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.


Favorite Ozarks People – 12


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Stained glass window by Milton Frenzel

When I was a cub reporter, fresh out of college, many years ago in southern Missouri, I was looking for something to keep my mind active. I started attending a Great Books Club at the Ozarks Regional Library in Ironton, about an hour away.

And although I was a college graduate who had aced a couple of literature courses, and a working writer, Milton and Virginia Frenzel, who led the book discussions, were so deeply engaged with what we read, and on such a different level than most of my college professors, that they changed the way I thought about books for good. They didn’t just study them. They looked at them as living things, argued with them, demanded more from them. And by changing the way I thought about literature, they changed the way I thought about myself. And they weren’t even trying to do that. They were just being themselves, authentically and unselfconsciously, and in doing so opened up a new way of defining myself.

Milton and Virginia were an unlikely pair of Ozarkers: intellectual and urbane, they were among several artists who had emigrated from the St. Louis area to the Arcadia Valley, (others included Robert Harmon and Michael Chomyk). Milton and Bob Harmon designed stained glass windows for the Emil Frei Company of St. Louis, and Milton also painted. As I recall, Milton taught some art classes at the high school, although I don’t remember if he taught there full-time. I think they were largely in retirement by then. Virginia later served on the AV School Board.

That book group attracted some remarkable people, both natives and transplants. I may write about more of that group later. But for now, I’ll content myself by observing that if I ever dare to call myself an educated person, it’s a term that first began to become clear to me in a monthly book group at the Ironton library.


— Another Frenzel window.


It’s Official Now


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My publisher, Blank Slate Press, an imprint of the Amphorae Publishing Group, has set the release date for my next novel–September 26! This is an exciting moment for me, as I’ve been working on this book since 2014.

We went around and around for several weeks about the title. I like titles with a lot of literary flair, while the publishers like titles that will catch the eye and sell well from a bookshelf—not that these two concepts are necessarily opposed to each other. But we definitely come from different vantage points; as my editor regularly reminds me, “Writing is an art. Publishing is a business.” But it all worked out in the end, and we have a title that suits us both.

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away quite yet. It’s fun to do a little buildup as the months go by, and launch events have not yet been planned. But I can give you a taste: when This Old World ended, it was 1866, and the people of Daybreak had wrestled with the aftermath of the Civil War with varying degrees of success. Some of them carried the wounds of war with them till their end, while others sought to heal by whatever means they could find—revenge, forgiveness, the remaking of self. But now, it’s 1887, the war is a fading memory for most although still fresh in the minds of some, and new challenges face Daybreak. Their agrarian way of life seems outdated as the Industrial Revolution transforms the country. And new people have moved into the valley. Some are sympathetic to the ideals of Daybreak, some seek to profit from them, and some keep their motives to themselves. The children of Slant of Light and This Old World are now in their twenties, creating lives of their own, and not everyone wants to hang on to the prewar utopian ideals that led to the creation of Daybreak. So the stage is set for change in the lives of Charlotte, Charley, and all the inhabitants of Daybreak old and new, change that will be profound, tumultuous, and potentially tragic.

The new book is The Language of Trees.

A New Author


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It’s always a great moment when you discover an interesting author who is new to you. That happened to me recently when I received a book by John Mort, who is not a new author at all, but an established author who I simply had missed.


I should have heard of John Mort before now, but somehow had not. He’s an accomplished writer who lives in Springfield, and who has a bunch of books out that he’s either written or edited. I finished Goat Boy of the Ozarks in the last couple of days and based on that one, I’m going to go looking for more.

The “goat boy” of the title is Johnny Bell, a sixteen-year-old who like most boys his age struggles with authority, his sense of self, and inconveniently frequent erections. But unlike most boys his age, he is the poorest of the poor, parentless, largely friendless, and suspicious of the social-service foster family with whom he is placed, although in his isolation he also leans out for the scraps of affection they offer him as well.

At first I found the title off-putting, unsure whether I was in for some sort of Ozarks gothic story, nature idyll, or what. But when I discovered late in the book what the “goat boy” referred to, it came as an unexpected and refreshing surprise as the book took a turn into the deconstruction of Ozarks genre mythology, an activity dear to my own heart. I suppose one could say that the storyline of the book follows the coming-of-age pattern, but there are other springs flowing through this parcel as well.

The narrative style is curious; it’s a bit jagged, with elliptical moments in which we have to figure out what happened in the interim, but after a while I got used to that method. I could tell I was in the hands of a writer with serious purposes, which gave me all the incentive I needed to persist despite my uncertainty.

After reading Goat Boy of the Ozarks, I plan to seek out more of John Mort’s work and give it a look as well.