Come Sit a Spell

Howdy. I suppose you’re wondering why I called you here today. I’ve been singing, writing and telling stories about these Ozarks hills for a very long time, collecting pieces of the culture, music, and always poignant, sometimes hilarious and often inexplicable stories that, trust me, are probably not available on reality TV. I have been saving them for you here, and you can stop by any time for a laugh, a story, a tune, and some food for thought. Come back soon, and come hungry.

For booking information click here.

Listen to Marideth’s monthly radio show, These Ozark Hills, on KSMU here.

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Booking information, contact

Sarah Denton
moonmooring@yahoo.com

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Giving Thanks

securedownload-1_2This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozark Hills. I always feel when I come to the ragged end of the year that I’ve been in a year-long race, and will just barely make it to the finish. There is always too much to do, and at my age, the time goes whizzing by until sometimes I mistake the second-hand for the hour hand on the clock. This year has had its share of ups and downs for everyone, but it’s also had its blessings, and I’m thankful for them  as well.

Chief among the blessings here at the Home Place is my long but welcome recovery from cancer treatment. I am getting stronger, smarter (at least sometimes) and have been able to complete some long-held goals as well as start some new and very challenging projects. Of course I’m sure that before I finish I will have to say a few last words over the garden. One would think I’d said enough last month, and the gardening year is very much behind us. But with Thanksgiving just past, recent events connected to the garden’s abundance still get a big place on my list of things to be Thankful for. And I’ll tell you why. But I really should start at the top of the list.

Certainly I am grateful for the longevity of old friends and relatives and the opportunities I have had in the recent weeks to celebrate with them our continuing residence on planet earth. For instance, this weekend past I journeyed over west where groups of them were gathered, and partook of the holiday cheer, the laden tables, the conversations, the loving friendships. It was a wonderful and heart-filling time.

But before that, early in November but too late for November’s episode, I had an experience I want to share with you, and another reason for Thanksgiving. I drove down to Mammoth Spring, Ark, on a special errand. First, I slipped down back streets and over hills to an old cemetery, where I met with a group of local historians and Civil War buffs to celebrate the placing of a new commemorative stone on the grave of a woman known locally as Granny Blue. She’d had other names that passed, along with the husbands who gave them, into history. The man named Blue was the last. But the story was all hers. Alone on her farm just east of Mammoth Spring, on the Missouri-Arkansas line, in the midst of the fighting between north and south, a sad and terrible thing occurred. A skirmish, as it was called, resulted in the deaths of seven young men, Confederate soldiers, in her upper field. Custom and Union law dictated that they should simply lay where they had fallen. But it was such a symbol of disrespect for the fallen that Granny Blue simply couldn’t abide it. So there, in the cold of early winter, she went, along with her hired hands and a couple of slaves who volunteered, and they dug into the rocky soil seven lonely graves, and they put those young men to rest. Local history has it that there were many more out in the bleak woods. But these seven, though their names are not recorded, got a burial – one that was never remarked upon and had no marker but the one created by Nature as the area was never again planted or mowed. Attending the ceremony, to my surprise, was long-time friend and Oregon County icon Dorothy Ellis, who offered me in to her home between ceremonies for a cool drink and a bite of cake, and who socked me on the arm and said as I was leaving, “We need to visit more. And soon! I’m 90.” Hard to believe. In her heyday as Oregon County Presiding Commissioner, the diminutive Dorothy engineered the establishment of the Irish Wilderness as a state-protected space. Also on hand was retired Missouri State Trooper Lou Wehmer, who produced the reissued and annotated version of Col. William Monk’s controversial Civil War memoir. I was in good company all around.

After the short ceremony at Granny Blue’s grave, those gathered, including her family members come from their home near Bakersfield, California, traveled back to the farm and were joined by the farm’s owners, who have preserved the overgrown site as best they could. The only markers there in the past were the seven sunken rectangles, all in a row, in a copse of trees that had grown, been cut and grown again, out in the middle of a hayfield. Even in the brisk wind and clear sunshine it was a sad and lonely place. But now a new stone stood among them, waiting to be unveiled. And we gathered and said words, and read proclamations and a minister blessed us, and them. And I sang my favorite sad song, whose chorus asks “Who will watch the home place, when I am gone from here.”

And there in the midst of the ceremony, in my mind’s eye, those unbearably young, lean-limbed, hungry and lost boys came up out of their narrow fallen-in holes, and sat on the edges, some stretching, others with a leg up and resting their arms on their knee, and all smiling, highly amused at this sudden and long unexpected recognition. They were grinning and nodding to one another, as if to say, “Would you look at this. Isn’t this something.” And the day was, for me, suddenly brighter and softer and harder to bear. And it came to me then that while griefs last long and are too easily called to mind, Joy is fleeting, and must be seized and swallowed whole, before it escapes.

But mindful of history and the difference between ingrained rituals that have lost their meaning and those real events long remembered and deserving celebration, I spent the actual Thanksgiving Day alone with my dog and a grocery deli takeout dinner, counting my blessings. And among them were this summer’s canned green beans, golden potatoes from my home-grown sweets and Irish cobblers, and the last fresh, ripe scattering of tomatoes from the kitchen counter, breaded with slices of whole wheat and seasoned with butter, salt, pepper and just a dab of sugar. It was lovely and not lonely at all, surrounded as I was by all those memories close by and far in the past. It made the weekend trip all the sweeter. So many gifts we are given, and almost too much gratitude to hold.This is Marideth Sisco, offering holiday blessings to all my neighbors and friends far and near, and a heartfelt thanks for the many gifts of life in These Ozark Hills.

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Fall Harvest

IMG_4508As fall commences with still no frost, the air becomes luminous from the changing colors, and the hills themselves become models for new old works by Constable. He must have done all his painting in October.

The garden is a wreck with still some hidden treasures. I may dig potatoes today, both Irish and sweet – the Irish called German, oddly, and Butterball for cause. The sweets, in homage to their status as the pinnacle of southern yams, are called Beauregard.

Beside and between, the peppers are at their peak, the okra offers a last small feast, and the experimental crowder peas are offing up their last. The day before frost, the last green tomatoes will be harvested and the ingredients for venison-green tomato mincemeat canned.

The two bushels of Stayman Winesap apples (purchased as seconds for $7) have become three pints of applesauce and 10 jars of apple butter. Autumn in the Ozarks never fails to remind me of why I live here. Winter, now, that’s another story, one that reminds me I have to order my winter’s firewood.

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A FIT OF APPLES 

securedownload-1_2This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozark Hills. You know, it’s a funny thing, but even though I always know this little talk is coming, I’m never sure what it is I’ll talk about until I sit down to do it. I may have plans for a talk. But I never know for sure.

For instance, Here it is October, I was all set to wax eloquently on the joys of life in the late garden, and how there is more than one official harvest season in this long, lazy Ozarks fall, and I had a few things to say about where the Cross-Quarter holiday Lammas got its name – But all that fell apart, when I had a sudden fit of apples. To understand how this happened, it would be helpful to know that through a series of missteps, I missed out on a great number of opportunities to acquire good, healthy, get yuh through the wintertime summer fruits. I mean sure, apples have always been my mainstay, but where would I be without, for instance, strawberries, cherries, blackberries, blueberries, dewberries, peaches, pears, plums and such.

You can probably figure by now that I like my summer fruits, in great profusion and diversity. But this year, just like in that dreadful year a few years back when a late and deadly freeze wiped out the entire fruit harvest, my timing was off, and I was left almost totally without.

Arkansas Black

Arkansas Black

Now to be fair, I have to admit that there was one kind soul, or probably two, since his wife and he are a team and they’re both aware of my fruit jones, who took pity on me and brought by a sacked up bushel or more of pears, just so I’d have some to put up. Trouble was, and Thanks be to George and Patty, these were some kind of domestic pear, a Seckel, maybe, small and with a blush on the side – and I ate em. Nearly all of em. Sarah, who works for me, took some home to can, but she ate hers too. I ended up with a meager seven jars of canned pears, and no pear honey. After missing out on the strawberries and blueberries, and having accidentally torched my tame blackberry canes when burning off the garden in early spring, and failing to track down any peaches at all, well, my behavior concerning those pears was profligate at best. In a season where the opportunities to stock up on summer fruits had dwindled so terribly … And did I tell you I was suffering a summer cold when the wild plums came in, and I didn’t get a single one? The land around my little home, out here on Burnham prairie, is ideal for fruit orchards, and Burnham was once famous for its peaches. But I am renting now, and apples take two to three years to bear. It’s just not practical.

But speaking of apples. I was sitting in my reading chair, moping, a few nights back, and thinking about the unhappy void in my otherwise full and happy larder, when I suddenly remembered the name of an orchard owner I’d known of many years ago, when they advertised in the West Plains Quill, where I spent my newshound years. It was a name I hadn’t heard in years, and I’d assumed they’d retired or otherwise had stopped orcharding, since I’d not seen their ads anywhere. I sat up in my chair and said “Poppitz.’ and startled the dog. It’s habits like these that make me glad I live alone. There’s just generally less to explain. But I went to the phone book, ascertained there was still a Poppitz living near Willow Springs, and wrote down the number. Next morning I called. And at mid-afternoon, I got a return call.

“Of course we have apples, Marideth,” she intoned, and gave me directions to the orchard. I went, and ended up with a half-bushel of a  Golden Delicious hybrid called Mutsu and two bushels of windfall Stayman Winesaps, one of the all-time best applesauce apples ever grown. We chatted a bit, and I told her of my season long fruit deficit, and she said, “We had peaches. You should have come by.”

I told her I thought they’d retired, since I didn’t see any advertising.

“We have all the customers we need, so we don’t need to advertise. I’ll put you on the list, and call you next year when they come in.”

I felt very cozy about that. It felt like being included in the tribe. I sighed and said I was grateful to at least have some sauce apples. The Goldens would be good, too, but, I confessed, as an eating apple, I really preferred Jonathans, although Jonagold was a close second.

“Well,” she said, “you know Frank Coleman has some Jonagolds, I’m almost sure. He lives over by Hutton Valley.”

So do I, I said, and after hastily penning a check to pay for my wine saps, headed east, toward home, but with a little jog out of the way, out past Hutton Valley to see what Frank Coleman had. He had Jonagolds, and I bought a half-bushel. Then I asked about some rather large, unusual apples he’d just brought in. They looked dusty and had a distinctive rosy blush. “They’re called Splendor, and they’re from New Zealand. I don’t think anyone else in Missouri has them.”

“They sound special,” I said, probably sounding sarcastic. Instead of answering, he handed me one and I took a bite.

“How much,” I said, and he told me, and I took another bite and ordered another half bushel. Now I have 4 bushels of 4 different apples. While he was packing them up, he mentioned that another customer had been by that day and had taken several bushels home with her. He thought it was funny, because she’d originally come after pears.

“You have pears?” I stammered. He did. I came home with four bushels of apples and a half bushel of pears, this time a lovely little variety called Magness. Now these ones are going into jars, by golly, along with a great mess of winesap applesauce and possibly some apple butter, as I work through the consequences of my major apple fit. I did mention I live alone, didn’t I? So just picture me, if you will, out here on the prairie east of the old antique peach orchard town of Burnham, peeling apples under a waxing moon for a very long time, and smiling big apple smiles. If you were to swing by, I might share with you an apple or two. These dusty rose New Zealanders are pretty tasty. The pears, of course, are all mine. This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozarks Hills, asking what are you harvesting in this Ozarks autumn.

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Camp Sister Spirit

securedownload-1_2Recently I was asked by the feminist journal “Sinister Wisdom” to write a small piece on what had become of the women’s community  that called itself Camp Sister Spirit. I had known the founders for years, and had some knowledge of what happened. Here was my response:

I first came to Sister Spirit, just east of Hattiesburg, Mississippi in 1995, at the end of a research trip I’d taken farther south. But I’d met the Hensons way earlier when they rolled into the Midwest Wimmin’s Festival calling themselves “The Dixie Dykes”. They’d brought their little crafts booth and were fundraising, they said, to try to put together a feminist bookstore in Gulfport, Mississippi. They were an energetic, round-cheeked pair with an almost evangelical fervor for their work – to educate and bring the ideals of feminism to the women of the south.

By the time we saw them the next year, they’d gotten involved with Robin Tyler, who was then promoting the Southern Women’s Music and Comedy Festival in north Georgia, and who was encouraging their efforts. They’d also tangled with the folks at RhythmFest, another southern festival, who evidently saw their efforts as direct competition and had attempted some half-hearted ‘This town ain’t big enough …’ swaggering. But the Hensons, who said the south was big enough for everybody, explained they had different aims. The other festivals were run as businesses and out to make a profit. Sister Spirit, they explained, aimed to become a feminist adult education center.They wanted, they said, to change women’s lives.They held festivals for some years in various locations and finally, with the help of financing from some women of means in the New Orleans area, managed to buy a scrubby little run-down farm in Jones County where the illiteracy rate among women was somewhere above 30% and women, white or black, were at the bottom of the heap.

They had their share of friction among their own when Wanda, blue collar daughter of Pentecostals, tangled with white collar urban “lipstick” lesbians who couldn’t quite see her as being in the same pool. She was uppity, obstinate and opinionated – and absolutely driven to bring her suffering, closeted sisters up out of the pit. With equally loving and hot-tempered agitator Brenda by her side, she couldn’t be stopped.

Mar Camp Sister Spirit

L to R; Brenda Henson, Wanda Henson, Marideth Sisco

Then one of the camp’s newsletters, which credited the success of the fledgling venture to “good lesbian energy” got into the hands of a nearby Baptist Church, and the fight was on. Gunshots in the night. Dead pets. Nails in the driveway, and Brenda’s car run off the rural road. A granddaughter coming up to visit prompted a rumor that these evil Lesbians were now stealing area children. It was ugly. They put out a call for reinforcements, and women from all walks and all parts of the country came. But in many cases, the ones who responded were no more equipped for life under siege than those already there. Wanda, who was on disability after a fall at work had injured her back and hip, had to have a stern talk with her son, Arthur, telling him, “if they come for us you’ll have to help me, because I can’t run.” When I heard of the situation, I begged them to pull out, to come up to Missouri and lay low until things settled down. It wasn’t Wanda’s style. Instead, she called Oprah and dared the other side to meet her there. They did. That too, was ugly. The best line of the day was when the Baptist minister tried to explain to Oprah that she just didn’t understand the ways of Mississippians. “I was born in Mississippi,” Oprah returned in a cold voice. “I understand it just fine.”

But time went on, and just what the Baptists feared happened. Over time, people got to know them, and realized they were just people. And the perception in the community of Camp Sister Spirit began to change. But by then Wanda was exhausted and in debt, and Brenda had cancer. They stepped aside and let others carry on. And those others passed it to others, with each generation of leadership less able, and those gone before still trying to heal. There’s no question they made their place in Ovett, Mississippi. The proof of that came when Hurricane Katrina hit the poverty-stricken community. Women, mostly lesbians from all across the country who had visited there in earlier times, loaded their trucks with chainsaws, non-perishable foods and dollars, and came to help. A few days later, a note appeared on the door of the local firehouse. “We’ve been up too many nights and we’ve got to get some sleep. If you need anything, go on down to the camp. The girls will take care of you.”

Folks at the general store now refer to that original outraged Baptist as “that little Hitler.” They’re over it.

But the land is now idle, the buildings empty. Brenda passed in 2008. Wanda opened her little medical clinic down on the coast and she treats victims of the Deepwater Horizon spill. It might be considered a failure, overall. Except everyone who set foot on that little patch of earth in the Mississippi pine belt was changed by it, challenged to show their best, and worst, and depths of character and courage they would not have imagined themselves to possess. I don’t think any of them saw themselves as having engaged in any vital part of the history of Civil Rights. But the women of color over in Hattiesburg, I’ll wager, would beg to differ. We saw it in their eyes in the checkout line in the grocery stores, where we got accustomed to people who had read the local paper and its stories of  “that business over in Ovett” We expected they would move away from us and steer their children clear so nothing of our difference would rub off. The clerks, on the other hand, would break into wide smiles and whisper softly and so their mouths moved hardly at all, and say “Come on, girl, come on up, honey, we’re with you.” What we took away from that experience humbled us.  We are none of us the same. It is too soon to know whether that small encampment in the Pine Belt will just fade quietly into the history of Jones County or will become known as the “Stonewall of the South.”  What we know is that we who were there were changed fundamentally.

Marideth Sisco

links of interest;
Phyllis Chesler speaks out
About Camp Sister Spirit, YouTube video
A brief history

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Blackberry Winter Band at Shawnee Bluff Winery

Lake Arts

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These Ozark Hills – September 5, 2014

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This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozarks Hills, asking:
How big is a garden? A silly and unanswerable question, and sounds like those old jabberwocky jokes that passed through in the 60s, like “what’s the difference between a duck? Answer: One leg’s both the same. There is either no answer, no answer that makes any sense, or “it depends.” Right now most folks passing through my patch would say it’s way too weedy, way too late, way too big , etc. but if they looked instead into my pantry, my freezer and the stack of filled baskets of assorted veggie  maybe slaying around, they’d say it’s just about right.
It’s not, really. It’d be just right if I was forty, or even 60, and hadn’t been doing major physical adjustments  such as dealing with heart trouble (twice), cancer (twice) and diabetes throughout. Oh, and did I say I’m 71?  So I guess since it’s my garden, it’s my call. And I’m calling it way too big for any sane person at the far end of her prime to tackle. And yet I can’t find a single place to downsize.
I will admit that I wasn’t strong enough at the beginning, and that due to my old truck, Tonto, insisting on substantial repairs before agreeing to haul any more cardboard for weed control, and  that it took some lengthy time to finally shake free mostly from that overhanging cloud of impending mortality that one always has to deal with after a scary illness, at least until one  remembers that the garden will fix most of that.
But on the other hand, there was all that lovely rain early on. And even though I don’t own the place I’m living on, I am at least temporarily in possession of that most sacred of circumstances, at least in the Ozarks. My garden is a virtually rock-free patch of earth.
I understand it was heavily gardened more than a decade ago, obviously by one of those diligent sorts who took rock removal seriously. And it made me sad last year to begin anew there, because it was almost entirely infested with crabgrass. But then I found that, unlike the dread Bermuda grass, crabgrass can be dug up and or tilled up, and the remaining runners, when they resprout, can be pulled up. And, most importantly, it can be smothered with cardboard.
So may I say, with some pride attached, that even though it’s way too big and way too weedy, this is the best garden I have ever had. And I’ve had a few. There was that one I inherited from some migrant workers in the Livermore valley of California, that consisted of simply a couple ruts left from a large truck’s tires into which a small dose of irrigation water had been diverted, and some tomato, pepper, cilantro and squash seed had been randomly tossed. That was back in April or so of that year I think. When I arrived in October, it was a giant tangle of salsa ingredients. I took from that the notion that I too could be a casual success in that perfect climate.
Then I moved over near the coast, planted a garden in a little ready-made bed in a sunny spot in my front yard. That was in May, after which I watched the fog go in and out and every single plant either mold or maintain a fragile paralysis until October, when the fog stayed out and I had tomatoes for a couple weeks, until the endless winter rains began. So I moved to Utah, where there are grown amazing fruits and vegetables. I managed to borrow a garden spot there, waited until Memorial day to put in the tomatoes and peppers, in case of a late frost. And four days later it snowed four inches. It was explained to me later that Utah actually has only two seasons – winter and July. It eventually offered up a few tomatoes and peppers, some odds and ends of greens, and some wonderful winter squashes. Except by then I had moved, and someone else ate them.
But this garden, my garden this year, is something else altogether. Enough sun, few enough rocks, long history of soil amendments, and an abundance of the fruits and greens of the earth, from tomatoes to spuds and on to baskets of cukes, okra, onions and green beans/ Nature’s bounty as any old-timer will tell you, especially one who’s traveled some, is at its all time perfection when grown in Ozarks soil. When the generation before mine moved to California, they sent home generous boxes filled with dates and English walnuts, and letter after letter that told of California’s huge, beautiful and taste-free tomatoes. And giant crates of perfect, giant strawberries that were equally tasteless. There they were in that fabulous climate, not bothering with a garden because they wouldn’t be interested in the results. It’s probably why some of us chose to stay home when the chance came to seek our fortune in the golden west. But that wouldn’t be me. I was one of those in that other bunch, who went out to make their fortune, learned and grew and invested heavily in the fascination of multicultural arts, cultures, and odd edibles like artichokes, avocados and loquats. But the kind of fortune I was seeking, I discovered, only existed in dreams, and that the real fortune came when I wearied of fascination and I made enough money to come home. This is a very blissed-out Marideth Sisco, engulfed in the sweet tastes of the Ozarks harvest, and rejoicing daily in the knowledge that my way too big and too weedy Ozarks garden this year is, as my gardening family would say, just durn near perfect.
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securedownload-1_2Howdy, or as Riders in the Sky would say, Howdy, Buckaroos and Buckarettes. Important announcement, so Listen Up. On September 13, I will be hanging out with a different bunch of folks in Jefferson City, and we all want you to join us there. Actually, they’re not really different. Just really, really focused. The Citizen Climate Lobby (CCL) is hosting a regional meeting for interested folks throughout Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and southern Illinois. And I get to offer some commentary during the process.

In case you just said “Who, What or Why”, the CCL is a national/international group of citizen volunteers working to repay our (worst) Congress (in history) to pass a revenue-neutral carbon fee and dividend to address some of the worst, and ironically some of the easiest fixed, excesses in climate changing behaviors [activities?].   Simply put, it is a simple and elegant way to steer us away from fossil fuels through a graduated fee attached to the use of carbon emitting fuels, and collected at the point of extraction or import.  The dividends will then be returned to every household in the U.S. to offset the slight increases in fuel costs passed on to consumers. The funds can also be used to purchase more fuel-efficient vehicles or renewables, and improve overall energy efficiency.

Not so simple, I admit. But if you suspect this is a bunch of dreamers, you should know their members include Nobel laureate economists, climate activist Bill McKibben, and politicians from both parties. Two carbon fee bills were introduced in Congress this year.

The folks coming to address the Jefferson City meeting will include Mark Reynolds, CCL Executive Director, and Madeleine Para, CCL Program Director, as well as old hillbilly me – helping to put these lofty and extremely important ideas into common language and scale, addressing what these ideas might mean on a personal level, and how we might want to support their efforts. This is not a pie-in-the-sky notion. A lot of work and planning has gone into determining what’s do-able and practical, and how it can get passed into law. The cost for the meeting, entertainment, and a gourmet vegan dinner is $35 but scholarships (and some free lodging) are available if you sign up now.

For more information, go to the event website. (https://donate.citizensclimateeducationcorp.org/events/detail?eid=34912)

(And incidentally, in case you’re just coming to see me, I will also have CDs, books, and a newly released 4-CD spoken word collection of my last five years of radio shows for sale.) Join us for a lively discussion and come away heartened by the possibilities created by the good efforts of these good folks.

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