Vol. IV, No. 1, Summer 1990


WATER

&

FIRE

The Environment of Our Experience

by Robert Flanders



The creek was dry. It had "run" dry, folks said; but how, I wondered at nine years of age, could a creek "run" dry? A creek, after all, is living water.

Well, a dry creek is where water is supposed to be, usually was. Maybe will be again soon, but isn't now because there is no rain. A dry creek is a somber place, even scary. If the water has gone, what may go next? What causes it not to rain?

It was December, 1939. Christmas was approaching, my first in the Ozarks, on the farm, in the country. The days were short, and hot. Hot winter days, warm winter nights. I thought it was fun; but my folks were really nervous. Rain had not come for months, maybe years. The summer sky of burnished gold turned to brass in fall. Now, for Christmas, the low, clear, yellow sun cast long shadows of bare trees, the oaks still clinging to dry leaves. Everything was dry. The people too seemed dusty and dry.

Except for one other childhood Christmas (when I got an electric train, but that was before) the hot Christmas of 1939 is the one I remember. We took our guests, town relatives, down from the house past the dead garden, across dead fields, to the creek bed. We talked about the creek as though it were still there, like folks who have trouble referring to the recently deceased in the past tense. We went down into the dead creek bed, all jolly and Christmas-y. We would picnic on the creek bottom on a hot Christmas day in the Ozarks.

The great event in all of our lives seemed to be The Depression. The great event of World War II loomed ahead, but we didn't know it yet. But the event close at hand, lurking in everybody's mind, was this: we're running out of water. The ponds, the creeks, the springs, now the wells, are running dry.

We built a big fire on the creek bottom in a rigged firepit of big stones. When the fire burned down we laid a grate over it, and cooked. We had ice cold pop to drink, Orange Crush and Grapette and the like. The ice melted pretty fast, because there was no shade. It got hot in a rocky creek bed on that shadeless day.

When the light faded, we left, full of food, pop, and gaiety, tired, and a little sweaty. It was like the feeling of other Christmas afternoons, except for the heat. And the fire in the dry creek bed. I looked back at the embers, down in the place of water, glowing in the dusk.

Fire seemed about the most important thing we made. Everybody made it. Get up and make a fire. it was the first chore. Fires had to be made, and kept going. Fire cooked, kept us warm (sort of), boiled things down, canned, preserved, pickled, dried wet things. Then there were outside fires, for butchering and making butters in big kettles, making sorghum, even soap. People cleared brush and burned it. They burned the woods in spring to make grass grow. For a boy, an important thing fires did was dry you out when you were wet, which I often was, rain or no. Everybody made fires. Fires were everywhere.

[3]

Like most children, I didn't think much about things. But I worried a lot, which is a kind of thinking. The idea crossed my mind that maybe it was so dry because there were too many fires, and that worried me. The smoke of fires was everywhere. It's one thing I remember about how the Ozarks smelled--like hardwood smoke. And I remember the punishing heat of fires in summer. Maybe all the fires were drying up the water. Maybe what we were doing, what everybody was doing everyday, had been doing always and forever, was drying up the world. What if the water never returned?

I recall these matters now, trying to explain the idea of this issue of OzarksWatch. My direct experience of both fire and water as constituent parts of the world I lived in as a boy, and then trying to relate them, man-made parts and God-made parts, is a figure for the envelope of experience that we have come to call "environment."

The fires people make do not dry up the world, at least not the way I as a child imagined might be the case. But I had a dawning recognition that what we do might effect "things out there." "Nature" was an idea as yet unknown to me at age nine. I suspect it may not have been known to the Ozarks neighbors, though they had certainly much experience with it. "Environment" was unknown and unimagined. Still, we were at the threshold of a better understanding of man-nature relationships. My father was trying to be a scientific farmer, following a comprehensive land use plan provided by the University of Missouri. He was probably one of the first in Polk county to do so. Wood lot management and other soil conservation practices were at least heard of, if not widely heeded. The great erosion gashes across dessicated fields--reminders of torrential floods a decade before--had old steel barrels, bed springs, T-Model frames, and lesser trash thrown into them, combining land fill and erosion control functions. The new Missouri Department of Conservation was soon to tell people it was not a good thing to burn the woods every spring--but few people believed that. At least not at first.

But folks were thinking. One woman said in a recent interview, "Now when The Conservation came in here, that was a new thing. And it was a good thing, though people didn't take to it right away." She used "The Conservation" several times as a proper noun, whether referring to the Department, the idea, or the phenomenon. In conversation with a Texas County, Missouri man of old family I alluded to the restoration of the deer and turkey stock by hunting seasons, bag limits, sanctions on poaching, restocking, etc. "My grandfather saw the game leave this country," he countered. "Absolutely left. Went away mysterious. Nobody knows where. And a funny thing, Grandpa said, afterward the trees all died off and the brush came. Grandpa remembered when this country was just covered with trees? I suggested probably the trees being cut off by big commercial timber operations destroyed the habitat, and the game stock could not then sustain itself. No, he replied, the game left first, and then the trees. His grandfather told him so.

Nevertheless, I believe that Ozarks people are strongly pragmatic, are possessed of common sense, and are by culture conservative. If and when combined with what we may call the knowledge of our time, their pragmatism, good sense, and conservative nature may enhance the environment we all experience.

That environment is a weaving of who we are, what we are, where we are, what time we are there, and what we do. OzarksWatch is a publication predicated upon the concept of the region so defined and so experienced. This issue explores selected aspects of that idea.


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