~ from cats, dogs and nature to the flowering of body, mind and spirit ~

Thursday, September 14, 2017

A Classic Ozarks Tale

In direct opposition to the literary criticisms about The Shepherd of the Hills by Harold Bell Wright (published 1907), I found this tale captivating. Maybe that was partly because of my own cultural connection to it via family history in the same area, but for whatever reason, I could hardly put the book down until the end. I was surprised, no, shocked, at how much I enjoyed the story.  
For some reason, my memory of the outdoor drama based upon the novel (one I attended as a child), and the vaguely recollected comments of family members, focused upon the Christian aspects of the story. To my delight, however, the novel didn’t feel like a “Christian story” or even like a morality tale per se. On the contrary, the story was thoroughly entertaining, plus, the mystery and beauty of Mother Nature were expounded upon to depict the immanence of the Sacred. 
Essentially, the story revolves around a stranger from the city who arrives in the backwoods of the Missouri Ozarks about 1880/1890. He is welcomed by the hill folk and eventually integrates with them; our narrator refers to him as the shepherd.
I was enchanted by the unique character of Pete, an ethereal, fey boy who hears and talks with nature. In an early conversation with the shepherd, we are told: 
“Again that strange smile illuminated [Pete’s] face [and he told the shepherd]… ‘And the tree things like him, too, brother; and the flowers, the little flower things that know everything; they’re all a singing’ to Pete ‘cause he’s come … And the grey mist things come out and danced along the mountain, ‘cause they was so glad you come. … Do you like Pete’s people, Mister?’ He waved his hands to include the forest, the mountains and the sky; and there was a note of anxiety in the sweet voice as he asked again: ‘Do you like Pete’s friends?’” (Pages 38-39)
While Wright’s depictions of the characters are bigger-than-life, they didn’t feel like cheap stereotypes, rather, I was reminded of archetypes. The story seemed to express a resonance with a myth or a rustic fairy tale. 
For example, about the major female character, Wright wrote: 
“Sammy Lane knew nothing of the laws and customs of the, so-called, best society. Her splendid young womanhood was not the product of those social traditions and rules that kill the instinct of her kind before it is fairly born. She was as free and as physically perfect as any of the free creatures that lived in the hills. And, keenly alive to the life that throbbed and surged about her, her woman’s heart and soul responded to the spirit of the season. The droning of the bees in the blossoms that grew in a cranny of the rock; the tinkle, tinkle of the sheep bells, as the flock moved slowly in their feeding; and the soft breathing of Mother Earth was in her ears; while the gentle breeze that stirred her hair came heavy with the smell of growing things.” (Page 48)
Sammy, 19 years old and promised to a local lad who had left Mutton Hollow for an opportunity in the big city, was worried that he might find her wanting upon his return. With that in mind, she asked the shepherd to help her become a “lady” like her fiancĂ© would be meeting in the city. The shepherd, seeing the magnificent wild and free qualities in Sammy, hesitated, but decided to do his best to encourage her to merge the finest of who she already was with qualities that would allow her to fit in with so-called civilized city-people. He said “a real lady, Sammy is a lady in three ways: First in her heart.” Then, he says the second is to have a “lady mind” or, in other words, that “she must know how to think and talk about the things that really matter.” And thirdly, he says she should “keep her body as strong and as beautiful as she can, for this is one way that she expresses her heart and mind” but not because of what others might think, rather, “just for herself.” The shepherd greatly admires Sammy, already, as an example of splendid womanhood; he doesn’t want her to change but rather to grow more empowered. 
I will admit that there were times throughout the book where I became weary of Wright’s emphasis upon the perfection of both Sammy’s womanhood and Young Matt’s manhood. However, when viewed from an archetypal perspective, this is simply part of mythology, and through this lens (consider the men and women in Greek myths, for instance, or Snow White and Prince Charming, or even Eve and Adam in the Garden of Eden), their physical perfection makes sense.
When, toward the end of the book, the author included a reference to one of my least favorite passages in the Bible, the one about man having dominion over the earth, it jarred with the rest of the story’s message of equitable harmony with the earth. For instance, during one scene, the shepherd (once known as a pastor, a Doctor of Divinity, with the “biggest church, greatest crowds in the city” of Chicago): 
“Could not grasp the truth of the situation, but the beauty of the hour moved him deeply … ‘See how soft the moonlight falls on that patch of grass this side of the old tree yonder, and how black the shadow is under that bush, like the mouth of a cave, a witch’s cave. I am sure there are ghosts and goblins in there, with fairies and gnomes, and perhaps a dragon or two. And see, lad, how the great hills rise into the sky. How grand, how beautiful the world is!’” (Page 89)
And again, this relationship with the earth when the shepherd welcomed into his home an old friend, who remarked upon the change in him. The shepherd said: 
“‘I suppose I have changed some, David. The hills have done it. Look at them!’ He pointed to the encircling mountains. ‘See how calm and strong they are; how they lift their heads above the gloom. They are my friends and companions, David. And they have given me of their calmness and strength a little.’” (Page 159)
There are countless passages in the book where the author waxes poetic about the splendor of the Ozark mountains and the magic contained in a relationship with them. The shepherd wrote to his friend about the winsome boy Pete that: 
“‘Here and there among men, there are those who pause in the hurried rush to listen to the call of a life that is more real. How often have we seen them, David, jostled and ridiculed by their fellows, pushed aside and forgotten, as incompetent or unworthy. He who sees and hears too much is cursed for a dreamer, a fanatic, or a fool … Pete knew a world unseen by us, and we, therefore, fancied ourselves wiser than he. The wind in the pines, the rustle of the leaves, the murmur of the brook, the growl of the thunder, and the voices of the night were all understood and answered by him. The flowers, the trees, the rocks, the hills, the clouds were to him, not lifeless things, but living friends, who laughed and wept with him as he was gay or sorrowful.’” (Pages 177-178)
When I have time, I hope to do a close reading of the text and get further into its mythological themes. For now, I can say that I wholeheartedly recommend the book! 

As a side note, this book was a catalyst for making the Missouri Ozarks a tourist destination in the 20th century. I will write more about that later. Below is a nice map outlining the Ozark Plateau; the tale Shepherd of the Hills takes place near Branson (kind of middle left inside the circle).

Monday, September 11, 2017

Ozarks Folklore

With the arrival of cooler temperatures, I'm starting to delve into research for my book of family history again. Even though I feel a lot more energetic physically when autumn arrives, I also feel the coming of hibernation time, and that leads me into project mode and the sense that active family history gathering -- genealogy as well as culture, stories, and history -- has sat on the sidelines long enough.
native Poke weed in background
"Boiled poke root used to be a famous remedy for itch, but 'it burned like fire, and the cure was probably worse than the ailment.' A strong ooze of pokeberry root, [a man said] 'will make you think hell aint a mile away, but it sure does cure the eetch.'"
Two of the most well-known old books about the Ozarks are quite different. The first is Ozark Magic and Folklore (formerly titled Ozark Superstitions) published by Vance Randolph in 1947 and based upon stories he obtained throughout the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas (the above quote is from this compilation). Some of the material was gathered together from other sources going back to 1927, while other portions came from the author's own interactions as he says:
"I first visited the Ozark country in 1899, and since 1920 I have spent practically all of my time here, living in many parts of the region, sometimes in the villages and sometimes in the wildest and most isolated 'hollers'. I fished and fought and hunted and danced and gambled with my backwoods neighbors ...." 
I've delighted in reading Randolph's book, even when he is being subtle in his condescension or derision. Much of the herbalism described has now been proven effective based upon scientific research, and some of the superstitions are familiar from my own elder relatives when they were alive. I also found some of the information to be similar to that of the folklore of Appalachia; no surprise since a good portion of the Ozarks settlers' families and ancestors came from that part of the country back in the early 19th century. One aspect that surprised me was that many of the so-called superstitions about weather relied heavily upon the astrological signs; the reliance upon lunar cycles was no surprise as many cultures followed the waxing and waning, the light and the dark cycles, but until now, I'd never heard of Ozark references to following what sign the moon or sun were in.

Some habits in the backwoods possibly harken back to Celtic beliefs (not surprising since most people in these parts have strong links to a Scots-Irish heritage) such as:
"A woman ... told me that ghosts and spirits are accustomed to stand about near cabins at night, and it is dangerous to offend these supernatural beings by throwing dirt in their faces. Sweepings are best gathered up and carried out of the house ...."
Remind anyone of the Little People of Ireland and Scotland? That said, the land which was taken over had once been part of the Osage Nation and they, too, had stories of "little people" of the woods.

Indian Pipe flower
The second book that is, or used to be, notable about the Ozarks is The Shepherd of the Hills, published by Harold Bell Wright in 1907. (The book can be downloaded for free; the movie made in the 40s can be viewed HERE.) This one is a novel, and, as far as I can find, it's the first novel written that was set in the Ozarks (here's a list of more novels set in the Ozarks, though nearly all of them are relatively recent in publication). Starting in 1959, an outdoor drama based upon the book ran nearly continuously until recently; my parents and grandparents took us kids to see it, although I can't recall what year (likely around 1970). This is the closest full-length tale we have to a sort of modern Ozarks myth, although some legends have been retained as well as ghost stories passed along.

As my research continues, I'm realizing that this place where my family has lived for over 150 years has a lot of fascinating history, some quite tragic, and I find myself eagerly scrabbling online to find out more. What's great is that bits and pieces of what I find can be incorporated into my book on family history so that future generations can catch a glimpse of it.
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