I grew up in the Missouri Ozarks, a forest-rich region containing nearly ten million acres of dense timberland, and spent much of my childhood exploring the steep hills and crystalline streams around my family’s farm. To my young mind, everything had always been as it was at the current time, so I never considered the history of the region, the environmental and cultural changes it had undergone, or the effects of those changes on the people who lived there. My grandfather, who lived with us during his final years, reminisced about having chopped out a farmstead along the St. Francis River. Our neighbor, a long-time resident, remembered helping his father float enormous rafts of railroad ties down the Current and Black rivers. These tales were just isolated curiosities to me; I never connected them to any larger narrative.
Not that history didn’t interest me. I was a good student, and history a favorite subject. But the missing part was the connection between history the subject, filled with names, locations, battles, and Important Doctrines, and history the lived experience.
When I began writing historical fiction, at the age of 52, I came to it as someone who had been writing fiction in a contemporary setting for decades. The year was 2007, the United States was at the peak of its embroilment in the Iraq war, and I had been engaged in the scholarly study of 19th-century utopian communities, more from personal curiosity than as part of any systematic agenda. I had developed an interest in utopian groups after reading a rather snide reference to the Icarians in The Communist Manifesto while I was teaching a Great Books class at Centenary College of Louisiana, wondering “Who the heck were the Icarians,” and then chasing the footnote across the country, as history fanatics often do. It turned out that the Icarians were a pre-Marxian communist group who emigrated from France to the United States in 1848 and had colonies in various parts of the country as late as the 1890s. Once bitten by the footnote bug, there is no stopping. That endeavor led me to a wider interest in utopianism, especially in Missouri in the years before the Civil War. In 2007, something in the news caught my attention, and I was struck by the parallels between the war in Iraq and Missouri’s experience in the Civil War: an occupying army, a restive civilian population whose loyalties were hard to determine, a landscape in which separating enemy from ally was a constant problem, bands of freelance fighters who used the larger war as an excuse to carry out their own vendettas, and a pervasive atmosphere of uncertainty and violence, in which battle lines were never clear, neighbor betrayed neighbor, and casual encounters escalated to deadly violence in an instant.
All at once the connection between my somewhat recreational study of history and my passion for creative writing became clear. The past could give insights into the present, not simply in the “Those who cannot remember history are doomed to repeat it” sense, but in a more visceral way, engaging with the hopes, jealousies, good intentions, and broken promises of ordinary people caught up in terrible times.
That realization marked the moment when I began to think about my own history, and my home’s history, in a different way. My grandfather’s stories about life on the St. Francis River at the turn of the 20th century; my neighbor’s reminiscences of work in the lead mines and the log woods, and his tales of the great tie drives, with miles and miles of green railroad ties, freshly hacked from the forest, bound together and floated down the rivers to the railhead; these stories from my childhood took on life again.
The Ozarks that I had known as a child had not, as I should have realized even then, always been that way. The thick woods, mostly oak and hickory trees a couple of feet in diameter or less, had once been largely pine, much taller and larger. The rivers, clear but relatively shallow, had indeed carried immense volumes of cut lumber. The mound of earth on the hillside above our pasture, oddly soft underfoot, was the long-ago sawdust heap from a mill that had disappeared, along with the village that had grown up around it, leaving only the stray evidence of an overgrown lane, pieces of equipment rusted to the point of unrecognizability, and a hoard of logging tools in the barn.
History, it seemed, was all around me. It had always been, but I had simply never noticed. And it wasn’t confined to monuments and battlefields, but woven into the scenery.
It’s hard to make the claim that one must reach a certain age to appreciate history this way, but my own experience tells me that perspective is what counts in this enterprise, and perspective is a gift of aging. One becomes aware of the passing of time, and of how familiar sights – a street, a building, a landscape – shift over time to reflect changing ways of life, attitudes, and circumstances. Evidence of life-and-death struggle is concealed in plain sight. A sunken roadbed marks where a forced Indian removal passed. The incongruous name of a boat landing reveals the drowned town that once flourished where waterskiers now skim. You don’t have to get old to notice these things, but age brings an understanding of the impermanence of objects and lives, even ones that we might have imagined as children to be imperishable.
In my case, the enriched understanding of my own heritage as a fifth-generation Ozarker led to an endless fascination with the stories and conflicts of my region. As a child, my parents repeated a family tale about a great-great uncle who had been killed by a bushwhacker—a guerrilla fighter—during the Civil War. My curiosity about this tale was rewarded when I found a copy of the bushwhacker’s reminiscences, dictated to postwar interviewers, for sale in an annotated edition from the University of Arkansas Press. Like other participants in the Missouri-Kansas-Arkansas theater of the war, which was dominated by savage guerrilla fighting with no fixed lines of battle, he had sought to retell his participation in the fight by casting it in the mythical light of honor and revenge, and an eager audience of fellow reinterpreters took down his musings and published them for posterity. I discovered that my family’s story was true, although the motives for the killing remain in dispute. I picked up books like David Benac’s excellent Conflict in the Ozarks and Kenneth L. Smith’s Sawmill: The Story of Cutting the Last Great Virgin Forest East of the Rockies and discovered that my neighbor’s memories of tie drives, two-man crosscutting, and forests so tall and shady, and thus free from undergrowth, that a man could navigate them at a gallop, were not his memories alone, but shared experiences across the Ozarks and into the Ouachita Mountains as far west as Oklahoma.
This renewed sense of history as lived experience has led me to focus, in my novels, on how people’s conflicting belief systems change the way they live. “Be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming,” Emerson famously said, and the utopian idealists, determined slaveholders, love-maddened romantics, and money-loving capitalists of my novels demonstrate that truism again and again. We are living through history, making history, and becoming history ourselves. So when I turn to history in my novels, I see this simultaneous process of being and becoming repeated at the individual scale, relationship by relationship, person by person.
My earlier novels explored the Ozarks during the Civil War and Reconstruction years. My most recent book looks ahead to the later part of the century, when the Industrial Age came to the region in the form of large lumber and mining companies based in the nation’s urban centers. These companies moved into the deep Ozarks, built railroad lines into areas previously considered impossibly remote, and enlisted the local population in the extraction of the region’s natural resources. From the early 1880s through 1910, Missouri forests produced about half a billion board feet of lumber each year, a number that is as mind-bogglingly large as it sounds. The impact of this era reverberates to this day in the Ozarks, in ways that even longtime residents don’t always notice. For example, the large national forests in Missouri and Arkansas, some of the most extensive national forestland east of the Rockies, largely derive from cutover land that the big timber companies were unable to sell and didn’t want to pay taxes on. The environmentally calamitous cut-and-get-out philosophy of one era resulted in a surprising, and unintended, scenic and environmental benefit in another era.
In The Language of Trees, the quiet utopian community established in the 1850s, having survived the ravages of the war and the agonies of its aftermath, confronts a new challenge: what to do when the Modern Age arrives? The agrarian ideals that dominated the founding of America were giving way to the industrial organization of society, with time clocks, factory whistles, and all the social upheaval that accompanies it. From the contemporary perspective, we might see this transformation as a loss of innocence, and indeed it was. But for the inhabitants of Daybreak, the arrival of the American Lumber and Mining Company is a more complicated encounter. The new people who come to the valley, offering more money than Daybreak has ever seen before for land and labor, are not all the wicked capitalists of communal nightmare; in fact, some are quite charming and conflicted in their own motives. And not all the Communists want to remain Communist. Ultimately the villagers have to find a path that threads between love and self-advancement, between cherished ideals and new opportunities, between a changing present and a fraught future.
And thus history makes its way, neither the steady march of progress our forbears liked to imagine nor the decline from innocence it sometimes seems now, but instead a swift and twisting river that loops back on itself, disappears and reappears, and carries us along with it as we try to steer a clear route while being borne by the current. Come to think of it, history is a lot like an Ozark float stream itself. We think we understand it, we even think we can control it, but in the end it surprises us with destruction, or beauty, or both.
This essay first appear in BLOOM.