The Ozark Mountains, an ancient range that spans parts of Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas, calls to me every summer. Since my first trip with the environmental activist group Heartwood in 1998, I’ve been back to camp, kayak and canoe almost every year. Recently, I spent ten days in a cabin on the Jacks Fork River working on a new novel, parts of which are set in Shannon County, Missouri. The novel takes place in a future devastated by drought and other calamities, so as I hiked the areas my characters would hike, I practiced imagining the forests not as they are today, lush second-growth stands of oak, hickory, pine, cedar, sassafras and paw-paw, but rather as they would look after decades of drought and fire. After visiting a few mills nearby and pouring over old photographs from the early 1900’s, it was surprisingly easy to envision the denuded hillsides.
Until recently, Pioneer Forest was one of the largest privately-owned stands of forest in Missouri. Maybe the largest. I met the owner, Leo Drey, in the late 90’s at an Ozarks Area Community Congress retreat, where he gave a talk on selective thinning and sustainable forest management. Leo died last week, within days of my recent drive through his Pioneer Forest. A huge wooden sign on HWY 19 indicates a drivable self-guided tour, but the little wooden box for informational brochures was empty. Without the brochure, I tried to see the woods the way Tom Lee, my ecology professor at UNH, taught me so many years ago–mixed growth stands of hardwoods and conifers, leggy saplings on up to 100-year-old virgin pines grown after the timber boom of the last century.
I also imagined I was seeing the Ozarks through the eyes of several friends who have never been there. I searched the gravel bars for rocks to send them, “holy” rocks to make into friendship necklaces and ancient stones filled with fossils from when the Ozarks were under an ancient sea. One of those friends is black. I kept thinking, “Oh, she’d love this river, she’d love this trail, her kids could play here, swim here.” But then, I’d see a Confederate flag hanging from a flagpole attached to a mobile home, another nestled under the shade of oak trees in the yard of a brick house just off a city square. And I’d wonder, would she be welcome here?
I’ve been reading Joseph Boyden‘s books lately. He writes about indigenous people in Canada and the US. Part of my new novel is set near East St. Louis, at Cahokia Mounds. Indigenous people are on my mind a lot lately. In Eminence, Missouri, the plaque near the courthouse explaining the history of Shannon County says something about how the Osage Indians ceded the land in 1808. They gave it up because they were forced to, I’m sure, though I haven’t read all the history yet. One of the theories about the mound builders at Cahokia is that, after years of famine, some of the survivors scattered west, to the Ozarks. As I traveled the ancient mountains and stream beds last week, I wondered what those displaced mound builders would be seeing if they were walking alongside me. What would they make of the new “boulder field” near Johnson’s Shut-Ins, the damage caused by the breech of the Ameren UE reservoir atop Tom Sauk Mountain?
The descent into the Ozarks – it is actually a “dissected plateau” – doesn’t feel real to me until exiting I44 onto HWY 8 and leaving the bigger, flatter roads behind. There’s a soundtrack that goes along with the descent. First, Crash Test Dummies, God Shuffled His Feet. The entire cd. Then From Hay to Zzzzzz, Play Time (disc 1), by Big Smith. I skip the kids singing. And when the last song, “Paw Paw Patch Revisited,” plays, we’re there. Here’s a live version of “There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea.” Enjoy!