What measure of appreciation is appropriate to the Ozarks?
I've hiked in a lot of places: Arizona (in the Sonoran desert, and in several "sky islands" high above it), Wyoming (in the Bridger Wilderness), Idaho (in sagebrush valleys, and in the Sawtooth), Colorado (too many places to mention), southern Illinois (an extension of the Ozarks), North Carolina (around Asheville). But every time I go somewhere else, I return home thinking, "I need to spend more time in the Ozarks."
Why? Perhaps because they're near. Let's be practical: when you live in St. Louis, the Ozarks are right at hand. I can be in a wonderfully pristine place (LaBarque Creek, for example) forty minutes after leaving my suburban house. One of the biggest chunks of wild land in Missouri, almost western in size, is only two hours away.
But proximity explains only part of the Ozarks' attraction. Some other factor at work. I'm just as close to big chunks of open space along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, and I might as easily find big river bottoms as compelling as I do the Ozarks. But after forty years of hiking in the Ozarks, they are still as interesting as they were when I first saw them out of the window of my grandfather's truck. Whenever I visit them, I still have to force myself to attend to the road, lest the sights of new hills or fresh pastures cause me to miss a turn or veer into the other lane.
Like other parts of the Ozarks, pastures are contrary to our received understanding of natural beauty. Pastures are bounded and domesticated, the land subordinated to human purposes. Some pasture can rise to the level of beautiful, so long as there's a red barn in the distance, or a church steeple rising above a fringe of trees. But that's never the case in the Ozarks.
Our problem is that Missouri has imported its sense of beauty, largely from westerners (John Muir, Edward Abbey), or from ahistorical transcendentalists (Henry David Thoreau, Annie Dillard), or from recorders of the expansive vista (Anselm Adams, Albert Bierstadt).
If the Yosemite Valley and the desert southwest set the standard for natural beauty, then there is little in the Ozarks' low hills and thick trees. And if the only transcendentalism is that of an eastern domesticity, removed to the out-of-doors, then southern Missouri is far, so very far, from God.
And yet there is something to be found in the Ozarks, often surprisingly close to St. Louis. It can be something like this,
something which is still beautiful, even when it couldn't be more different from Yosemite or Bryce Canyon. I know I'm not unique in this, since I run into other people almost every time I go hiking, and their enjoyment is as obvious as mine must be.
When I stop to talk with them, they rarely say why they're there, except perhaps to comment on the fine weather, or how they wouldn't mind it if they bagged a couple of squirrels, or even that they just wanted to get out of the house. Some people will manage to mention all three, and in one sentence. Sometimes the someone is me.
Of course, no one really believes it. Meat and sun and escape can be found much closer to home, and with less poison ivy, fewer chiggers and absolutely no ticks. We all know we're there for some other reason. I don't know why no one every mentions it. Maybe it's a midwestern reticence. Perhaps it's a decent respect for other people's privacy.
Mostly likely, however, it's that we do not know what to say. We've been given words to express our sense of nature's beauty, but they are so manifestly inappropriate for the Ozarks, so perfectly and absolutely and plainly wrong. If we use those words, then we're talking about somewhere else, and our place--our Ozarks--seems like a poor a reason to leave home.
I believe there are fitting words for the Ozarks. We can leave off this business of importing our understanding of the beautiful. Our language is here, in the shade of these forests, fringing these glades, a language like collared lizards skittering across sun-baked rhyolite, an Ozarks pastoral.
Last year, I was returning home from the Current River on a fine spring day. The trees had just leafed out, and the fescue had just set its flowers. On the stereo played Ein deutsches Requiem. "Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras." At first hearing, it sounds dreadful; it is, after all, funeral music. But on a clear spring day, when the Ozarks again changes its face, Brahms is an evangelist. To be this grass, to be these hills, is gospel.