The Way Back

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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.

They’re At It Again

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I’ve had my issues with the Missouri Department of Conservation. But for the most part, it’s the one agency of state government that you can usually rely on to work in a nonpartisan way, with a clear mission focus and a modest ability to disregard the momentary winds of opinion. Take, for example, the department’s recent decision to create a bear hunting season in the state, which an overwhelming majority of the public comments disagreed with. If the department needed to bend to public opinion, it wouldn’t have shrugged off the public comments with such ease.

This nonpartisan emphasis, naturally, has been a burr under the saddle of the state legislature for decades. The idea that an agency of government could stand apart from politics is anathema to them. That agency could be such a source of influence, such a repository of bureaucratic jobs to fill, such a wellspring of votes! And so it has tried, again and again, to grab control over the Conservation Department, which is protected in its structure by the state constitution. Never mind the fact that Missouri’s Conservation Department is just about the only aspect of state government that is envied elsewhere.

The latest effort began as a bill sponsored by the representative from my hometown, and would have changed the membership of the Missouri Conservation Commission from appointed to elected, thus politicizing it completely. The representative claimed that members would run on a nonpartisan basis, but we know how “nonpartisan” that works in practice. So the new plan, which has passed a House committee, would insert both the House and the Senate into the nomination process, assuring that new appointments would have to pass the political scrutiny of legislative leaders before taking their positions. Even in this dressed-up version, it’s still such an atrociously bad idea that the House speaker had to pack the committee with a bunch of extra members to get the proposal to pass.

Every session, I think to myself that the Missouri Legislature cannot possibly come up with a more reactionary, hare-brained, backward set of proposals than they did in the previous session, and every session they prove me wrong. This year’s crop looks to continue that trend, with proposals to make it easier for people to evade vaccination requirements and to hamstring local health departments (in the middle of a pandemic!) at the top of the list. A fair number of these ideas end up on the scrap heap, thank goodness, but enough of them get through to make one despair whether Missouri will ever become the moderate, sensible, “Show-Me” state I remember from my younger days.

Mo’ Curious

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I recently had the pleasure of talking with Trevor Harris, the producer of the Mo’ Curious podcast. His podcast features byways and little-known stories from Missouri history, and although it’s just beginning, it’s very promising!

I also enjoy listening to the History a Go Go podcast, which has featured some of my former Culver-Stockton colleagues in past episodes. Although many of its episodes have a Quincy/Tri-States angle to them, a lot of them range into a wide variety of topics.

If anyone has other recommendations for podcasts, especially ones that are not as widely known and that have an interesting focus, let me know! I’m always on the lookout for something new to listen to.

Teenie Dees from Turkey Creek

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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.

Terrific New Story Collection

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I ordered this new collection of short stories from the University of Notre Dame Press as soon as I saw the announcement, and for a couple of reasons. It was the second book in a row from a Missouri author to win the press’s Sullivan Prize, so I felt a little regional pride. And the previous year’s prizewinner, John Mort’s Down Along the Piney, was such a pleasure that I had developed some trust in the editors’ judgment.

That trust was justified. R. M. Kinder’s A Common Person and Other Stories is a rich and rewarding book. The seventeen stories in its 200 pages have a unified, guiding sensibility to them, but each is distinctive in its own way, and some challenge our notion of what counts as a “story.” It’s a satisfying collection, with stories to re-read and find multiple rewards from.

Kinder’s strength is her handling of point of view, the flowing, sometimes-random way our thoughts move from one idea to the next. The characters in her stories think in the kind of associational bursts of connection we’re all familiar with, from specific observation to vast abstraction, from hope to despair in the flick of an insight, and then back to hope again. Their feelings and responses are true and precisely portrayed.

There’s a proliferation of animals in these stories, too, mostly dogs but some others as well. I don’t know anything about Kinder’s personal habits, but certainly the stories suggest that for this author, the way a person interacts with animals is an indicator of essential character. The dogs have lives and personalities in the stories that are as carefully drawn as the humans, sometimes.

Sometimes the point of view will float from character to character within a story, the sort of thing we warn our beginning students against but a beautiful tool in the hands of a pro. The effect is that of a drifting consciousness, above but not detached from the thoughts of the individual characters, allowing us to glimpse multiple trains of thought and emotion even as the story progresses along a single line of action. This technique gives some of the stories a dreamlike quality, not that actual dreams are happening (although they sometimes do) but because we move from mind to mind with such swiftness and ease. And sometimes the collective consciousness of the community speaks through the voice of narrator.

If you’re a lover of the short story, this collection is worth tracking down and putting on your shelf.

This Writing Thing

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I can hardly say enough about how delighted I was last night when I received word that my short story collection had been named as one of ten finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award in Fiction for 2021. The happy vibe is still in full effect this morning, and I find myself reflecting on this whole writing endeavor.

Writers are a funny bunch. It’s the most solitary art form of all, and somebody can be working on a single project for years. You have to distance yourself from the rewards of immediate gratification, and in fact you’ll hear a lot of writers declare that they get sufficient reward from the work itself. I say that myself from time to time.

But at the same time, writers as a group tend to be highly insecure, often neurotically so, and every little bit of recognition is lapped up like sweet cream. So we hold contests and conferences, and we monitor sales reports, even as we announce that such things don’t really matter. But of course they do matter, even if it’s only inside our heads.

So today I celebrate, and tomorrow I get back to work.

Favorite Ozarks Places – 18

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Osage River from north overlook – Painted Rock Conservation Area

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.

Burial cairn at Painted Rock – from Wayfaring.com

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.”

View from south overlook – Painted Rock Conservation Area

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.

The Sleep of Reason

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, The sleep of reason produces monsters (No.43), from Los Caprichos– Google Art Project

So much has been said and written about the events of Wednesday, January 6, that I hestitate to add anything. But Wednesday’s events were so shocking that it seems irresponsible to say nothing.

Shocking, but not all that surprising. The incidents of mob violence and rioting that began (most recently) with Charlottesville and have continued for the last several years have deep roots in American history. I’ve been reading Erik Loomis’ A History of America in Ten Strikes, and one theme that recurs is the remarkable amount of violence that has permeated our history from the very beginning. By comparison to many workers’ strikes of the 19th century, the five fatalities from the Capitol siege was tame. And just over the last few months, capitol buildings in Michigan, Idaho, and Oregon were overtaken by mobs of armed, violent men who threatened the elected representatives. So even the particular nature of this incident should come as no surprise.

At this point I should warn you, dear readers, that at the end of this post I am going to place a photograph of the violence at the Capitol. It is disturbing. So if disturbing photos upset you, you should stop scrolling.

The image above is “The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters,” an etching from the 1790s created by Francisco Goya, that great Spanish chronicler of the human capacity for monstrousness. It’s an appropriate title for our time, unfortunately, because so many of us have allowed our reason to go to sleep.

So how do we reawaken our reason? I think one necessary step is to require ourselves to start facing up to difficult facts. The world is not always as we want it to be, but pretending that it’s something else entirely is no help in coping with its difficulty.

So to start: By now, it’s quite clear that the election result was not in doubt from the very early days after November 3. This fact applies both to the popular vote and the electoral count. In the U.S., elections are governed by individual states, unless the state’s practices are so egregious as to create a civil rights violation; so if you think there were irregularities in an election, the proper place to seek redress is in the state courts or with the state elections commission. Those efforts have been tried repeatedly, and they haven’t affected the results. In fact, courts and election commissions almost completely rejected those complaints. If you’re having a hard time with this fact, all I can advise is to keep trying. That’s how elections work. Somebody wins, and the people who lose accept that fact and then start planning how they might be able to win the next time around.

So, with that fact known and understood, we have to think about the riot at the Capitol. Several thousand people attended the morning rally because they either refused to accept that fact or they believed those leaders who understood that fact but chose to mislead them. What would make so many people wilfully disbelieve the obvious?

Well, wishful thinking, for one. Nobody likes to have their wishes thwarted. I know when a candidate I support loses, I find myself in disbelief for a while. How could anybody have voted for X when they could have voted for Y? But after that wears off, I come to terms with the fact that it sure enough happened, and start thinking about the future. Refusing to believe the obvious truth only cripples me for what is to come. I think most of the people at the Capitol that day fall ino this category: wishful thinkers whose path toward reality has been unnecessarily prolonged by leaders who see advantage in not making them face facts.

But there appears to have been another group there, people who knew full well that the election had been lost but who didn’t care. They weren’t there to “stop the steal” or whatever other slogans were being chanted. They had come to start trouble, to engage in violence, and if they were lucky to kill some people. You can see them in the photographs in their military-style gear, with the weapons and tools of destruction that they had not brought with them. These were not misguided truth-deniers who got caught up in the moment. These were people intent on harm.

But they needed the mob for cover, and so the many Trump supporters who swarmed to the Capitol were useful to them. So we have a large group of fact-denying wishful thinkers who imagined themselves reversing an election that they foolishly believed to be “stolen,” and a smaller group of dedicated troublemakers who had come to commit crimes. Those with criminal intent, though, needed the mass of people who had let their reason go to sleep. Even those who came with what they believed to be patriotic intent were enabling the thugs. If the polls are to be believed, a large majority of those people and their supporters still fail to see the connection between their actions and the horrifying crimes that occurred. But that connection is clearly there, and until everyone acknowledges it, we will not have a true reckoning about the storming of the Capitol.

Subsequent events have revealed more wishful thinking, at least in my opinion. I stress here that I’m in the realm of opinion now, not facts, so you can feel free to disagree. But the whole idea of impeaching somebody who is about to leave office, knowing that there’s no time to have a trial, seems nonsensical to me. At best, it’s an emotional gesture, a final declaration of enmity toward a despised opponent. At worst, it’s just political opportunism, a chance to score points and fund-raise. The net effect in practical terms is zero. If Nancy Pelosi was the kind of mad genius she is portrayed as being in right-wing media, she’d avoid impeaching the president entirely, because his continued presence in the Republican Party is tearing it to pieces, and she wouldn’t want to disturb that process. But as I said, this all is just my interpretation, not a statement of incontrovertible facts like the result of the election.

Reawakening our sense of reason and respect for facts will not happen overnight. But I do hope that those who have been gulled into believing a pack of lies will be able to rejoin the world of reality, bit by bit, once the shock of last week’s events has taken hold. We will all come to grips with the fact that a mob of thousands of people desecrated the U.S. Capitol. That’s not patriotic.

These people are not patriots:

Favorite Ozarks Places – 17

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Ha Ha Tonka Spring

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 natural bridge at Ha Ha Tonka

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.

Ha Ha Tonka spring, Castle in distance

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.