to pass.

Every session, I think to myself that the Missouri Legislature cannot possibly come up with a more reactionary, hare-brained, backward set of proposals than they did in the previous session, and every session they prove me wrong. This year’s crop looks to continue that trend, with proposals to make it easier for people to evade vaccination requirements and to hamstring local health departments (in the middle of a pandemic!) at the top of the list. A fair number of these ideas end up on the scrap heap, thank goodness, but enough of them get through to make one despair whether Missouri will ever become the moderate, sensible, “Show-Me” state I remember from my younger days.