This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozarks Hills. It’s March in the Ozarks and elsewhere, coming in this time quite lion-like and full of itself, telling us if we think winter is finished, we should think again. It’s all bluster, we say, trying to downplay the impact of wind and weather on aging bones and bodies, flinching whenever anyone coughs nearby, hoping we’re not in the line of fire of another dread beastie like what we hear is going round. Having just spent the day riding up the eastern seaboard on an Amtrak commuter train, admiring the distinctly different scenery from that in the Ozarks, while trying not to note that Everybody was coughing — passengers, conductors, food service folks, the lot. I’m about one flinch away from deciding I’m probably doomed. Ain’t no way all those beasties missed me.
On the other hand, it was an easy and uneventful trip, and I passed the time alternately napping and deciphering the landscape, one of cut-over, second-growth scrub pine and slim, straight deciduous trees of unknown species, interspersed by the occasional birch grove, alder thicket and houses looking like they came from two or three centuries removed from this one. Beautiful country, but different. A lot of those people from “Off” came from places like this.
The economy is hurting here, with factories along the tracks far more characterized by broken windows than by full parking lots. Still, people smile and say hello more often than not, and I get the sense that most have begun to believe we’re all in this together. And that’s a good sign.
I’ve come here in search of a story, or rather several stories that I hope will be woven into a larger piece. It’s what I do these days. In order to continue to tell stories, you see, one has to occasionally go out and get some. This time I’ve come to the home of a friend from high school that I’ve known for some 50-odd years. And in between the stories I’m in search of, we’ve begun to reminisce. In this process, I find I’ve come up on one of those parts of Ozarks culture with which I’ve always struggled, and have always resolved, in a sort of offhand way, by just not thinking about them. That’s gotten easier since I’ve retired from teaching, but it never goes away. It merely subsides.
Sound editors may insert here – the sound of me opening a can of worms. So be it, I guess.
For what I’ve come upon in my visit with my old friend is a bare fact that faces me every day that I live in the Ozarks, and is the fact that keeps my friend from coming home. It’s called by the experts cultural isolation. It forced the people who first came to the Ozarks to learn to live from the land and make do with what we had. It created an incredible toughness and resilience in the people who is unequalled except in places on the planet that are just as hard, just as unforgiving, albeit perhaps just as beautiful. It made us suspicious of outsiders, who sometimes operated under a very different set of rules, and were, for the most part, looking to sell us snake oil or take other advantages. It made us rely on a common set of principles — look out for your own, take no guff, expect the worst from the government. Don’t take charity. Use it up. Wear it out. All that. All fine precepts. But it works against us when we need the skills and savvy to live in the larger world. Especially when we equate knowing what we know to knowing all we may need to know.
When I was a teacher, the first thing I had to teach students coming from the deep Ozarks and entering college for the first time was that they did not live in the larger world. They only watched it on television. And they tended to interpret that world though a lens that did not always give them a picture that was clear and complete. It lacked context. It lacked essential information. It lacked the ability to be set aside so that the larger world could be taken at face value, its worth and its truths respected, its elements and ways not superior, but equal to what they had learned at home. They had to learn that difference is not always bad; that other is just other, not wrong. And that information that contradicts what you think you know is not a lie, just another point of view. Those of us that have moved away into the larger world and then come home cannot help but be aware of how our own culture and our ways, especially when evaluating things that come in from outside, can hurt us, cause us to misunderstand, cause us to turn away from change and the things that help us grow into better, wiser human beings. That awareness is often painful, for we love our homeland as much as we see its weaknesses. We want to see change, but we mourn the loss of an essential innocence. Whether we have come here from the land of Off, or we are those who have left and then returned, changed, to our beloved Ozarks, when we bring our notions of change and growth and a newer, broader knowledge of what it means to understand the larger world, are we the snake in the garden of Eden, or just a little, helpful can of worms.