~ News, announcements, events, and ruminations about my books, including Slant of Light, This Old World, The Language of Trees, and Scattered Lights, and about creativity, fiction, Missouri, the Ozarks, and anything else that strikes my fancy
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.
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.
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.
When I was a young reporter, I worked for a weekly newspaper that had “community correspondents.” Country folk of a certain age will know what the term means. Every little community in the county had a correspondent, usually a longtime resident and almost always female, who would write up an account of the goings-on in the community for the week: church suppers, visitors in and out, illnesses, revivals, and occasionally items of greater news value. Their payment was typically a free subscription.
My job was to convert the correspondents’ reports into usable copy. This task varied from one person to another. Some correspondents sent neatly typed reports, correctly spelled and punctuated, leaving me little to do besides check for style issues and insert paragraphing where needed. Other columns arrived in wadded bundles of notebook paper, scribbled out in ancient handwriting, nearly indecipherable.
Such was the news from Turkey Creek. The Turkey Creek community lay in the east end of the county, far from any towns. It had lost its post office and school some years back. But it was still a voting precinct; on election night, Turkey Creek was usually the last to report, with its thirty votes. And it still had its community correspondent, whose name was Dees.
I never met Mrs. Dees, but she reported in from Turkey Creek faithfully, her handwritten message arriving every week. Things were slow on Turkey Creek most of the time, but she did her best to liven up her column with observations about the changing seasons and the condition of the roads. She always referred to herself in the third person, following some notion of proper style, and appeared to travel everywhere with a daughter, or perhaps a granddaughter, who went by Teenie. Perhaps that was her actual name. Mrs. Dees and Teenie traveled to Poplar Bluff and Greenville, and they visited neighbors. Teenie spent overnights with friends. And all was duly recorded in the News from Turkey Creek.
As a young college-educated smartass, I regarded Mrs. Dees’ news of Teenie with mockery, although I never let it show around the office. The owners knew the family and respected them. But at night, over beers with my friends, I would laugh at the tedious, inconsequential doings of Mrs. Dees and Teenie. The pinnacle of humor came with a three-week sequence of columns in which she took note (first week) that a dog had died just above the low-water bridge, and that the county road crew needed to come out and take care of it. Second week, the dog remained, and had become increasingly foul. Mrs. Dees expressed horror and again called upon the road department. By the third week’s column, Mrs. Dees had stopped the car and gone over to inspect, informing us that to her great disgust the dog had swelled to the point that a person could no longer tell if it was male or female. Fourth week, no report. Either the county or the scavengers took notice.
Only in later years did I reflect on Mrs. Dees’ column and its significance. Turkey Creek had been a logging community, building up after the turn of the century to decent size, with its own tram line to Greenville, where a person could connect to the larger world. After the log boom came to an end, Turkey Creek and its sister communities on the east side of the county began their slow slide to oblivion. After the post office and school were gone, what was left? The Baptist church, the polling place, and the weekly newspaper report.
What I thought of as silly nonsense was the last assertive echo: We are a place, we are people, we are still here, we mean something. Nowadays I don’t laugh about the travels of Teenie. I cherish them, and I wish Mrs. Dees had told us more.
The “painted rock” of the Painted Rock Conservation Area isn’t much to look at, and I’ve never seen it. You shouldn’t try, either; an archaeologist who documented the painted rock (actually, a Native American pictograph) in 2006 noted that the site is closed to the public “because of the extreme risks of drowning, falling rocks, and poisonous snakes.” But that’s not why people visit Painted Rock anyway.
They go there because it has some of the most sweeping overlooks of anywhere in the Missouri Ozarks. The Osage River forms the western edge of the conservation area, nearly 1,500 acres owned by the Missouri Conservation Department, and a loop trail takes hikers to a couple of magnificent viewspots. The river sweeps in a large curve beneath the bluffs there, known as the “Osage Bend,” so visitors can see for miles in both directions and can have as a bonus a view across the river of some of the finest-looking farmland in the state.
Mountaintop meditation is some kind of basic human impulse, and the Conservation Department has placed benches at several locations to meet that need. I doubt if this use is officially approved, but you might well see some evidence of cremation scatterings. Frankly, for a local nature lover it’s hard to imagine a better place to have your crumbs spread out.
The use of this high location as a funereal spot, in fact, goes back perhaps more than a thousand years. Along the hiking trail is a Native American burial cairn, a reminder that this area was an important, perhaps even sacred, spot long before Europeans arrived. Sadly, the site bears signs of having been looted in years past.
The recent history of Painted Rock is less exalted. While researching this location, I came upon an excellent blog entry from Julianna Schroeder, who blogs under the name The Opulent Opossum. Here’s a link to her post, and I’ll try to link to her blog on my sidebar, if I can remember how to do that. For my purposes, though, I’ll quote from her entry:
“The Missouri Department of Conservation acquired the land in 1981, but it’s been used as a park and preserve since the last quarter of the 1800s. At that time, the land was leased and used by a group of affluent citizens of Jefferson City for hunting purposes. In 1907, when the land appeared to be in danger of being subdivided and sold, the group of hunters organized formally into the Painted Rock Country Club and purchased the property—1,086 acres.
“The country club, whose members included Governor Herbert Hadley, had a clubhouse on the land, gathered there on the weekends, and had fall and winter hunts for deer, turkey, squirrels, rabbits, quail . . . this at a time when game was becoming increasingly scarce in the state due to the lack of centrally organized conservation efforts.
“Again, these were prominent people; in 1909 the group’s annual banquet was held at the Governor’s Mansion, and it’s widely agreed that this club’s members were instrumental in developing and supporting Missouri’s first statewide hunting laws as well as creating (in 1936) the state’s department of Conservation.
“The club’s heyday was in the 1920s, but it declined somewhat during the Depression; the land was sold in the mid-1940s and then sold again in 1952 to Sam B. Cook, a prominent Jefferson City banker who was the son and grandson of men who had been members of the country club. In 1981 he sold the property to the Missouri Department of Conservation, which developed the trail overlooks, interpretive signs, and other information, and worked to improve the quality of the area’s oak-hickory forests.”
Painted Rock sits at the northern edge of the geographic Ozarks, and the area around it (Westphalia, Freeburg, Koeltztown, Meta) is not what is commonly considered the “cultural” Ozarks; it’s predominantly German and Catholic/Lutheran in its heritage. Geologically, though, it fits right in, with dolomite bluffs intermingled with chert and sandstone. And if there are lessons to be drawn from nature - and I think there are - perhaps the best lesson, sitting on a bench contemplating mortality, with ancient graves behind you and the mooing of a cow or clattering of a tractor floating up from the fields below, is that our notion of what is culturally “in” or “out” of the region probably needs continual expansion and reconsideration.
I generally avoid anything having to do with the Lake of the Ozarks, because it is so garish, messy, and utterly overcommercialized. But I have to admit that there are some beautiful scenic areas in that region, despite the overgrown forest of advertising signs that often obscures it.
One of those areas is Ha Ha Tonka, now a state park. Ha Ha Tonka was given its name by an early promoter who claimed that it was an Osage phrase that meant “laughing waters,” and if you believe that I’ve got a bridge to sell you. What it is, though, is a magnificent spring (pictured above) and a number of geologic features that are truly memorable.
It’s a wonderful place to see karst topography in its many forms. Water flowing through dolomite, with a sandstone overlay, has created a natural bridge (pictured below) and a deep chasm that connects the spring to the lake below. Before the lake, the spring fed the Niangua River, but nowadays that’s all beneath the surface. The remnants of a mill dam are still present, so one can easily imagine the community that existed there in the 19th and early 20th century.
The chasm is quite spectacular, similar to Grand Gulf farther south, and hiking trails wind through it in all directions. I wouldn’t recommend some of the trails for casual hikers; the rocky, rugged terrain makes for a tough clamber in some places. But there’s a paved path from the lake that nearly reaches the spring, until the rocks close in.
Most of the park’s visitors, though, visit the ruins of a big old house that overlooks the chasm from the north side. This mansion, optimistically referred to as a “castle” by the parks people, was begun in 1905 by a rich guy from Kansas City. He was killed in a car wreck the following year, but his sons continued with the construction of the house, which probably did have the best view in Missouri. It burned in 1942. I get the impression that the ruins, which the state parks people have stabilized, are preserved to maintain their current picturesque level of ruination. After all, it would lessen their attraction if they just went ahead and fell down.
As for myself, I’ve never been much interested in the opulent structures built by rich people, ruined or otherwise. The views from up there are excellent, though. Before the state obtained the property, Ha Ha Tonka was run as a private tourist attraction, with all kinds of fanciful names for the geographic features. The creation of the lake inundated some of those features, sparking a long legal battle between the owners and the electric company. The story of Ha Ha Tonka, both the geologic story and the story of the various humans fighting to profit from it, is told in excellent detail in Leland and Crystal Payton’s Damming the Osage.
One of my favorite stories comes from my mother, who was visiting a nursing home one day when she happened to overhear a resident being comforted by his pastor. The resident was an old farmer, whose infirmities and age had consigned him to the home, and he was bemoaning his fate and wishing he could end it all. The pastor assured him that the simple fact he was alive meant that his purpose in life was not over, and that God still had something He wanted him to do.
The old coot considered this for a moment. “Well, I ain’t a-gonna do it,” he said.
Every time I think of this story I am reminded of Mary Calhoun’s marvelous 1972 children’s book Three Kinds of Stubborn, in which three stubborn Missourians get into a family dispute that keeps worsening because of their refusal to abandon their eccentric positions. The book is a gentle lesson in bending, in recognizing that none of us has a corner on truth, and in the wisdom of listening to others.
Stubbornness is a version of pride, an insistence that my opinion is superior to all others and that nobody has a right to tell me what to do. And pride, convention tells us, is a sin. In some ways, this stance is connected to the rural tradition of individualism and self-reliance, which I ordinarily think of as a virtue; but there are times when individualism and self-reliance become a hindrance rather than a help.
This is such a time, as I watch with dismay my fellow-citizens behave with deliberate and truculent ignorance toward those who need their help and who are trying to help them. The COVID pandemic requires concerted, collective action, with everyone pitching in to slow the spread of the virus by following a few simple health measures, and a coordinated government effort to enforce those health measures and to trace the contacts of those who come down with the illness. Instead, we see widespread refusal to wear masks, regular occurences of spreader events that pass the virus among groups, and a deliberately feeble government response in the name of “freedom” that allows cases to skyrocket.
My morning newspaper reports 105 people in the hospital with COVID today, a new record for the county, including 29 in intensive care and 16 on ventilators. The twist in this report is that only 20 out of the 105 are from Boone County, where I live. The other 85 are from outstate, from rural counties that don’t have the hospital capacity to treat them, or possibly don’t have a hospital at all. If “out of sight, out of mind” is true, then I would imagine that some inhabitants of these rural counties might not have a clear idea of just how widespread and dangerous this epidemic is, since the patients are whisked away to a distant hospital and their local government officials appear to be taking great pains to keep them in the dark. The state government’s COVID dashboard remains consistently behind the true numbers; if you want an accurate picture of the extent of COVID in Missouri, I recommend that you follow Matthew Holloway on Facebook. He’s a private citizen who, along with a number of helpers, has made it his personal mission to comb through local health department reports, media reports, and other public sources to come up with an accurate day-to-day account of the virus in Missouri.
It shouldn’t be this way. We shouldn’t have to argue with our fellow-citizens over simple health measures. We shouldn’t have to rely on motivated citizens to give us accurate statistics. Sometimes “I ain’t a-gonna to do it” is an admirable expression of defiance to the ruffian gods. Sometimes it’s just an obstinate refusal to acknowledge the obvious.
In 2016, I was honored to be asked to give the keynote at the annual Ozarks Studies Conference in West Plains. The theme of the conference that year was “The Lure of the Ozarks,” so I decided to play on that theme for my talk. My title was “The Lure of the Ozarks: What’s the Bait and Who’s the Fish?”
The good folks at Elder Mountaintook my talk, tweaked it a little, and published it in their most recent issue. As editor Phil Howerton aptly describes the issue, it’s a whopper . . . a double issue of 290 pages.
I’m reprinting a passage from near the opening of my talk below. Literary journals need all the help they can get, so if you’d like to read the whole thing, I encourage you to take a look at the issue’s impressive table of contents here and then use the purchase link here. You won’t regret it!
To speak of the lure of the Ozarks, appropriately enough, is to use the language of the fisherman, and prompts the metaphorical question of who is the fisher and who is the caught. Nowadays our talk about the lure of the Ozarks typically involves tourism, and rightly so, as it has become a mainstay of the Ozarks economy. Certainly tourism is a pretty benign sort of catchery . . . I suppose we could extend the metaphor and call tourism the “catch and release” version of the Ozarks’ lure.
But from the earliest times, people have come to the Ozarks to take away something more tangible. From Pierre Renaud down to the Doe Run Lead Company, the Ozarks have been a source of minerals and ore. The Missouri Lumber and Mining Company and its fellow timber harvesting enterprises did the same thing from the 1880s through the early twentieth century. In a general way, I think you’d have to describe the Ozarks as a kind of internal colony of the United States, a place from which to extract value at the lowest possible cost while returning as little as possible. As David Benac observes in his book Conflict in the Ozarks, a significant component of the Ozarks timber boom consisted of companies seeking to “tame” their workers, to bring them into compliance with the needs of an industrial-age enterprise concerning punctuality, sobriety, and adherence to the concept of “working hours” instead of living their lives by the clock of the seasons. What drew these entrepreneurs and companies to the Ozarks was what they could extract from it, and that’s a facet of this landscape that will never go away. I recall during the years of my childhood that every town in the area had its factory – shoe factories, shirt factories, hat factories, that sort of thing – each one staffed mainly by women paid on a piecework basis, overseen by men. It wasn’t until the advent of the global marketplace that these companies discovered they could find workers elsewhere who were even more impoverished and who had even fewer options than the Ozarkers, and relocated their factories elsewhere. For an industry that needed unskilled workers to perform repetitious tasks, the Ozarks must have seemed like a little slice of heaven for a time.
And then there’s escape, that time-honored lure of the Ozarks. Dad Howitt, the Shepherd of the Hills, came to the Ozarks to escape the noise of the city and the memories of his past, and ever since then one of the dominant themes of Ozarks culture has been that of the mountains as a place of refuge. Trappist monks came here, and the Harmonial Vegetarian Society, and so did Bonnie and Clyde. The hollows overflow with people who have come to the Ozarks for one sort of escape or another, whether it’s from the traffic jams of the city or the long arm of the law. My own experience with these transplants has been overwhelmingly positive. People drawn to the Ozarks from elsewhere bring energy, new ideas, and often a fresh infusion of money to communities that need all three. Unfortunately, the Ozarks’ mind-our-own-business reputation also draws the occasional Frazier Glenn Miller among the retired ad executives seeking a quiet place to meditate beside a stream.
I ran across a chapter of this book in The Literature of the Ozarks, a book that I have written about before. I’d heard of Katie Estill, but somehow had overlooked her novels. So I went out and found myself a copy.
I started reading it a couple of days ago, and it’s a marvel. It begins (or very nearly so) with a murder, but it’s not a mystery, nor is it what one would call a “thriller,” although it does have plenty of police procedure in it. It also has some adult passages with adults doing, well, what adults do. So it’s not exactly a “romance,” either, although there’s love in it, of the most aching and true sort.
It’s set in a county that feels a lot like Oregon County, Missouri, with a river that runs through it (in the novel, it’s the Seven Point, not the Eleven Point as in the real-life county, but let’s not quibble over the number of points). And it has a triumvirate of main characters, three women, all of whom suffer and struggle in the course of the book, and who don’t particularly get along, and who discover that they have common aims and needs despite that. One is a deputy sheriff; one is a woman who has recently returned to the county after a time away; and one is a newer arrival. The murder connects them, divides them, and connects them again.
It’s a beautiful book that defies categorization, and it contains some lovely passages of description of the Ozarks landscape, of the interior thinking of its main characters, and of the mental and emotional negotiations they go through to achieve some answers and some peace. It was published in 2007, but the characters’ travails are as relevant today as they were then. You may have to hunt for a copy, as I suspect it’s gone out of print; but it’s worth the search.