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As Another Ozarks Winter Approaches, Three Verses on the Changing Landscape


This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozarks Hills - In days like these, reeling from another superstorm on another coast and with one of the most contentious elections in history finally over -- with so many lives tossed on the angry tides of a beleaguered planet and a battered electorate, it is easy to get lost in the weight of all the suffering, the hand-wringing, the waves of anxiety when confronting an uncomfortable as well as inconvenient truth.The sheer magnitude of in-our-face Changes defies our ability to care in ways that might be significant to the problems. We can haunt the television for weather news and one last election analysis.

We can donate to the Red Cross, or to our favorite political party. But even the mathematicians are at a loss to figure out how to calculate the number of drops it might take to fill this vast ocean of troubles.

Historically, countries and even whole civilizations have fallen in the wake of such events. But here, we employ FEMA and donate to the Red Cross, and then go vote -- and accept the outcome with grace and good humor for the most part, and get on with the work of our lives and our time. Pretty cheeky of us, wouldn't you say?

I'd like to say that means we're wonderfully resilient and self reliant, that we wake up each morning just like Little Orphan Annie, blank-eyed and tweeting tunes in which "Tomorrow" is featured prominently. But that description falls far short of the mark.

I prefer to compare our reaction here at home to circumstances that test us, to the way we respond to the natural world, a world that we Ozarkers tend to lean on or toward regularly. In that natural world, great change is also underway in the Ozarks highlands right now. The equinox is past, as is Hallowmas, the cross-quarter holiday that goes here by the name of Halloween. The season is shifting inexorably toward winter, and as it does, there is a mad scramble as every northern migratory species rushes south, as fast and as far as possible, the flying species guided by a tiny chip of magnetite that the magic of God or evolution has placed at the base of their little beaks.

In my woods, unfamiliar songs compose an ever changing concerto these days as the migratory song birds zoom, flap and flutter southward, while raptors with unusual shapes and markings, and even more unusual names like sharp shin, shorttail and sparrow lurk overhead, looking for a quick snack to pick up before the next leg of the journey. Above them, the ducks, the snow geese, the canadas, the coots, point the way in high, far off Vees that clearly say Go this way. This is the way. Follow.

Whether out in the duck or deer blind, or safely indoors, we Ozarkers are more apt in these changing times to wax philosophical, to quote the sayings of our elders, or those of favorite poets, whether Wordsworth, Longfellow, Wendell Berry or Mary Oliver, to help us comb the layers of meaning and mystery in this life, and latch onto some verse or phrase that will make the changes understandable, comfortable, less terrifying. Here in the Ozarks woods, at the edge of a golden, windswept field, the seasons, the weather, and the landscape both real and political are still being tossed on those unsettling winds of change. In response I offer three of my favorite poems, in hopes that if they do not quiet the winds, they at least offer the possibility that the changes will prove positive.

The first, by Wendell Berry, goes thus:

Again I resume the long

lesson: how small a thing

can be pleasing, how little

in this hard world it takes

to satisfy the mind

and bring it to its rest.

With the ongoing havoc

the wood this morning is

almost unnaturally still.

Through stalled air, unshadowed

light, a few leaves fall

of their own weight.

The sky

is gray. It begins in mist

almost at the ground

and rises forever. The trees

rise in silence almost

natural, but not quite,

almost eternal, but

not quite.

What more did I

think I wanted? Here is

what has always been.

Here is what will always

be. Even in me,

the Maker of all this

returns in rest, even

to the slightest of His works,

a yellow leaf slowly

falling, and is pleased.

And here, the fall song, by Mary Oliver

Another year gone, leaving everywhere

its rich spiced residues: vines, leaves,

the uneaten fruits crumbling damply

in the shadows, unmattering back

from the particular island

of this summer, this NOW, that now is nowhere

except underfoot, moldering

in that black subterranean castle

of unobservable mysteries - roots and sealed seeds

and the wanderings of water. This

I try to remember when time's measure

painfully chafes, for instance when autumn

flares out at the last, boisterous and like us longing

to stay - how everything lives, shifting 

from one bright vision to another, forever

in these momentary pastures.

And one last small one, going back to the classic verse by Emily Dickenson:

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,

And never stops at all

Seasons change, and lives, and hopes, all a part of the tapestry that holds together our world, our nation, and all the hardy souls who inhabit these blessed Ozarks Hills.

Marideth is a Missouri storyteller, veteran journalist, teacher, author, musician and student of folklore focusing on stories relevant to Ozarks culture and history. Each month, she’s the voice behind "These Ozarks Hills.” Sisco spent 20 years as an investigative and environmental writer for the West Plains Quill and was well known for her gardening column, “Crosspatch,” on which her new book is based. Sisco was a music consultant and featured singer in the 2010 award-winning feature film “Winter's Bone.”