This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozarks Hills. A brand new year is upon us, one which fills some with great expectations and others with just as great trepidations. Here in the Ozarks, a recipe for a host of conditions is often just as simple as a walk in the woods. And thankfully, wind and weather permitting, we have a lot of woods we can walk in.
On this cold, blustery day, when I think of the woods, I am drawn to a memory of a day long ago, when I was a reporter for the West Plains Daily Quill. I was sent out every day to cover something different than before - court hearings, chamber meetings, crime scenes and all sorts of public events. Including the monthly meetings of the Audubon Society. It was there I met Mary Drummy, and not long after, visited her at her home. Down in her woods had been found the state record tulip poplar tree. I took its picture and went up to Mary’s house to get the story of how that tree, not a Missouri native, had come to be there. She told me her family, the Vanderhoefs, had homestead that land in the 1800s, and they had planted that tree. She also showed me the various kinds of woods that made up her little country home, from ash, oak and walnut to cherry and hickory in places where extra strength was needed. Every scrap, she said, was logged and milled from trees growing on that farm.
Some years later, Mary decided the beautiful homestead should not be sold on the public market, and as no other family member wanted it for their home, she would donate it to the state to become the Vanderhoef State Forest. I was there when state officials came to dedicate the tract and give it its name. And I noticed that across from me and other visitors were some familiar faces - a couple with whom I’d attended college years ago. Moreover, I discovered they were from the town of Monett in Barry County, just a few miles from where I was born and raised. And, wonder of wonders, they were relatives of the Vanderhoefs. A small world indeed. And that got me thinking. Is the world that small. We believe we’ve made it smaller by inventing the telegraph, telephone, television, and, god help us, the internet. We see ourselves as having made all these wonderful connections. Really? Where did we get all those wonderful ways to connect. Sure, everything starts with an idea. Where does the idea start? Look around you. Aren’t they already here? In the water, the woods, the very soil.
From the atomic level upward to the branching rivers, the threading veins, the patterns the bare tree limbs draw on the sky. All of them drawing maps of how everything is connected. Everything. We walk in the woods to slow our pulse, become centered. Meanwhile the woods are maintaining their own balance, using massive networks of fungi not just to take in nutrients, but to send out energy and sustenance to trees that are afflicted by disease, even to the stumps where trees have been cut, still alive but deprived of the stuff of life. Other trees feed them until they are done. Gone. Their affairs settled. Did you know this? Biologists have mapped the process.
And meanwhile, as the fungi distribute food and information, the microbes, the bacterial laboratory, is cooking up food and medicine and magical substances for whomever happens to need them. Plants, insects, other microbes. Us.
So if you’re feeling unsettled about this brand new year, consider taking a walk in the woods, even when the weather is iffy, there are still sunny days.
Any resourceful, creative person facing troubled times has this option - to escape into a less troubled, more peaceful world. There one can delve into the important questions of our times, seek peace, solace, inspiration. It is human to seek a better state of mind, a better plan, our best intention, a vision forward into the work before us. Somehow, some invisible way, we expect the answers to be there for us. I believe they are.
I go there seeking my own map to guide me through the lessons to be learned. Especially in difficult days, I find myself turning on foot or in thought to the deep woods, the rugged hills and cool hollows of these oldest hills. The Ozarks landscape is both beautiful and hard, and as such it often mirrors for me the complexities of our times.
In the end I find I am always being called to remember what I already know – this seemingly simplest of worlds is teeming with complex information. It carries its own knowledge and insights disguised in the smells of the damp. churning, living earth, in its relentless transmutation of organic materials from life to death to renewal in one constant, intelligent motion. And it’s all available to us, if we look deep enough.
Did you know that a bare foot treading the thick layers of forest or garden floor can absorb enlightenment directly from the soil, that dirt carries whole, microscopic civilizations that are every bit as alive as we are and are intent on giving us information and aid. Really. That foot may be nimble or clumsy, the rocks would gladly turn your ankle. But they could hust as easily slow your step, let you take a breath, absorb the fragrant scent of the tiny, immense workings happening beneath you, on the skin of a living planet. It’s biology, to be sure. But it exists in the spiritual realm as well, offering us ways to put circumstance into a new context.
We know more than we know, but it helps to remember that the world is larger than our pictures and maps can show. Larger than our conceits and our arrogance. Larger than our opinion of it. The fact is we are not here to bring our lofty knowledge to fix the world, we are here to let the living organism that is this planet share its knowledge and its heart with us. According to new findings, the very bacteria in the soil are conspiring to make mammals smarter and happier. Hands in dirt, head in clouds. It’s true, and it’s a gift. Our job is to be present and to take it in, to let it inspire us with the sureness that beyond the human scale, everything is working exactly as it should. You are likely to find, as I often do, that in stillness, we can see the forest in the trees, hear its wise counsel, let it bring healing and laughter to our weary spirits. It’s a brand new year in these Ozarks hills.. Get out there in it, folks.