Nature Stories

In October 2002 I began working as an artist-in-residence in three of our national parks–Buffalo National River in Arkansas, Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota, and North Cascades National Park in Washington State.  I met with people living in or near the parks, and asked them to take me to the places of their deepest connection.  I heard their stories, and experienced places that were most often not on the beaten public path.  It was a joy and a privilege.  Then I wrote about them, and the places they loved, in prose and poems.  Some of these people have remained close friends.  I return annually to northwest Arkansas, to Buffalo National River, to visit, and also to enjoy the places I found that have become very dear to me.

Back in Massachusetts, I discovered the extraordinary work of the Franklin Land Trust, preserving stretches of land acre by acre, working with landowners to permanently conserve their properties, to prevent further development.  When they create Conservation Restrictions or Agricultural Preservation Restrictions, landowners reduce the commercial value of their land, willingly, because  they have some deep connections with it and want to preserve it.  I’m currently meeting with them, hearing their stories, and writing about them and their often exquisite woodlands, fields, and farms.   A link to those stories will be on this site soon.

Meanwhile, here is an excerpt from the anthology that evolved from that first experience in Arkansas.

Buffalo River Anthology

A Celebration of People and Place

by Rema Boscov

 

In early October 2002, in the Arkansas Ozarks, trees and roadside weeds were still green.  I zig-zagged, up, down, around, tracing the mountain spines, passing hollows with half-hidden houses, mules behind wooden fences, wandering chickens, small white churches, and graveyards so decorated with plastic flowers they look like iced cakes, organic meandering, more natural than driving on straight roads.  A man in a truck lifted two fingers, the local salute.

For three weeks I was an Artist-in-Residence at Buffalo National River, writing about people I met and the places they cherished, and returning to some of those places to paint.

People and place.  People have always needed places.  But places need people more than ever now.  Buffalo National River, the first national river, happened because a few people who loved it worked to preserve it.

But preserving it as wilderness meant taking property.  Homesteads and holdings were lost to families whose ancestors had been early Ozark settlers.  I had read about Granny Henderson, the last holdout, who lived six roadless miles from anywhere with her dog, cow, chickens, and did very well, thank you, until at 82 she entered a nursing home, and her farm became historic property.  In fact, whole communities ceased to be, as in Erbie, where  farmsteads and a church remain, ghostly reminders of previous Ozark life.

In the seventies, new settlers arrived, young men and women fleeing the fast-paced, materialistic world, wanting to live simply, close to nature, using their own labor.  Back then, I had that dream too, but I never had the courage to give up my comfortable lifestyle, or to wrestle with family expectations and boldly proclaim, “this is what I want.”  My dream had never died.

I wound along Route 43 through Ponca and up the slope from Boxley Valley to a ridge high above the river, and then, turning left onto gravel, I descended, very slowly.  The small stones acted like ball bearings under my tires, and when I gave in to gravity and sped at 20 mph I nearly skidded.  I put the car in second gear, concentrated, let out my breath when I reached the valley floor, and sucked it in again when I saw the bluff, lit by afternoon sun like a gold breastplate.  Roark Bluff, Steel Creek, new home.

In my apartment above the stable, dust had settled inside cabinets, on venetian blinds, sills, closet poles, tables, sink handles.  Dust a quarter inch thick lay on the porch table and floor.  I washed every blind slat and counter surface, every dish, glass, and utensil.  I rearranged the furniture, stacked cans on shelves, put food in the refrigerator, and I was home.  Well, there.  Me and the three horses.

But I had someone to call, Gina Booth, the art teacher for the Jasper schools.  I had written to say I was coming and she had e-mailed me back with more enthusiasm than I ever expected.  The next day, I drove to her home and my adventure meeting people, walking with them, and writing about them began.

*****

Gina

She and her husband Matt were “hippie-dippies,” she says, “back-to-the-landers in the ’70s.”  Most of the others who came have left.  “They couldn’t make a living here.”  When their sons were little, Gina and  Matt lived on $10,000 a year.  She did data entry at night for a bank.  Matt took any job he could get, carpenter, car mechanic.  “That’s what you had to do to survive,” she says.

The old-timers struggled with the population invasion, she says.  But their children shared time in school and church, intermarried, and gradually they learned to work together.

We sit on her patio, beside the house she and Matt built bit by bit, near a stream gully, dry now at summer’s end.  She’s tossing names of places at me.  I have to see Cove Creek Spring, the elk in Boxley Valley, the view from Goats’ Bluff, and here’s how to get there.

And people.  I have to meet Pam and Jack, Marti, Sarah, Phil.  She’ll give me lots more names, and invite me to a meeting of her women’s group.  She loves my paintings.  She’ll e-mail Teresa, the county librarian, to suggest a slide show.  It seems she knows everybody!

I’ve arrived on the heels of a potluck for the Single Parent Scholarship Fund.  She shows me an article she’s written for the weekly paper about the yearly house tour she organizes to raise money so these “single mothers can get out of the poverty cycle.”

Gina is Newton County’s first and only art teacher.  Until 1986 there were “no nurses, guidance counselors, foreign languages, music, or art” in the schools.  She gets a minimal budget for art supplies.  But difficulty inspires her.  She shows me articles she’s written for a professional art teachers’ magazine describing  projects she has devised that cost next to nothing.  “Our art program wins more awards in the state than any other school,” she says.  Vibrant student work lines the walls of her house.

Matt and Gina came for the river, the quiet, the rolling hills.  The river’s shallow now, but the canoe can float slowly, with the hot sun warming us, and turtles plopping one by one into the river from logs and rocks as we pass.  In spring this will be white foam in places.  Now, we listen to the water trickle.

Two weeks later, Gina and I walk on a wide rocky shore, downriver at Hasty, near the small town of Mt. Judea.   We’ve pushed through cane, grasses, branches, muddy banks, trees turning color.  Autumn isn’t crisp and sudden here.  It creeps in, the way the river winds past us, so slowly.  Gina has paddled the entire Buffalo, but it’s this stretch, she says, that brings her peace.

******

Pam and Jack

Gina has already e-mailed Pam and Jack Stewart, and the librarian, Teresa Hayes, who hands me a note.   “Jack will be back and forth between the laundromat and library,” it reads, “and Pam will be in a painting class in the room next to the church.  We would like to meet you.”

Jasper: population 498.  A stone courthouse, small shops, a few side streets for homes, school, health center, the Newton County Times, all of it ringed by hills.  I find Pam finishing a watercolor of pink coneflowers, Jack in the library perched before the computer.  Now, in the library meeting room we are chatting, planning my slide show.   I will visit Pam and Jack tomorrow.

Six miles takes 20 minutes on the gravel road through Erbie.  Pam and Jack moved here from New Hampshire, before that Iran, Indonesia, all over the globe, where they taught everything from science to English in American International Schools.  The driveway curves—up and around past solar panels propped on rocky ground that generate enough electricity for lights and a microwave, not for a computer or washing machine.  They filter water from the roof.  They have an antenna for their cell phone, a composting toilet.  Prints and paintings from their travels line the walls.  Sculpture, books, rugs, fabrics, and baskets decorate their wooden home.

Pam serves gourmet tomato soup, a salad with feta and olives.  After tea, home-baked cookies, and cut up pears, we are off for a walk.

Cove Creek Spring.  In summer it’s a swimming hole where neighbor families gather.  From an outcrop across the creek, water trickles through maidenhair fern, bright against black rock “like a green fire,” Pam says.  Jack spots brilliant blue lobelia. They moved here for this—green fire, blue lobelia, walks on trails.  We cross a rolling meadow to stand high above the river at Goat’s Bluff.  Pam points to another favorite swimming hole, not far away.  The Ozarks aren’t lofty, grandiose.  They’re friendly.

Towards evening, migrating robins by the hundreds circle above us, looking for tonight’s rest.  Or maybe, for a place to winter.

*******

Women’s Horse Camp

I have been told, “Keep on going.  It will feel like you’ll never get there.”  Finally, a hand waves me in.  Horse trailers, tents, live-in caravans, tables, a huge well-appointed outdoor kitchen.  “And take a look at the shower,” one of the women tells me.  A room with a sink, hot and cold running water, pink painted walls, no roof.

A horse camp for women.  It’s happened every April and October for more than twenty years.  They ride the trails, cook fancy meals in a huge circular fire-pit.  Neighbors drop by in the evenings, bringing food, bringing stories.  You never know who’s going to turn up, or how many.

Five women will ride today.  Would I like to join them?  Yes!  But I have no experience.  “Can you sit?”  I nod.  “Then you can ride,” Sandy says.  Pat saddles up big easy-going Gus.  She lets me use her own saddle, the most comfortable.  Sandy gives me a few pointers, not too many, just enough to give me confidence.  Jude offers me a brownie, and says I’ll need to attend the pre-ride meeting.  So I sit with these seasoned horsewomen as they pass a flask that circles several times and wonder what I’m in for.

Sandy, Becky, and Sequoia precede me on the trail.   Pat and Jude ride behind.  Suddenly the lead horse steps on a nest of yellow jackets, and someone shouts “Ground bees!”  Sequoia’s horse, second in line, rears, kicks, shakes his head to rid himself of the swarm.  Sequoia guides him up into the trees, away from the trail, creating a new trail for us all to follow.

Pat knows exactly when to reinforce a teaching and when to let me learn on my own.  I love it!  Even when branches catch me under the jaw (Pat has told me to brush them away) scraping my chin to bleeding.  But Becky leans down from the saddle, wetting my kerchief in the cold river.  Perfect medicine.

We stop at a cobb house, a sanctuary they built, churning the mud and straw mix with their feet.  The plaster has a little manure in it too, they tell me: it’s already processed grass. From inside, the stained glass windows pulse with light.  Outside, the women pose before a wall that bulges with a relief of a huge fertility figure, big belly, melon breasts, twice their size.

We mount and ride again through the fall foliage, stopping to let the horses drink and rest.  I tell Pat this is the best day of my life, and just at that moment, I mean it.

******

Phil

“And who’s this?” I say to Phil Clugston, of the dog lying in the truck bed, black and white, a border collie mix with eyes that love.

“That’s Sam,” Phil says.  Sam wouldn’t be alive today if Phil hadn’t found him.  He and his niece and her friend had been out on a trail.  “At first I thought he was dead,” he says.  “He tried to wag his tail.  He was covered with ticks and fleas and brambles.  His bones were showing through and he had a two-foot length of barbed wire caught in his tail.  The girls carried him off the mountain.  We weren’t sure he’d live, he was so close to dying.”

Thomas, a yellow, generic “Arkansas Hound,” has barked since I arrived.  He stops as soon as I address him.  “He’s a recycled dog,” Phil says.  He had been left at the Jasper recycling center.  Two cats come to join the action.  Awhile ago they discovered Phil and stayed.

Phil left his Michigan town partly so he’d have the freedom to keep animals unfenced and unleashed.  Thirteen years before, after reading a book describing seldom-visited places, he and his younger son canoed the Buffalo, and Phil decided, “That’s where I want to go when I retire.”

For years he had taught logic and philosophy and then he “quit teaching and worked as an actor,” he says.  Does he miss the culture he left behind?  “If you think back to the Renaissance,” he says, “little towns hardly bigger than Jasper created their own culture.  I am a great believer that you carry with you whatever you truly are.”

So every Thursday night, Phil joins other writers to read what they’ve written during the week.  They call themselves The Pig Breeders.  “Jasper Literary Society would sound pretty alienating,” he says.

He loves the freedom, the mix of animals, people, and countryside.  He tells me he has visitors who say, “There’s nothin’ there but hills.  What do you do?”  And he answers, “That’s what we do, we look at the hills.”

*****

Jerry

“I like to know the plants and animals I see,” Jerry Johnson says.  We are walking with Phil.  Jerry names the plants.  Coral berry with its purplish berries, Christmas fern always green, beech fern with white points.   He’s learned a lot from Pam, he says.

As a biologist in public health Jerry studied toxic waste and water pollution.  He was on the EPA team that went to Love Canal, and worked as a Coast Guard commandant during the Valdez disaster.  His life is “better now,” he says.  He has developed new interests, and writing is one of them.  Jerry is a Pig Breeder.

He’s still a scientist.  His house is heated geo-thermally.  Western Arkansas, where below-ground temperature is 60 degrees year round and there is plenty of sunshine, lends itself to using alternative energy sources.

Jerry and his wife Mary Jo moved here for “the beauty and quietude,” he says, and to get “far away from a big city, the noise, crowds, congestion, crime.”   When they leave for a few weeks, Phil waters the plants, cares for the dog.  Which is exactly what Jerry does for Phil.  “People have to be more reliant on each other here.  You get to know each other better.”

I walk with Phil and Jerry on a trail from Pruitt Landing to  Ozark Landing, canoe put-ins.  We pass ponds glowing bright green with below-the-surface pillows of algae.  We feel the hard-muscle of ironwood.  We admire and name the ferns.  When we reach the Ozark put-in, we skip stones.  And I do not know which is louder, our shouts and laughter echoing from the bluff, or the resounding of all those others who have done the same thing for hundreds of years.

******

Marti

She knew she’d found home when she set foot on this trail.  It was  misty and foggy that day too, she says.  “I know it’s trite, but this is like a fairyland.”  It’s true.  Moss and lichen dot the rocks and trees.  The dark, wet limbs flicker and disappear in mist.  I half expect Disney-like toadstools to become umbrellas for crickets.

Marti Olesen drives 40 minutes to Harrison to work as a school librarian.  She loves her work, and she wouldn’t live anywhere else.  Her husband runs the general store and cabins they own.  Her daughter goes to school in Harrison. They drive together each day.

Marti is a poet.  Several years ago she offered a writing course to women.  Now they’ve become a Women’s Group, meeting monthly.  Gina, Pam, Teresa and others have mentioned it, and when they do, I hear a mix of reverence and eagerness.  But Marti has decided not to write for awhile.  This is her time to share with her teenage daughter, she says.

The land is poetry enough.  Marti stands on a rock, jutting out, and in her yellow poncho, shimmering through fog, she looks like a figure in a Chinese painting.

Later, Gina tells me, “We call Marti ‘Green Lichen’.”

 ******

Sarah

When people talk of Sarah Jeffrey, they look like they have tasted something delicious.  “Oh….Sarah!” they say.

I met her at my library slide show.  She made some astute comments about my work.  I didn’t know then that she had an MFA in painting, or that I would love her work, abstract, vibrant, and full of the pull of landscape.  But I did know I wanted to visit her.

So today I step on a stone path lined with native plants.  Her two little chows make a racket at the door, and suddenly I am under skylights with plants all around me.  Sarah came here in her fifties, leaving teaching and city behind, “dropped out,” she says, and for more than twenty years has lived without running water in a small house that bursts with art she’s sewn, painted, cooked, and written.  Each year she builds trellises of straight and curvy cedar limbs, screwing them together in artful creations, and donates them to the library fundraiser.  Last summer she built the stone path I’ve just walked on, inventing a system of levers and rollers from plastic pipe.  “I didn’t lift one stone,” she says.

Now I sit on the blanketed seat of her old truck and we bump down her driveway to a trail she likes.  She walks with a stick, looking like the proverbial mountain woman she’s become since “dropping out.”  We stop before a rotting log and its nearby circle of wild iris, a cushion of orange and brown with grey-green moss for decoration.  My pocket-sized point-and-shoot camera won’t capture the colors, the composition—straight crumbling log, circle of iris, old age supporting new life.  “Take it anyway,” Sarah says.  “Your mind’s eye will remember.”

We don’t need a long walk; we need a slow one, a long look, a few deep breaths, quiet crunchings on dry leaves at dusk, an appreciation of a fern, a view.  Then, at her table our talk meanders like the walk we’ve just taken, stopping here and there.  We find ourselves hailing the art of laundry-hanging, according to internal order, intuition, individual sensibility.  It’s every woman’s work of art.  And I imagine her, like me, standing back to enjoy the design, maybe to move a shirt to please herself better.  We have, in fact, left our friendship hanging, waiting until I return.

*****

Lester

Lester Villines is a wiry, spunky old man.  Standing near his driveway, his whole arm waves me in.  He and his wife Willadean live in a ranch house with a view over fields.  Just over those fields, the Buffalo River has carved out Big Bluff, Steel Creek, Hemmed in Hollow.   “I was born at Steel Creek,” he says.  “One mile up that creek, at Low Gap church, is my own home place. I have farmed up and down that river.  There’s not many rocks I haven’t seen.”   The Villines family listings in the local phone book take up most of a page.

In 1974 the National Park Service took some of the Villines holdings to become part of Buffalo National River.  “They got 244 acres from us,” Lester says of the land he and Willadean owned.  It wasn’t land he lived on.  It was land he loved.  The enforced purchase wouldn’t have been so bad, he says, if someone from the Park Service had approached them in a different way.  “A feller came in and said, ‘Looks like we are gonna take 244 acres of your property’.”  The Park Service offered cash, and a choice, he says.  “Accept our offer and deed us the property, or don’t accept the money and we will take your property by eminent domain.”

But Lester isn’t as bitter as other folks.  Without protection, he says, Steel Creek would have been dammed up.  “It would have been a lake, and it might have been a subdivision.”

Ten years ago the Newton County Resource Council, consisting of newcomers and old-timers, offered a series of “Eco-Tours.”  No one had ever made much money farming these hills, and timbering wasn’t allowed in  wilderness areas.  But the scenery was bringing in tourists, and Newton County could offer tours.  So Lester volunteered to lead some, every spring and fall for four and a half years.  “I’d take people on different trails, along the river bluffs.  Oh heck, I had people from everywhere.  It was good for me.  When I were doin’ them tours I had my mind on that subject.  What I told people was the old way of life, the horse and mule days, when people gathered wild ginseng and hardly anybody killed a beef, no way to keep the meat.  Had to do it in the wintertime.  They would salt pork down, hang it and smoke it with hickory and a little sassafras.”  He found he had lots of native knowledge.  “I pointed out all kinds of dogwood, wild azalea, redbuds.”  And when people asked him, “How’d you live?” he answered, “We worked and the animals worked.”

Leading tours, he discovered places, like Hemmed in Hollow Falls.  “I hadn’t never been to it ‘til I did them tours,” he says.  He remembers a glorious time there, with tree frogs singing.  “Little frogs,” he says, and, remembering, he laughs.  Willadean says, “He was the happiest he’s been in his whole life when he was doin’ those tours.”

A few years ago, Lester and Willadean’s daughter made a video of Lester talking about the places they walked through, a spectacular showcase—an old man, preserved on tape, walking through preserved land.  He’s too old to go there now, but he’s excited and he comments as we watch him push his way through brush to the river.  “The only way you find it is to get out there and do it” he says.  “Pictures don’t do it justice.”

******

Ray

Ray Crouse’s truck could probably find its way to Round Top Mountain by itself.  Here in front of the Ray Crouse Trail, marked with a wooden sign, he’s posing for my camera, one hand on his hip, the other caressing the sign as if it were a son’s shoulders.   Building this trail has been his voluntary gift to his community.

In March, 1997, the Newton County Resource Council received Round Top as a gift.  Ray, who worked for 30 years as an engineering technician for Ozark National Forest, took on the job.

“We used mattocks, digging tools, and occasionally a chain saw,” he says.  Some of the crew were supervised prisoners. “We began work in April, and opened to the public on Labor Day.”

Walking below a high bluff, Ray remembers childhood Easters when the four or five families in this neighborhood would climb the 30% grade, carrying fried chicken, potato salad, rolls, pies.  Now there are 150 steps.

I see new growth and old trees.  There’s a need for both clear-cutting— even-age management, Ray calls it— as well as selective logging.  “When you take one tree out in the middle of the forest, it’s expensive and you damage so much area.”  But he says selective cutting is appropriate in places steeper than 35 percent grade, and too, “The small, furry animals need old growth, rotting holes in dead trees.”  It depends on the situation, he says and he’s frustrated with “people who raise hell all over the country and don’t know what they’re talking about.”  True, clear-cutting is ugly at first, but in about ten years it heals itself, he says, and competing hardwoods thin themselves out.  Ray grew up during the depression, and trees equal money.  “What good does it do if you never cut a tree.  It grows up and dies.”

Every ten years, a professional forester writes management prescriptions.  “It makes sense to do it that way,” Ray says.

*****

Teresa

An Ohio transplant more than twenty years ago, Teresa Hayes  worked at any job just to stay here, tree-planter, counselor for women in crisis, puppeteer.  Then Newton County built a library and her degree in library science gave her this work she loves.

Inside the library, the carpet is soft as a forest floor.  The blond wooden furniture is so new it seems alive.  This library is a place of shelter and quiet, but also a gathering spot, a place of activity.  Teresa, with her e-mails and offerings, brings people together.

This evening we meet at Steel Creek so she can share the gravel bar and swimming hole she has loved for years, where young families used to meet for Sunday volleyball and fun.  The sinking sun paints the sandstone bluff red.  We look into the dark water, barely moving.  She swam there, they all did, despite the cottonmouths.  Living here hasn’t been easy, she says, but when you love a place, you stay.  And when you love a place, I think to myself, you come back.

******

The people I met stayed because these mountains called them, and now they call the mountains home.  They sought the slow pace, the small towns, the emphasis on community.  All during my stay I asked myself, “Could I live here?”  I could.  But what about my life back home?

After three weeks I drove south on winding, foggy Route 7 toward highways, steel, airplanes, life ordered by time.  I wasn’t prepared for the shock of returning to a strange world with flashing lights and constant movement.  I picked up speed on the entry ramp to Interstate 40.  Roark Bluff, Steel Creek, Jasper, and all the people I knew vanished.

Back in Massachusetts, Roark Bluff rose through memory as it did each morning through low-lying mist, as it was offered up eons ago when the Earth’s crust shifted and murky ocean floor became high wall.  For months, I awakened seeing it in moonlight, its face stark white.

I took back a few things.  An osage orange, as large as a grapefruit, bumpy skin the color of new grass.  Baling twine smelling of hay for the horses that sometimes woke me at 3 a.m.  A stone from the river.   Snapshots.  But photos can’t recreate the sounds of hawks, the klok-klok of horses, the moving jaw of a rabbit, the near fluorescence of a skunk’s white stripes slithering across a field at dusk.

I keep returning.  Soon I will drive that winding road again, and as the car gets closer I’ll want to hurry, like a horse nearing home.  High up, I’ll see Jasper nestled below and think, “Brigadoon.”  I’ll visit Roark Bluff, Ponca, Boxley Valley, Erbie and all the places and people I’ve come to love.  And every time I return, I wonder–will I one day come to stay?

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