26 April, 2009

The Ozarks

Ever since I've moved northward to Michigan, this is about the time of the year that I feel homesick. Michigan starts to bloom anemically and I'm reminded of home, somehow. Maybe it's because the snow is gone and so is the wintery bluster, and the watery warmth here echoes of the deep, bone-wrapping cicada heat of the Ozarks summertime. I don't regret moving away, but that doesn't mean I don't miss it.

Figure A: Downtown in the area I grew up. That's the defunct train station. That year the flooding got up to the eaves. When I was in 7th grade I stood on the riverbank and watched the bridge in the background blow up. The area just behind this photograph hasn't been changed since the 1850s--it's still cobblestones and cisterns.

I hold the Ozarks in my mind with a certain tension. On the one hand, there was the simplicity, the friendliness, the summer, the storms. But on the other hand, there was the ignorance, the sprawl, the racism, and the glaring lack of opportunities.

Michiganders always seem taken aback by friendliness, which I don't entirely understand. It's like they just want you out of their way so they can get on with their business. Ozarkians generally seemed to be more cheerful and outgoing, even in tiny one-stoplight towns like Fredericktown, Missouri (population 462 and one old nut, according to the sign welcoming visitors off of Route 67). Of course, this means that Michigan has its advantages for introverts like me, but then again there're also times that you just have to wonder how you managed to run all of your errands without speaking a single word to anyone whereas if an Ozarkian sees you buying something unusual at the grocery store (which in the Ozarks means a leek or anything curry) they're going to ask you what you intend to make with it. Gas stations had delis and tackle shops served delicious breakfast hashbrowns. And of course you could buy anything from a new tactical knife to a horse at a sale barn. At least the Michigan town I live in has a farmers' market; that helps, although I have yet to see livestock for sale there.

And whenever I'm farther south in Michigan where it is just flat plains and swamp, I find myself missing the bluffs and hollers of the Ozarks.

Figure B: Like that. The haze you see here is not morning fog. It's summer noon heat and humidity.

My little brother and I used to do something we'd call "bluff running". In retrospect it was really stupid. Basically we'd find a climbable bluff, race each other to the top, and then race back down skidding along the slick dead leaves and dodging boulders and trees to the bottom. Then we'd find another one and do it again.

And the storms were fucking incredible. Today's storm here in Michigan involved some gray clouds and distant thunder, and a couple outbursts of rain. Compared to Ozark storms (pissed off, sleep-deprived bears), Michigan's are barely-awake fluffy kittens. The Weather Channel talks about supercells in the context of storm formation, basically as powerful little knots of low pressure, but that doesn't translate into seeing a bank of individual supercells breaking over a bluff and crashing down through the holler. That doesn't translate into rain so hard it hurts hitting your skin and wind that whips road signs back and forth. It doesn't translate into writhing arcs of lighting crackling across the horizon, so sharp and constant that you can smell it coming (like scorched copper) and the constant rolling of thunder or the pounding of hail against the windows. Most of all, it doesn't translate into that greenish-orange hue of the clouds or the breakneck train sound of a tornado. I miss these things. Hearing the house pop in the pressure differentials even though windows were cracked open as the driving sound of rain hitting rain hitting puddles leaking in along with the steady growling of thunder are, to me, peace.

And the summertime heat, 40C with 80%+ humidity so thick that it wraps your bones like a warm mud towel, oozing through your pores and back out again. Michigan's summers seem watery and distant, although the cold here has a similar bone-pervading quality (not in a pleasant way, though).

But at the same time, the Ozarks were so deeply anti-intellectual, so intolerant, so absolutely incurious and, well, lazy. These are most of the reasons I packed up and got out at the second opportunity to do so. Driving down backroads it was common to see a stretch of several well-maintained houses, and then one that had burned down or collapsed and just sat there for years. There is only one major research university in the entire Ozarks, Washington University in Saint Louis, and it's a private institution. And at the same time, it was the absolute intolerance and social stratification that stubbornly persisted there that got to me. People would casually drop racial epithets around so often that I grew up not knowing that many of these terms were offensive (e.g., I had believed that "porch monkey" just meant a lazy person until I saw Clerks II), even naming several things with them (there is a rather colorful and deeply offensive term for Brazil nuts used there; I'm not going to repeat it here). And that intolerance didn't end with terms. I distinctly remember my step-mother going into absolute raging hysterics--red-faced screaming, dangerously high blood pressure--when she found out that I was dating an African-American girl in high school, even banning her from the house and from calling (none of which stopped me, of course). Thankfully she'd learned that I was immune to her biases by the time I came back from college for Thanksgiving with a co-habitating African-American girlfriend and kept her mouth shut. But the ignorance wasn't just limited to her, it was also in the evening news with reports of interracial couples' homes being sprayed with violent graffiti and the only mosque in the area being firebombed after Sept. 11th, 2001.

So sometimes I'm torn between the nostalgia of my childhood and the more liberal attitudes of my little corner of Michigan (although perhaps local cracker women should note that trying to flirt with me when I am clearly on a date with a woman of a different race than myself is not cool and doesn't fly, seriously: what the fuck?). But then I have to remember that every good experience of the Ozarks was either internal or within a close-knit group of family and friends whereas most negative experiences were from wider Ozark society. I'm glad I moved for the much greater educational opportunities, but sometimes I miss cornmeal-fried crappie and okra. Here in Michigan you can only find okra served in Indian restaurants, and that's just not the same.


Isabel said...

This is a beautiful post. I loved the descriptions of the storms, and how your story reminds us that the march of "progress" is filled with paradoxes. Whenever we gain something, we seem to lose something else.

For example, civilization itself brings us many things, but it comes with a cost - social stratification, exploitation, slavery, prostitution and other ills. And we have warm beds and fluffy pillows, but we no longer follow the moon and the stars every night and over much of the earth we can no longer even see the milky way due to light pollution.

It's wonderful that you are from the Ozarks, although based on previous posts your parents were immigrants?...I wonder if the old mountain folk of the Ozarks have completely died out. Isn't there a huge National Park there? I have a book around here somewhere, that is a collection of sayings, customs etc of the mountain people whose cabins were grandfathered into the park after it was established. They were some of the last real (mostly Irish and Scottish derived) 'mountain folk' left. The fact that they were transmitting their culture to the researchers as they knew it was dying lends a real poignancy to the book.

Anonymous said...

I love social history. I love hearing about peoples' childhoods - especially people whose backgrounds are even remotely similar to mine - as yours is. The "perfectly normal" use of racist slurs also happened when I was growing up. It's something people like to forget used to (and still does) happen in the UK I think. A friend of mine loves to regale us with the story of when she first took her boyfriend (now husband) from Ghana home to meet her parents. Until that point, she'd never mentioned where he came from to them. Her Father greeted him at the door with "Leave your spear in the hall and come on in". Now, he was saying it in jest, of course, and that kind of humour is perfectly acceptable between friends I think, but not when you're meeting someone for the first time.

Where you grew up looks very beautiful. Likewise, I do miss some aspects of my childhood but I've not been back to the place I grew up in over 15 years and I don't really intend to. I don't think I ever belonged there and it's not the place I identify as "home" any longer.

[oh and if you think I'm going to stop flirting with you, you've got another thing coming :OP]

Toaster Sunshine said...

Paternally Finnish, maternally Ozark mountain folk. The latter has impressed some of their traditional superstitions upon me (e.g., hold breath as passing a cemetery, knives cannot be given as gifts and must be bought, etc.). The huge park you're referring to is Mark Twain National Forest. It has little towns like Shook and Cherokee Pass scattered throughout it that had been there before the park was established.

It's not just about how it used to happen. The incident I reference with my step-mother happened in 2002.
[And a compliment is a compliment is a compliment]

Anonymous said...

2002?!!? whoa!

[I'll keep 'em coming then :OP]

Isabel said...

Toaster, what an interesting combination of ethnic groups! I sat in on a human genetics course last semester, where we learned a bit about the Finns...fascinating!

Yes, now I remember that the book focused on people who lived far from the towns, in isolated, remote hollows, who at the time of the park's inception still lived in the old folkways, following customs that had in some cases disappeared in Europe hundreds of years before. They were still largely self-sufficient, and most were elderly but very tough and extremely charming. When they died their cabins would be allowed to return to nature. It was amazing that some people had continued on in such isolation until the mid 20th century and sad that they could not continue...but I'm sure their (and your) culture's ability to spin a good yarn and other charming attributes survive intact to this day!

Nice to know at least some of the old time lore is being transmitted in the towns (that's what I meant in my previous comment - the old-time culture, not the ethnic group - when I mentioned its survival). When it comes to folk tales, I've always loved the old irreverent "Jack Tales" of the region, which are indeed filled with entertaining superstitions.

Anonymous said...

I worked in Mark Twain many years ago. I used to sleep up in the fire towers and watch the sun rises and the storms brewing. I go back to the Ozarks every year for a summer meetup with friends (in 2 weeks - YAY!) to hike and camp out. Last year we went to Mammoth Springs, but it was right after a tornado that we barely missed. This year we are flying into Memphis, searching for Elvis, then crossing over to AR for the real fun. There's always a new place to explore. I love bumblebee pie, hushpuppies, and all the little diners in the middle of nowhere. I hate the ticks, chiggers, and snakes. The quietness, hearing birds instead of jakebrakes and honking, is what keeps us going back there every year.

DamnGoodTechnician said...

I have the same split loyalty to where I grew up (the far Northern Midwest) and where I live now (HoityToity intellectual New England). I am often afflicted with heavy nostalgia, and try to delude myself into believing that we could move back there some day - we could buy ten houses and eat pan-fried walleye every night and live like kings! But then I remember the insulated attitudes, how people reacted when DrDGT & I said we were moving to the East Coast for graduate school, not to mention the horrific winters or the mosquitos that will carry off small livestock..

I often remind myself that "You can't go home again", because it's not home anymore. Every time we visit, I realize that the nostalgia I have does not match the reality of the place.

Science Bear said...

I loved Figure B, since it reminded me of my home in the [south central] Ozarks. I don't really know what to say to this post, but you really described life there perfectly. I would bike to a friends house on the other side of town, with no worries by my parents. They knew several people along the path I would take and knew they would call if I A) deferred from my course to go somewhere else and took longer than expected, or B) didn't end up passing their house as my mother said I would, the neighbors would call and let her know.

I miss the food, and the friendliness of everyone I would meet (which is easy to say for me since I am what they consider normal). I have also known people of ethnicities not normally found near there recount getting violent threats to get out of town or had things thrown at their cars.

As a response to DGT's comment, "you can't go home again" isn't because it's not home anymore, though this too is true, but more that it isn't the home you remember. The Salem I grew up in no longer exists. Things and people have changed since I moved away and it's almost painful sometimes to return. There are a lot of consistencies which are still present, like my parents and some of the local haunts.. but a lot of what I used to know is gone or moved on.

I actually blogged about this topic several years ago on another site and will try to retrieve my post.

Thank you for sharing Toaster, even though it's kind of painful to think about how long it's been since I've experienced an Ozark summer, it's wonderful to know someone else knows what I am talking about, and what it's really like.

Toaster Sunshine said...

There're still mouldering cabins and tiny cemeteries tucked away within the park. The Finns (especially the Karelian Finns) are featured heavily in genetics texts because they have been a very socially isolated population for centuries (didn't matter much if they were ruled by Sweden or Russia, either one sucked and isolated them). And they kept excellent lineage records. There're multiple tomes in the genealogy of my Finnish ancestors.

Sounds quite nice. I especially liked the Blue Springs (MO) and Giant's Playground (IL) areas.

Let's set up a cage match between Ozark mosquitoes and Minnesota et al mosquitoes. I think the odds're too even to place bets.

The town I lived in wasn't quite so small or well-knit as that, but my parents certainly didn't have a problem with me riding all the way across town to go to the bookstore or the Motomart.

I hope you get a chance to visit again soon.

DuWayne Brayton said...

I find your post rather interesting for me, because I occasionally felt very much the same about MI, when I lived in Portland. Coming back here was a major culture shock after the years spent in The People's Republic of Portland. While I was occasionally frustrated by the liberal extremism, it has kind of sucked being reminded of why I was so looking forward to going there.

I would note that MI used to have some pretty substantial storms - it's just that they occurred in the winter and involved incredible amounts of ice (rain when it's substantially below freezing is no joke) and zero visibility blizzards - sometimes at the same time.

And some of my best memories are sitting on my dad's lap, watching the lightening play across the sky and thunder like cannons. No rain, super dry air - the smell of ozone was awesome.

But damn, do I miss the fucking Columbia River Gorge, queer friendly everything and a better racial situation than one finds around here.

Hermitage said...

Home is always what it is, what it is and what it always will be. You can appreciate how it shaped you into the person you are but once you go through the door, it's shut and all you can do is look through the frosty window on the side. I'm awfully abstract today.

PhizzleDizzle said...

Lovely post....

Interesting that you find Michiganders unfriendly....I found Michigan extremely friendly...compared to New York. I was shocked with how nice and slow life was out in the Midwest....it is all a matter of perspective I suppose...

I am feeling nostalgic now for my hometown......which I love and always will.