~ 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
Folk music fans will likely remember “The Farmer Is the Man,” the rather scathing song from the 1880s that described the plight of the farmer:
The farmer is the man, the farmer is the man,
Lives on credit till the fall;
Then they take him by the hand and they lead him from the land,
And the middle man’s the one that gets it all.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the saying goes. Today’s headline: “State lawmakers approve $40M in tax breaks for farmers.” In the story: “The measure includes tax credits to benefit companies involved in meat processing, biodiesel, ethanol fuel and urban farms. It also expands government loan programs for farmers.”
So the headline might better have read, “State lawmakers approve benefits for lenders and agribusiness corporations.” Whether actual farmers get any of those benefits is anyone’s guess. And by directing the tax breaks to certain industries, such as biodiesel and ethanol, the state is supporting a monoculture model of agriculture based on massive investment in corn acreage, intensive fertilizing and irrigation, and industrial scale of operation that turns the act of farming into something much closer to factory work.
I suppose you could say it’s not technically an “Ozarks” book, since there are sizable sections of it that are set elsewhere, when a place is specified, and many of the themes are not Ozarks-specific. But there are a lot of Ozarks poems in here, and a lot of Ozark sensibility, too. In one of my favorite poems from this collection, “Pentecostal Ladies,” he writes: “Their skirts bloom sunflowers, / a decade or two out of favor. / I wave from my front porch / though I know one day they’ll sidle up / in their ballet flats and tell me what for.” And it’s that “what for” that slaps down so delightfully true.
A few things I note about Malone’s work: first, it’s very precise. This is poet who does not just throw in the expected word. Often he leads us into a phrase then turns it ninety degrees, shifting the mood of the poem unexpectedly. The poems are best read slowly, because you never know when that turn is going to happen.
Second, Malone’s poems do two things that I don’t always see in contemporary poetry. For one thing, they are sometimes unabashedly emotional. So many contemporary poets feel restrained by some sort of unwritten rule of decorum to be clinical in their presentation of situations, but these poems don’t shy away from their feelings. But also, these poems can be funny. Sometimes the wit is verbal, sometimes situational. In either case, it’s nice to read a book in which every poem does not feel compelled to be Serious. There are plenty of serious poems in here too, poems of grief, loss, and longing. But seriousness is not the only key this instrument plays in.
Dave Malone lives in West Plains and has published a number of books of poems, each with its own tonal register (or key signature, if I want to push that musical metaphor). If you haven’t run across his work yet, I highly recommend checking it out.
It has already been another good year for writing from the Ozarks, and it’s only March. I have several books that I plan to write about in the coming days, but a good place to start is with this one, the third volume of Brooks Blevins’ History of the Ozarks.
Subtitled “The Ozarkers,” this volume takes us into the late 20th century, what we might call the modern history of the Ozarks. And there’s something in it for everyone.
The book opens with the legendary 1934 contretemps between Springfield businessman John T. Woodruff and folklorist Vance Randolph at the first-ever regional folk festival in the Ozarks, during which Woodruff accused Randolph and his associates of tarnishing the image of the Ozarks with their descriptions of Ozarkers as ignorant hillbillies, superstitious, barefoot moonshiners who idled away their days waiting for the next opportunity to coon hunt. The fact that Randolph’s portrayal came from actual interviews with actual Ozarkers, of course, was a difficulty to this accusation. But the conflict presages and sets the theme for the book: the divide between the modern Ozarks as perceived and the modern Ozarks as lived.
The “real” Ozarks have never been a place as simple as Dogpatch, U.S.A., and we all know that. This book shows just how complicated the history of the real Ozarks has been, with waves of immigration and internal migration, a constantly shifting economy based on the extractive industries of mining, farming, and timber, and an array of conflicting perceptions both from outside and within. So much has happened within the last century in the Ozarks that the book has to move swiftly from incident to incident and theme to theme, and sometimes I wished for it to slow down and devote more time to the things I am interested in the most; but such is the nature of historical writing. The book clocks in at about 300 pages and could easily have been three times that long, and still wouldn’t have covered everything.
One section I especially appreciated was its careful delineation of the changing agricultural economy. When I was a kid growing up in Madison and Reynolds counties, the typical farm was very much “mixed agriculture”: a pen full of hogs, a field with a few dozen cattle, a chickenhouse, maybe some row crops in the bottomland, even sometimes a specialty crop like sorghum or ducks. That model has nearly disappeared these days, replaced by farms that are strictly pasture-and-cattle or rows of giant chicken or turkey sheds (or occasionally, feeder pig operations) with the farm operator in a feudal contract with one of the big poultry juggernauts. Dairy farming has nearly disappeared. The societal impacts of these economic changes are hard to see at first, but when you consider them carefully, one obvious implication is that it becomes harder and harder to maintain a self-sufficient life in the remoter regions as farming becomes more dependent on connections to the larger industrial-agriculture machine. Thus rural counties empty out while population centers remain viable. In addition, these large operations, which seek to minimize labor costs through mechanization, rely on low-skill immigrant populations for their workers, leading to the pockets of impoverished immigrants we see in places like Noel and Aurora. The ripple effects of this demographic shift are hard to miss.
A History of the Ozarks: Volume 3 is now resting on my shelf alongside the other two volumes, but I don’t expect it to stay there long. It’s going to be taken down again and again as I re-read its accounts of Ozark historical events and refresh my understanding of the region’s rich, troubled, and treasured history.
I shouldn’t really call The Moonflower Vine an Ozarks book, as it is set in the western Missouri prairie, in a fictionalized version of the town of Nevada, where Jetta Carleton grew up. (If you want to get a sense of this region, you should look at Leland Payton’s marvelous book of photographs, Ozark-Prairie Border.) But a couple of the major characters of the book spend considerable time in the Ozarks, and since it’s a border region I’ll expand my “Ozarks books” phrase a little to include this one.
The Moonflower Vine was first published in 1962 and was a big hit, making the bestseller list, some important book clubs, and the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books volume. Then, as books do, it faded from attention. It became one of those secret favorites, passed from enthusiast to enthusiast, until Harper Perennial brought out a new edition in 2009 with a robust introduction from Jane Smiley. That new edition helped return the book to some deserved prominence.
The novel is divided into six sections, one for each of the major characters. It begins in the more-or-less contemporary time period to its publication, then dips into the past with the next four sections, finally returning to the present at the end. So its structure is a bit challenging, but not overwhelmingly so.
But what makes The Moonflower Vine so memorable is its rich, surprising characterization. The novel’s six main characters are a rural couple and their four daughters, all of whom go through various troubles and all of whom are revealed, over time, to have secrets they are keeping from the rest of the family. The characters resist stereotyping, revealing ever-deepening layers of feeling, aspiration, frustration, and despair. It’s an immensely humane novel that refuses to excuse its characters even as it comprehends them. And for a book that made it into the Reader’s Digest condensations, it’s surprisingly frank about sexual desire. (I suspect they condensed that part right out and left the “local color” in.)
What I ultimately take away from The Moonflower Vine, though, is a deeply forgiving spirit. By one definition or another, all the characters fail. But they are never portrayed as failures. They are flawed creatures, like us all, who are doing their best with what has been handed to them. And sometimes their best is not very good. They do stupid things, they suppress their feelings, they misunderstand. And yet I found myself drawn to them, and drawn also to this landscape by Carleton’s vivid power of description. She sees this world in an intense and careful way. Some people might see this book as an exercise in nostalgia, but I think that misses its precise and comprehensive view of human nature.
From a journal article I’m reading: “On September 20, 1948, Lucinda Crenshaw, Carryola Dickson, Georgia Jones, Otelia Scaife, and Rosie Holman, all members of the North Wyatt [Missouri] Women’s Club, decided to take matters into their own hands. They walked their children from North Wyatt to the white elementary school, at the edge of the nearby town of Wyatt, and tried to enroll them in the school. They were denied permission on the grounds the state constitution of Missouri forbade African American and white children from attending school together. . . . Notes from a Delmo board meeting suggest the women were threatened with arrest for disturbing the peace.”
Just in case you are looking for ideas for a statue to replace some of those Confederate generals. And think about that date, too: 1948. These women were real pioneers.
Source: Heidi Dodson, “Race and Contested Space in the Missouri Delta,” Buildings & Landscapes 23:1 (Spring 2016), 78-101.
A friend of mine, retired teacher/principal/superintendent Terry Adams, recently wrote this:
“I think this is the most beautiful fall I have ever experienced. The colors are still beautiful if a bit muted, and leaves are falling everywhere. The cattle herd settled under a huge oak tree and the cows were covered with leaves (a sure sign that fall is coming to an end).
“It seems that everything is beautiful in its own time. The peach trees are bare now, but in the spring when they flower, just before the frost kills the buds, they are at their best. The autumn blaze maple trees were at their peak a couple of weeks ago but today they look a little sad and adjusting to the concept that winter is coming. The burning bushes just keep getting more attractive. All the plants have plenty to offer, they just give you their best at different times and in different ways.
“People, it seems to me, are much the same way. As a young school administrator, a very wise experienced special education teacher told me that the special children learn just as well, it just takes them longer. When you pop popcorn, the temperature is the same for all the kernels but they tend to pop at different times. We would do well to accept that and try our best to help all children learn as much as possible in their own time. Some are lucky and seem to be able to do everything well. Some have special gifts in music or sports, or can build works of art in wood working classes. It is our responsibility to help all children and appreciate what they have to offer. Just like the trees, they are all beautiful in their own way and in their own time.”
When you drive through the Ozarks these days, you see fairly quickly that there are actually two “Ozarks” (or more, depending on how you slice it). There are the prosperous, tech-savvy, rapidly growing urban centers like Springfield, Fayetteville, and Bentonville, and there are the decaying, aging, deep rural counties with their tattered “Trump/Pence” flags flying forlornly in the front yard a year after the election, as if reality could be altered by an act of defiant will. The fancy word for this phenomenon is “inequality,” and to some extent it’s always been the case. The fortunate areas get rich, the less fortunate areas get left behind.
Some parts of the region get the latte bars, other parts get part-time shift work at the Dollar General.An astute observer of the Ozarks economic and cultural scene is historian Jared Phillips, and he recently published a thought-provoking article on this trend, which he describes as “rural decay coupled with corporate extraction and an expansion of inequality.” If you’re at all interested in the competing visions for how to revive the rural economy, you need to read it.
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.