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Two Ozarks Rivers

Back in April, I wrote an appreciation/commentary on a new book by Leland and Crystal Payton, Damming the Osage. Today I’d like to revisit a classic book from a different part of the landscape, Oliver Schuchard and Steve Kohler’s Two Ozark Rivers.

The hardcover edition of Two Ozark Rivers was published in 1984 by the University of Missouri Press, and the press released a paperback version in 1996 that remains in print. At the time of its original publication, the two Ozark rivers of the title — the Current and the Jacks Fork — had only recently been placed under federal oversight via the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, and the text of the book feels somewhat dated today because of its creation during that heady time. Interesting to note that the Riverways recorded 1.9 million visitors in 1982, but today that number has actually declined to about 1.4 million.

The best parts of the book’s text, in my opinion, are the fourth and fifth chapters, “Devastation” and “Preservation,” which give succinct, well-researched summaries of the area’s transformation at the hands of big lumber interests around the turn of the 20th century, and of the contested efforts to set aside portions of that land as part of the National Park Service. Kohler is at his best when he recounts a narrative; the earlier chapters have too much of the adjective + noun + random statistic that I associate with National Geographic writing style, in which the essence of a location is supposedly conveyed by a combination of personal anecdote and encyclopedia entry. But once he starts putting that research to use in telling a concentrated history, the pace picks up and the prose takes life.

Schuchard’s gift for landscape photography shines throughout the book. In fact, the human artifacts photographed here — barns, schoolhouses, drugstores, churches, canoe rentals — are unpopulated. Only a page of portraits provides human faces to the Ozark story. The landscape photographs are sized large and given lots of room on the page, and they have a quietness to them that perfectly matches the understated beauty of the Ozarks landscape.

I suppose you could call this a “coffee-table book,” but in both prose and photography it goes beyond that term. As I said, it’s still in print from the University Press, and it’s well worth the purchase.