~ 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
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.
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.
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.
On the left of this page is my “blogroll,” the list of blogs that I’ve found enjoyable, interesting, or worthy of a follow. You’ll see Joel Vance’s blog listed there, and I recommend you visit it.
His last post was November 20 of this year, not long ago, and it’s classic Vance. A consummate storyteller for many decades, Vance always put himself in the stories as the butt of the joke. His misadventures with a continuing cast of hunting dogs were a staple of his years with the Missouri Conservationist, the publication where I first read his work and for which he wrote during much of his career.
Joel Vance didn’t just write funny stories. He also wrote about the joys of the Missouri outdoors and the threats to it. He wrote in a vivid, conversational style that let you know that you were getting the real Joel Vance, not some packaged PR, although of course the Conservationist is ultimately a PR publication. There was also a no-nonsense quality in his writing that let you know he was ready to call bullshit when he saw it, and I’m sure he saw plenty.
Brandon Butler remarks in his column that this quality of Vance’s writing inspired confidence in his readers and built a rapport with them that carried over into other areas. He specifically cites the passage of Missouri’s much-admired conservation sales tax, which drew on a reservoir of trust that the Conservation Department had built up over the years. I think there’s real merit in that observation, and it’s something that deserves more attention.
Why did people trust the Conservation Department enough to pass a dedicated sales tax? Lots of reasons, of course, but one is that the department, through people like Joel Vance, had been open and honest with the citizens of Missouri. They communicated effectively. As I used to say in my Principles of PR class back at Culver-Stockton, the first rule of good public relations is “Never lie.” And to expand further, “Never even allow youself to be suspected of lying. If something bad happens, deal with it head-on. You’ll suffer in the short term but build trust for the long term.”
Nowadays, we are living through one of the great health crises in our country’s history. We’ll top 300,000 deaths this week, maybe as early as tomorrow, and may potentially hit 400,000 by the time our new president is inaugurated. What would have our situation been like if our leaders at the federal and state level had followed Joel Vance’s example and addressed the situation plainly and honestly, without all the fudging, misdirection, and outright lying that we have seen over the past year? No one knows, but it’s plain to see that there is no reservoir of trust to draw on. Our governor and our president, and their myriads of enablers, have accustomed us to assume that the government is not being straight with us. It’s a sad state of affairs, and it will take a long time to reverse.
I imagine that eventually, Joel Vance’s blog will be deactivated. But for now, I’m leaving the link up at the side of my page, and I encourage you to read through his work. You may not always agree with what he says, but you’ll always know what he thinks and where he stands. And I guarantee that you’ll be entertained.
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.
On Facebook, I’ve been following the progress of Thomas Peters’ book on radio station KWTO and the Ozark Jubilee with great interest. It’s going to be a great addition to the Ozarks history bookshelf! He’s been posting some of the photos he’s collected for the book, and this morning he posted this beauty:
That’s an 18-year-old Les Paul on the right, performing with his friend Sunny Joe Wolverton on KWTO as the Ozark Apple Knockers. A far cry from the urbane, sophisticated jazz pioneer he later became, the occupant of more halls of fame than one would care to count. Everybody has to start somewhere, and for Paul it was playing hillbilly music under the stage name “Rhubarb Red.”
When I saw this picture, for some reason I thought of a movie I had recently rewatched, the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Buster (Tim Blake Nelson) opens the movie in full cowboy-movie garb, singing “Cool Water” as he rides through Monument Valley. Of course, the joke (or part of the joke) is that “Cool Water” is not a historic cowboy song at all, but a pop hit of the 1940s.
What follows is a series of ghastly/comic episodes that both play on Western-story stereotypes and embrace them, just as the “hillbilly” image both mocks, uses, and embraces that stereotype as well.
We make art where we find it, with the materials at hand. Sometimes those materials include simplified versions of ourselves, and then we must decide whether to challenge the stereotype or play with it. I think either decision can work, as long as the stereotype is approached with conscious intent. It’s when stereotypes are presented unconsciously and uncritically that they harm. The rural rustic, the hayseed, has been with us since Greek comedy, and we will probably never get rid of it. So we might as well play with that image as we move toward the larger points we are trying to make in our literary and creative work.
What truly prompted me toward these thoughts, though, was the news that the former Dogpatch USA property had been bought by Johnny Morris of Bass Pro Shops fame. I’ve never met Johnny, although some friends of mine know him and speak very highly of him. While Bass Pro is the business that made him a billionaire, it’s the other Morris properties that play the Ozark stereotypes: Big Cedar Lodge, Top of the Rock golf course, and Dogwood Canyon (which is owned by a linked foundation). These properties present a sanitized, tidied-up version of the mythic Ozarks that people just love and are willing to pay handsomely to experience; a single-day admission to Dogwood Canyon will set you back $20, and it’s another $32 to ride the tram. Assuming you brought your own bicycle or are up for the walk, you can see a mill, an Indian burial cave, a wilderness chapel, some waterfalls, a trapper’s cabin, and other sites, all skillfully manufactured and manicured to achieve a perfect match of product and expectation.
This is progress, I suppose. The old Dogpatch attraction played on an earlier generation of stereotypes, barefoot hillbillies and moonshine stills. It will be interesting to see what becomes of it under its new owner. I’m guessing it won’t stray far from the formula that has made the other attractions so popular.
I’m thrilled to announce that I have a new book coming out this fall! Unlike my earlier books, this one is a collection of short stories. The title is Scattered Lights….that’s a line from one of the stories, and (in my mind) an appropriate metaphor for the people in the stories, and the stories themselves: a collection of things that may seem random at first, but which are deeply and firmly connected, if only we take the time to look. Release date is projected for November.
I’ve started a Scattered Lights page on my website and will be placing news about the book on it, for the most part, although I’ll put headlines here occasionally, too. The publisher is Cornerpost Press, a new venture out of West Plains, and they have been absolutely magical to work with! I think this new book will look great.
And for those of you who only know me through my novels, I think the stories will provide a different look. They’re not set in historical times, but in the contemporary setting.
“On Limits and Localism” is the title of an excellent, thoughtful article by Lindi Phillips that recently came out on the Arkansas Strong website. It talks about farming in the Ozarks, and how the old traditions of small, diversified farming gave way to the standardized monoculture of national agriculture. And then it connects the weaknesses of that system to the issues of the current pandemic. It is well worth the read!
Today is Juneteenth, an unofficial holiday that grew out of a relatively obscure event, but one which has gained increased significance these days. We are in troubled times now, but I think this day is still worth celebrating. We don’t have any official holidays to celebrate the ending of slavery in the United States; the ratification of the 13th Amendment occurred on December 6, and the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on September 22, with an effective date of January 1. But Juneteenth has the virtue of spontaneity and an up-from-the-grassroots spirit, so it works even better as a day of commemoration.
In my ideal world, the anniversary of the end of slavery would be celebrated with national pride and a sense of relief, accompanied by resolutions on how to do better at wiping out the remainder of that American stain, a solemn day but also a joyous one. For now, though, I think more about the distance yet to travel than about the distance already gone, significant though it is. The last several weeks have demonstrated with painful clarity the inequities still present in our society, so this year’s mood is more about cleaning wounds than about celebrating progress.
I remember my own upbringing, in a tiny, lily-white school in a rural district. There were a couple of African-American kids on basketball teams in our conference, but that was my only contact with African-Americans other than television, until 4-H camp one year when there were others in my cabin. But really, until college I had no practical contact with families of another race. So I still have a lot of ground to catch up, even at my age. As a teacher, I had a fair number of African-American students, and dealing with them was a wonderful learning experience for me. I even had one of my former students call me “a favorite professor” recently, which I wear as a tremendous badge of honor.
Simply put, in the area where I grew up, casual racism was the norm. I remember after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, the mother of one of my classmates offered her take on the situation in the most vulgar, racist language imaginable, shocking me to my core. My parents had brought me up to be considerate of others and had taught me the evil of racism, and to hear it spoken aloud by a trusted elder was devastating. I would like to imagine our country has outgrown those attitudes, but I know it’s not true. Another former classmate recently posted a remark on social media that was flat-out racist. Some of us called him on it, but he was unrepentant. I suppose the only difference is that fewer people nowadays (I hope) hold such beliefs, and that others are more willing to challenge them. But racism is alive and well.
I’ve been listening to the Slow Burn podcast on the career of David Duke, and it’s disheartening. I’d like to think that we’ve gotten past people like him. Unfortunately, the road ahead of us is probably as long as the road behind.