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This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozark Hills. I had only about one toe in the Ozarks this past weekend while I and some companions visited friends and family up near Columbia. Our aim was to reconnect with a young woman we’d known almost since birth, had sometimes helped raise and had stayed behind as she went on her way into adulthood. She’s in her mid-thirties now and is bright, confident and remarkably self-aware.
Her closer family, in welcoming these former adjunct mothers, planned some small outings to entertain us and show us the area where they lived. And they did. But one of them in planning the outings, happened on some fellows I had met earlier, in other circumstances, and it was here our voyage veered away from its original intent and headed us off into the cosmos. Really. It was a good reminder of how all things connect, whether or not we see the connection.
My story begins much earlier, when I was invited to speak at a meeting of the Missouri Master Naturalists at their state gathering up at Lake of the Ozarks. At that meeting I met a woman who thought I’d be a good speaker at another gathering, this one of Missouri River Relief, an organization that has taken on the task of tidying up the state’s big rivers.
So I went, met them at St. Joseph, told them a story or two, and marveled at both their success and their stamina, for they had gone out that morning with several boatloads of volunteers with the temperature on the river a scant 26 degrees, and filled two giant dumpsters with everything from tires and mattresses to junked cars and waaay too many formerly owned diapers from that cold river. It’s what they do. They organize all year gathering volunteers and support for six “major” cleanups, and spend more of their own energy and knowledge in supervising other groups and organizations in cleaning smaller streams. That night, after the first day of the cleanup and the talk, they sat me down at a campfire beside the river and told me the story of that place.
We were sitting within a stone’s throw of the very spot where pioneers headed west crossed the Missouri River and drove their wagons right off the map, led by a guide who simply followed a track through the grass that would take them through Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and all the way to Oregon, if they lived.Whether they did or not, no one they left behind would ever know.
It was on this spot, they told me, that someone among a band of settlers coming from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia penned a longing lament that became a popular song of the times, called simply Shenandoah.
“Wait a minute,” I said, for I knew the song. “What’s with the Indian chief and his daughter and all that business?”
They explained, saying the song had become so popular among the flatboaters and other rivermen that it had traveled to St. Louis, then to New Orleans and across the Big Pond to England, where people had never heard of Shenandoah, nor did they know what it was. They changed and added to the words until it made sense to them, and then they sent it back to us. The songwriter had been singing to the river, not to an Indian chief. I thought about that all night, and by morning, had put the words back to where I thought they might belong.
And last weekend, in the dusk dimly lit by the eclipsing moon, and with considerable help for these old bones, I and a quartet of companions boarded the giant 24-foot-long jon boat of the River Relief and headed upriver from Cooper’s Landing, toward St. Joe, to wait for the clouds to part so we could view the rare and elusive total eclipse of the supermoon. After an hour or two drifting down and motoring back up again, the clouds opened into a wide bowl of sky, and there she was, a dark, rusty eye, just beginning to open in a vast field of stars made visible by the earth’s shadow cast on her face. We howled at her. Dogs and coyotes some distance onshore howled back. I sang the song. Then we sat in the profound darkness as it slowly lightened, listening to the water’s song, marveling at our own insignificance in a vast, wondrous, living universe in which we are all merely along for the ride.
It’s just a suggestion, but if you have a Christmas list or are looking for activities and organizations worthy of a small endowment, consider adding to your list as I am to mine the river keepers of Missouri River Relief, who work so hard and are so generous of spirit, who chose to share with us this gift, a blessing beyond measure that they could just as easily have kept to themselves. This is Marideth Sisco, from the edge of the Ozarks, on the edge of a small and fragile planet, at a rare, brief moment in time and space when it is granted the power to darken the moon, and we its tiny creatures the eyes to see it.
This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozark Hills. We here in the hills have been asked recently to do what most of the folks routinely have had to do in other parts of the world, that is, to adapt gracefully and with some ingenuity to enormous changes in our environment. We’ve gotten off easy so far, most of us. Grace and ingenuity can be easily seen demonstrated by south sea islanders who voted recently to just disband their country and move elsewhere when rising sea levels were literally washing the ground from beneath their feet. They simply declared their country to no longer exist, and left to cast their fates to whatever wind would take them to another, safer land. And they did it in the nick of time, because there was barely enough dry land on their land for them to stand while voting. In other places, lines of refugees more than a mile in length flee a combination of war and famine, not chanting let us in or give us jobs, but simply We are human. We are human.
Here in the Ozarks, it’s another story, with farmers struggling against ongoing, too ample rain that makes grass grow tall, but not enough dry days to cut and cure it. My farmer landlord has bided his time, glad he didn’t fertilize those bottom fields too heavily, and waited for August to, well, act like August. Finally this morning, with August having turned the corner into September, he drove up outside, unhooked the brush hog and attached the haybine behind his tractor.
“I guess I’ve gotta go cut hay,” he said. “I don’t need it, but it’d be a shame to see it go to waste.”
Seldom heard words in the Ozarks, about a seldom-seen act – a second cutting, in September, due to excess hay in the field. An uncommon occurrence here and due, apparently, to a too-active Pacific El Nino.
Trouble is, now the weather gurus have posted their finding of a significant risk that the one approaching our western coast and due to start demonstrating its power sometime this winter will be even bigger and reach even farther east. So about the time we finish dealing with overgrown pastures and too much hay, we can expect snow, heavy snow and then more snow. After reading about that I put a post on my Facebook page that said I would soon be moving more wood closer to the basement door and hence within easy reach of the furnace. Whatever generation we live in and however our climate is behaving, we have learned the hard lesson that change is inevitable and that whatever we expect is subject to change. The trick is, and always has been, to be flexible enough to adapt. I remember, for instance, the drouth in the early 90s that was only abated when hay from western states started arriving by the train-load and even the prisoners in County Jail volunteered to load the hay from railcar to pickup truck to save starving livestock. I’m so old I remember a similar, and worse, time in the mid-1950s when such largesse was not available, and some farmers couldn’t even afford gas to drive their suffering livestock to market, nor get a decent enough price to drive home, and so shot some cattle to end their suffering, in hopes the rest would have enough to stay alive.
Those times are awful enough that we hope never to repeat them. One would hope such experiences would teach us to be frugal instead of profligate with our resources. To care for what we have. And to be generous with our neighbors who have it worse than we do. For that is the way of the Ozarks in which I grew up.
But the world changes. And so, too, do we. Would that we could build another kind of pipeline, to send our excess water to desperate farmers in California who have provided us with a vast bounty of fresh food these many decades but are having to resort to watering crops with waste water from the oil fields just to keep crops alive. Even if they succeed, will we want to eat them?
And here in the country’s middle, where the breadbasket still thrives, albeit with its own problems of overgrowth and too much rain, we do not think of how to help others, and respond to the news of hunger at home and abroad with a whining stinginess that suggests such others outside our own enclaves should just fend for themselves. One would think Katrina had cured us of the “sink or swim” doctrine of social progress. Time will tell. For a new El Nino, when it strikes California, will bring heavy rains to a country virtually devoid of vegetation. The water will have nothing to stop it, and it has the potential to bring a level of devastation more vast than we can imagine. I lived in California, in the mountains of the central coast in a normal rainy season and saw how a single mudslide could bring whole communities to a halt for days, sometimes weeks. How much worse will it be this time? And what do you suppose a head of lettuce will cost come February.
So the world has changed, and it is my hope, as one who has lived here almost three quarters of a century, that we will elect, in trying times now and to come, to remember that we are part of a larger community, a larger family, and will turn our thoughts and our doors toward a more open way with our neighbors near and far. Hard times do not exist apart from us, even if we do not experience them directly. They are happening to our family, whose most urgent cry is likely to be we are human. We are human. This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozark Hills.
At my publishing blog <yarnspinnerpress.wordpress.com> you can now find Chapter One of World’s End, Book One of the Ozarkia series. Don’t miss it.
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This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozark Hills. Well, spring has come in the door, fitfully and uncertain, like a child who has done something probably bad, and doesn’t know if you know it yet. A warm day or two and then a burst of snow, and another. Rain maybe, but where it will fall too much or too little no one knows. Mother Nature is nothing if not fickle. Just like a woman, we say. Well, I’d like to say a little more about that.
We’re also just coming out the end of Women’s History month, with names handed around – Alice Paul, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams – that we only hear once a year and can only sometimes remember what they were famous for. They did something. We think it was important. If we’ve studied history beyond the headlines we know that women have always been far more influential than was ever acknowledged. Did you know that when they held the big celebration in the 40s about economic successes of the new deal, the women who had been instrumental in that change were not allowed in the photograph. Actually one did sneak in at the side, but they cropped her out. When the leaders of the Civil Rights movement in the 60s rejoiced up on the stage at the March on Washington, the leaders who were women were not allowed on the stage. And today women’s wages are still 77 cents on a man’s dollar for the same work, and men are still trying to decide if women can be trusted with their own bodies.
But that whole line of thought set me to thinking about all the women in my Ozarks life, and probably yours. We had our stars, our Missouri Poet Laureate Mary Elizabeth Mankey, and the inimitable May Kennedy McCord, host of the long time favorite Ozarks Radio show “Hillbilly Heartbeats”.
But there were others in these hills who were not famous except in their own families who just went about their business, did what they could and what they must, and never counted the cost. Never demanded that others ante up, do their part, give them their fair share, or a seat at the table. They were too busy fixing dinner, planting the garden, keeping up with the laundry.
One of my most vivid memories of childhood was when my father came home early from work on a very hot summer afternoon. My mother was on the little utility porch in back, ironing. Because it was a secluded spot and such a hot job, she was ironing in her underwear. He thought she heard him come in. She didn’t. So when he stepped onto the porch and put his hand on her shoulder, she, in all her five foot one inch strength, brought her fist up from somewhere close to the floor, and decked him. They were both very surprised. And he looked very warily at her for a good long time afterward.
She likely learned this from father, just like her sister, my aunt Juanita.It was understood in our family, you just didn’t trifle with Juanita. She wasn’t a mean person, far from it. No kinder little plump pretty lady you would never encounter. But she had, lets just say, an enhanced sense of fairness. She was never cruel to anyone. But if you messed with her or anyone in her family, she could be very, very fair.
One legendary story about her came about when my cousin and her husband separated, and they had a child together, about two years old at the time. My cousin, her mother, and Aunt Juanita, her sister, had driven up to Monett, where a brand new Dairy Queen franchise had just opened. They were taking the baby and themselves on an outing to get an ice cream. They’d just arrived when the ex-husband pulled up alongside and asked to see his little son. My cousin handed him out, whereupon the ex-husband grabbed him, headed for his car and announced “you’ll never see him again.” A garden variety Ozarks domestic drama, even in those days. Well, they all boiled out of the car, the baby’s mother screaming, her mother screaming, trying to get the baby back without hurting him. They managed to pin the father against his car. But he was too strong for them, and it seemed all was lost. But then little Juanita ran around the car, climbed up on its roof, who knows how, and shinnied across. Then she put her index finger in the corner of his mouth and with all her strength yanked his head all the way around to face her. Then she leaned down, and said, calmly and gently, “Mo, you need to let the baby go or I’m going to have to kill you.” Well, of course, he let the baby go, whereupon she retrieved her finger and got down off his car. And they all went about their business, had their ice cream and went home. As you can imagine, the element of surprise figured greatly in the outcome of this story. But it was mostly my aunt Juanita.
I am told that, having raised a family of five girls and one boy, my grandparents worried about their daughters’ safety. Then my uncle Roy was seriously injured trying to hop a freight train coming back from the Oklahoma broom corn harvest. So my grandfather was even more concerned, and he sat each of the girls down and had a talk with them. He told them to pay attention, to not put themselves at risk, and never, ever start a fight. But, he said, if a fight came to them, they would have to win it at any cost. My mother recounted his talk with her, when she, the smallest of them all, said, “but what if the other person is bigger.” Pick up a rock, he said. And that was that. Every one of the Gentry girls grew up fiercely independent, even though they all followed the standards of the time, married, had kids, trained them all, husbands included, in respectable behavior and good values, and fiercely defended their separate broods. Aunt Juanita never had children. She had everyone else’s.
When her sister Neva’s husband was killed in a car crash, leaving her with a five-year-old, Juanita helped raise him. When my parents died, she finished raising me, and that took a very long time. She never faltered. She never lost faith in me no matter how scattered my wanderings or how wrong my choices. The women in our lives sometimes make all the difference in what kind of life we actually get to have.
So the next time you give a thought to Women’s History month, along with the many strong and memorable women who spoke up, who marched and who started and participated in great social change, cast a look back into your own Ozarks past and give a thought to those amazing Ozarks women at the center of it, who helped shape your future, and made the life you have possible. This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozarks Hills.
This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozarks Hills. Living in the Ozarks, it pays to be weather wise. We expect March to come in like a lion, and this March has proved no different. I’ve not been out but three times in as many weeks. Living in the country, alone, and at the road’s end, I’m careful about the weather.
I shouldn’t complain, especially when the eastern seaboard is in such a horrific mess. It’s not nearly that bad here, it’s just miserable.
The ironic thing to me is that, although I like living by myself and may spend weeks puttering around happily unaccompanied at home, the very fact I can’t get out makes me miss everyone horribly. I may not go to church for weeks, but soon as the ice sets in, I long for it, from the rituals all the way to the desserts. I miss just about everybody.
And has anybody noticed that in just eleven days we have to plant peas and potatoes? I’m not sure the Ozarks commandment to plant spuds on St. Patrick’s day applies if you’re not Irish, and my forebears are mostly Scottish and English and Cherokee. But given the patchwork nature of our culture, I’m pretty sure there must be some Ulster genes in there somewhere. And yet who in their right mind, whatever their ancestry, would set foot in the garden as it will be next week, when the thawed and saturated earth means mud deep enough to steal your shoes.
On the other hand, it makes me very grateful I decided in mid-winter to plant a smaller garden in the coming seasons. I realized I really don’t have to feed the multitudes. Even at half its size, my garden can feed more than me. And this extended period of houseboundedness has made that even more clear. Every time I go to the freezer in search of something for supper, I must face the more than 40 lbs. of perfectly good tomatoes I just couldn’t let go to waste, even though I’d already put up a year’s supply of salsa and sauces, and I was thoroughly tired of the process. They’re for soups and stews, I said, unwilling to just heave them over the fence. Now it’s March, and I haven’t touched a one. Nor have I even once made stew.
Thus we are imprisoned by our own ancestral habits, learned from our Depression Era parents and pioneer Grandparents, whose vision did not stretch far enough to imagine an excess of food. Even if we had enough, there were our neighbors to consider. They might have fallen on hard times, or failed crops or illness. Or they might just have been foolish and profligate. In either case, without help from those more fortunate, they might starve. In those days, we understood that.
Some while back, while visiting with a group of folks talking about those times, they said of the woman who then owned the little town’s grocery store: “She nearly lost everything trying to keep everybody fed. Without her, many of us would have just starved to death.”
It reminded me of another conversation with a Native American friend while watching the news, where a hefty, well dressed fellow was being named the new chief of some tribe.
“That’s no chief,” my friend said. “Look at him, that suit, that car. You’d never see a real chief looking like that. Chiefs have one job. Taking care of their people. If he was chief, someone else in the tribe would have needed that suit, and that car, and the dinners he’s had way too many of. He’s not taking care of his people. He’s just taking care of himself. A chief doesn’t do that.”
Thinking about all that, I realized that my large garden has its origins in my own parents’ little grocery in Butterfield, which they lost because they couldn’t bring themselves to deny credit to people they knew were going hungry. Behind the counter we had books full of itemized groceries that would never be paid for. But we also had neighbors whose children were hungry, while my mother had a steady job as postmaster. So we had plenty, as long as it lasted.
It took me decades to understand why my grandmother said every year, with a satisfied smile, over the mounds of produce that poured from our own garden. “Enough is enough,” she proclaimed, and then never failed to add: “And too much is plenty.”
We lived next to the railroad tracks, you see. And along with neighbors in need, she fed every passing hobo. And always had. It’s what neighbors do. We learned plenty from her.
I’m confident that I’ll still have plenty in my downsized garden, if I can ever get into it. In the meantime, if I can make it out to the store before the next round of miserable weather, I guess it’s time to make stew, and with all those tomatoes, I can make plenty. This is Marideth Sisco, in a stew over the weather in These Plentiful Ozark Hills.