Myths and Mythmakers


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Albino Farm

The Legend of the Albino Farm, by Steve Yates

I finished Steve Yates’ intriguing and inventive The Legend of the Albino Farm yesterday and have been pondering it since. Like all of Steve’s books, it brims with sentences that surprise and descriptions that engage. Its central character, Hettienne Sheehy, compels our attention with her multi-edged personality and lapses into premonitory trance. But at its heart, I think it’s a book about our propensity for mythmaking.

I’ve heard Steve describe this book as a horror story turned inside out, and that’s an apt description. Imagine a horror story in which the focus is on the presumed monster, and in which the “monster” turns out to be nothing of the sort. That’s the situation of the “Albino Farm,” which I am told is a long-standing Springfield ghost story/urban legend about a farm on the northern outskirts of the city. The only monsters in The Legend of the Albino Farm are the townsfolk and rowdies, snoopers and idle curious, who trespass on the farm to get a look at its inhabitants, deface its buildings, and terrorize the old folks.

We make up stories to entertain ourselves, and as a storyteller I honor that impulse. But there’s a dark side to this tendency, which we see in people’s stunning willingness to believe all sorts of wild nonsense without evidence (my Facebook news feed testifies to this) and to construct the worst possible explanation for something we don’t understand. Our love for story is also a love for gossip and ugliness sometimes, unfortunately, and we warp toward the tawdry all too often.


Working on a New Talk


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I delight in working up talks to give to libraries and civic groups, usually in connection with one of my books. I conduct a great deal of research as I work on a novel, and although that research is not especially systematic or scholarly, I learn a lot about an era and can condense it into an understandable presentation. With Slant of Light, I developed a talk about 19th-century utopian communities; with This Old World, on Missouri during the years after the Civil War.

My new book takes place during the late 1880s, when large commercial interests from the Eastern cities and from St. Louis used the recently-built railroads to extend their reach deep into the Ozarks and set up lumber mills and mines to extract these natural resources. The Ozarks had been logged and mined for centuries, of course, but the industrial scale of this enterprise was new, and the impact—cultural, economic, and environmental—was profound.


Men in a lumberyard near Winona around 1890 (source: National Archives)

So I’m working up a talk about the coming of industry to this hardscrabble, rural landscape, and the changes it wrought on the people. It’s an easy story to cast villains and heroes into, but I think it’s more complicated than that. Rural folk were often their own worst enemies, or willing collaborators, in their conflict with the lumber and mining companies, and those companies themselves were not always the rapacious beasts of our imagining. And the relationship between people and company was not merely conflict or exploitation.

I’ve given talks at so many places by now that I can hardly keep track of them all—libraries, historical societies, Rotary clubs, book clubs, you name it. Every group is a bit different, and no two talks are quite the same.

The King Sits in Dumfermline Town


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Stained glass window from the Abbot House at Dumfermline

I’ve had the opening lines of “Sir Patrick Spens” running through my head for the last few days, probably because I’ve been thinking about narrative economy. And rarely will you find a more economical opening than this:

The king sits in Dumfermline town, drinking the blood-red wine.

“Where can I find a good captain to sail this ship of mine?”

Then up and spoke a sailor boy sitting at the king’s right knee:

“Sir Patrick Spens is the best captain that ever sailed the sea.”

And there you have it. We know that king. He’s idling away his time, he’s contracted for a new bride from Norway, and he’s eager to get to the business of siring heirs. With the wine in his blood, he’s growing impatient. But why won’t anybody sail over to fetch her? We know the reason. It’s a crazy mission this time of year to cross the North Sea. But he will not be brooked; he’s the king, and his word is law.

And we know that sailor boy, too. Eager to please, the little underling. Eager to show off his knowledge. So he “up and speaks,” and from that foolish remark the tragedy unfolds. Sir Patrick, his frightened crew, and “all the lords and noblemen” sail off to their doom. The blood-red wine foreshadows their fate.

A chance exchange of words sets off a chain of events, unforeseen by those who speak the words but inevitable as death itself. Now that’s narrative economy.

Empty America


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Lead Belt History

Browsing a used book store a few months ago, I came across this book, which is a 1992 reprint of a 1955 book by Henry C. Thompson, who wrote historical columns for St. Francois county newspapers, was a life member of the State Historical Society of Missouri, and worked for many years as an electrical engineer for the St. Joseph Lead Company. He served as the semi-official historian for the company, and his papers are now housed in the State Historical Society’s collection at Rolla.

Reading Thompson’s book (which is a collection of his columns), I was struck by the cyclical nature of the mining industry. An entrepreneur makes a find or develops a new technology, which permits extraction of a new amount of minerals, and then eventually the mine plays out, leaving devastated workers and land behind to cope as best they can. Here’s what the old St. Joe mine looks like today:

St Joe Mine

Photo from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources

In a brief but striking essay published as a letter to the editor of the New York Review of Books, Wendell Berry makes a key point: “Rural America is a colony, and its economy is a colonial economy. The business of America has been largely and without apology the plundering of rural America, from which everything of value—minerals, timber, farm animals, farm crops, and ‘labor’—has been taken at the lowest possible price.”

It is tempting to view this trend fatalistically, as the consequence of the inexorable march of progress and improvement, a sort of social Darwinism of the landscape. The downtrodden, less fit for the rigors of the modern economy, must either “get big or get out,” in the words of Eisenhower Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson, as quoted by Berry. Another way to see it is conspiratorial, the “they’re out to get us” mentality which was played on so successfully by Mr. Trump in last year’s election. I prefer to see the emptying out of Rural America as neither. The immense “agribusinesses” which have come to dominate American farm life, and the companies which remove the resources and which employ the labor (domestic if they’re cheap enough, imported if not), aren’t really out to destroy rural economies. They just don’t care whether they do, as long as the product gets extracted. And if it plays out, they can just move on, leaving behind the remnants of equipment and the people who ran them.

Glover smelter

The empty lead smelting plant at Glover, Missouri.

But while the logic of capital is not conspiratorial, neither is it inevitable, although it is immensely powerful. Rural communities across America are looking for ways to reinvent themselves, as I mentioned in an earlier post. The old St. Joe mine, pictured above, is now a state park, where vacationers ride dirt bikes and four-wheelers over the old mine tailings, and where the history of mining in Missouri is detailed in an excellent state historic site.

But to reach the State Historic Site stage, that mine had to reach a state of economic unviability. History’s closest companion is usually sadness, and one can’t think of these vast old enterprises without thinking of the laborers who built and ran them, just as I can never drive by one of the great wind farms now foresting our landscape without thinking of the human farmers who can no longer make a living on that acreage.


A wind farm in Michigan.

The extractive relationship between city and rural is a significant theme in my next novelThe Language of Trees, so perhaps this theme is just on my mind more than usual. But I do hope that our great American rural landscape is due for a cultural renaissance, although I don’t know where that renaissance is going to come from at present.

Now Comes the Hard Part


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Ozarkers, and those who follow the Ozarks, have been stunned by the widespread flooding that occurred after the past weekend’s heavy rains – more than 10 inches in many areas – and the road and bridge washouts that have happened as a result. (Follow “Love My Ozarks” on Facebook if you want to see the latest crowd-sourced photos and videos.)

Black River near Hendrickson

The Black River near Hendrickson, photo by Peggy Carlstrom posted to the Love My Ozarks Facebook group.

If you live in a region of narrow valleys and steep hills, you get used to occasional washouts, and even the occasions when the little creek that runs through town gets out of its banks and floods Main Street. That creek, after all, is usually why the town was there in the first place. But this “rain event,” as the TV people like to call it, was historic. Instead of one town getting the big flood from an intense storm cell, as is usually the case, this time the whole region suffered. Seneca, Neosho, Mountain View, West Plains, Steelville, Marble Hill – towns from one side of the state to the other took the hit.

The flood-control dams at Clearwater and Wappapello, and the combo flood control/power generation dams like Table Rock and Bagnell, did what they were designed to do and held back the floodwater until they reached maximum capacity, and then had to begin releasing water through their floodgates and spillways. The resulting downstream flooding will no doubt be less than it would have been had the dams not been there, but creeping development in downstream areas also means that the damage to property will be more costly.

Meanwhile, as the Big, Bourbeuse, and Huzzah all pour their waters into the Meramec, folks in the lower regions of that river gear up their sandbags to protect as much of its valley as they can, a valiant effort regardless of whether the flooding on the Meramec is exacerbated by earlier human actions. The governor has already had his mandatory photo-op filling some sandbags and has activated the National Guard,  but the real work – and by that I mean the work that will tell the difference whether the towns of the Ozarks will survive in the long term – will begin in a few weeks.

Jacks Fork near Eminence

The Jacks Fork near Eminence, photo by Morgan Paige Nash in the Love My Ozarks Facebook group.

Most of the small towns of the Ozarks have a tenuous hold on prosperity to begin with. One economic blow can have immense consequences for the people who live there. When the Wal-Mart in Piedmont closed recently, that closure took more than $200,000 out of local tax revenue, a blow that cannot be remedied in any short or medium term. And in a region that is already disproportionately populated by poor folks and retirees, one can’t just fix the shortfall by raising taxes. All over the region, governments and businesses will be cleaning up the mess, and then they’ll be faced with the decision of whether to try to start over or just give up.

But Ozarkers are not good at giving up. They are, as the saying goes, three kinds of stubborn. So over the next months and years, I hope to do my part to help the region the only way I can, and the only way that makes a long-term difference: by visiting the area and spending some money down there, particularly with those mom-and-pop businesses that don’t send away a chunk of their earnings to the National Headquarters in some distant location, but recycle it into their community as small businesses everywhere do.


The Art of the Rural


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I’ve been a follower of the Art of the Rural group for quite a while now, and it’s heartening to read about the many endeavors across the country that bring vitality to rural life through the arts.

And, I might add, rural life brings vitality to the arts as well. In an increasingly suburbanized country, being versed in country things gives a dimension to one’s work that is inaccessible to those who are not so fortunate. I think of Huckleberry Finn’s intimacy with the rhythms of the river, Whitman’s “plumb in the uprights, well entretied, braced in the beams, stout as a horse,” and of course, work after work by Robert Frost. You don’t have to know the rural to appreciate these works, but it certainly helps.

This subject has been on my mind recently because I’ve had Anais Mitchell’s “Young Man in America” album in my car. I know next to nothing about Mitchell, but did read somewhere that she grew up on a farm. This upbringing seems particularly relevant in a song like “Shepherd,” where an understanding of the needs of farm life adds both complexity and pathos to what is already an infinitely sad song.

Reading comments about “Shepherd” on YouTube, I was struck by the disparity between those who saw the shepherd as heartless, or at least clueless, at the end of the song, and those who saw the song as a re-enactment of a familiar rural tragedy. The song reminds me of Frost’s “Home Burial,” in which the sensitive wife cannot bear the farmer’s return to labor:

“You could sit there with the stains on your shoes / Of the fresh earth from your own baby’s grave / And talk about your everyday concerns.”

Likewise, after the immense tragedy of the song, the shepherd “held the cleaver and the plow / and the shepherd’s work was never done.”

If you grew up on a farm, or if you know what it’s like to live on a farm, you know that human tragedy only interrupts the work of the farm, and that the labor must continue. Feelings may be buried, or repressed, or let out in some other way, but the cattle must be milked and the hay must be brought into the barn. The beauty and tragedy of rural life are particular in their application, and I wonder if the knowledge of these things will become lost to the coming generations.

Favorite Ozarks Places – 16


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Robinson Mill 1

Robinson Mill

You have to be a true old-timer to know about this one, as Robinson Mill, near Annapolis, burned down about 45 years ago. That’s a view of it from the Annapolis side of Big Creek; it sat on the west side of the creek, a little upstream from town.

Nowadays it’s commemorated only by the name of the road that once passed it; even photographs of it are hard to find, and I had to dig these out from the 1971 Annapolis centennial brochure. The mill was operated by Elmer Robinson and his son Homer, about whom I recall very little. They also smoked and sold hams and bacon. I remember visiting the mill and occasionally having some of their corn meal around the house; the mill was operated by a water wheel that turned from a long millrace that diverted water from the creek. Whenever the Robinsons wanted to grind some grain, they would crank up the sluice gates at the head of the millrace, and down would come the water. I believe it used a horizontal turbine underneath the mill—not as picturesque as an external water wheel, but more efficient.

Robinson Mill 2

Elmer and Homer Robinson grinding corn

A few mills still exist across the Ozarks, and I’ve been heartened to follow the progress of the restoration of the old mill at Greer. Not so long ago, having a mill nearby was essential to the economic life of a region, one of the first steps in moving from a life of strict subsistence to one where extra cash could be obtained. These structures link past to present in a tangible and physical way that brings folkways to life. I’ve never believed in nostalgia for its own sake; things of the past don’t necessarily gain value just because they’re old. But watching a grist mill grind corn is a wonderful window into a way of life—and a way of living—that is both surprisingly near and astonishingly distant.



Favorite Ozarks People – 13


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Sheldon and me

Bud Schuller (and me)

I got to know Bud Schuller when I was in high school, and had landed a summer job as a counselor at Camp Taum Sauk up the river from me. I still don’t know how I got that job; I think the owner, George Smith, hearing that I was a farm boy, thought I would be good with the horses, when in fact I have never been fond of horses and was quickly dispatched to other duties. In any event, I got the job, and that’s where I met this guy.

Bud (he acquired that nickname later) was the nature counselor, and while I fancied myself to be woods-wise, I quickly learned that there were people far more attuned to natural world than I was. A devotee of John Muir and Aldo Leopold, Bud went on to teach in the Clearwater school district for many years, imparting his love of nature and appreciation for its complexity to hundreds of young people in the region. And he continued his involvement with the camp, introducing many more hundreds of kids, mostly from the St. Louis area, to the pleasures of life in the Ozarks.

Kids are usually pretty quick to spot a fake, and I think that’s one of the reasons kids always take to Bud. They recognize that he is the genuine article and that his interest in them is real. He’s a master storyteller whose tales are usually about as tall as he is. But there’s always something worth paying attention to in his tales, even if they don’t get it at the time. He’s an indelible personality who leaves a lasting impact, and it was an absolute delight to reconnect with him while I was on a book-promotion trip to Poplar Bluff last weekend.

A Great Year for Reading


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Looking back over the past year, I realize what a great year I had for reading. (I know, it’s already the end of February, but I’m still digesting work from 2016.) Two books that I read toward the end of the year were C.D. Albin’s excellent collection of short stories Hard Toward Home and Daniel Green’s literary critical essays in Beyond the Blurb.

The stories in Hard Toward Home are brief and rather jaggedly structured, with characters we often find mid-crisis and for whom the crisis remains unresolved at the end of the story. They’re mainly set in the Arkansas Ozarks, in the contemporary era, with a few excursions out. The stories are beautifully written, but what I like best about them is that they take characters often overlooked or stereotyped in rural fiction–the angry middle-aged male, the frustrated professional man’s wife, for example–and find depth and humanity in those people.

Many of the characters in Hard Toward Home are poor, or nearly so. Even those who are not poor are pushed by economic necessity. I appreciate this element of the stories; the contemporary short story has so often been taken over by characters whose concerns are more ethereal, and (in my view) thus often less interesting. Albin’s stories explore and humanize overlooked people, and to me that’s a great thing.

Daniel Green’s book does a wonderful job of surveying the current landscape in literary criticism and evaluating those who practice it. It’s not a book for the general reader (I confess, I don’t consider myself qualified to evaluate the book entirely, as I’m not familiar with some of the critics he discusses), but for the literary scholar it’s a valuable addition. Green writes with great precision, and in a  time when much literary analysis seems more interested in advancing a theoretical perspective than actually engaging with the work, it’s refreshing to read a book that returns the focus squarely onto the workings of the literary work. I read it in little bits, as it consists largely of a sequence of essays, and I tend to take my literary criticism in small doses.

Both are well worth reading!


About Those ‘Indian Trail Trees’ . . .


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An ‘Indian trail tree’ in Georgia

Every  so often I read something about “signal trees,” “thong trees,” “Indian trail trees,” or similar designations. These are trees like the one above, which supposedly were bent by long-ago Indians to mark trails, the location of water sources, food caches, and whatnot. I recall people pointing them out to me when I was a kid.


Signal Tree sign near Stone Mountain, Georgia

OK, I’ll admit to some skepticism.

Make that a lot of skepticism.

The most significant Indian nation of the Ozarks, the Osage, were pretty well moved out by 1825. So any signal tree would have to be approximately 200 years old by now. Would the bending process really keep them that small? I’m not saying it’s not possible, but for comparison, here’s a 200-year-old tree (by ring count) that blew over in New Jersey a couple of years ago:


Now that’s a big tree.

Second, would an Osage Indian really need direction on how to find water? Here’s a clue: Head downhill. The Ozarks are not exactly desert.

As for trail markers, I would have the same question. If you’ve ever gone out in the forest with someone experienced in woodcraft, you’ve probably marveled at their uncanny ability to know right where they are most of the time, not through any mystical reading of signs and symbols, but through the hard-earned knowledge that is gained from lifelong experience. I wonder if an Indian nation would have needed trail markers of this sort. And since the Osage were, shall we say, less than hospitable to strangers in their hunting grounds, they certainly wouldn’t have posted trail markers for those unfamiliar with the territory. This isn’t I-55, after all, where people need signs to the next rest stop.

And let’s remember that the Ozarks have been logged over multiple times. Granted, a logger wouldn’t stop to bother with a bent tree like these, but how about a charcoal burner? Or a stave bolt harvester? Trees just didn’t last that long unless they were in people’s yards, cemeteries, or other such protected locations.

These trees are curious and interesting to see, but for now I’ll ascribe their origin to a simpler explanation: a tree is blown over in the forest. In falling, it bends down its neighbor, which survives. Over time, the blown-down tree rots away, while the survivor sends up a new trunk from its bent-down position, causing the peculiar figure-four shape. And thus a signal tree is formed.

I’m open to persuasion otherwise, but for now, count me as a skeptic.