Vol. IX, No. 2, 1996

Book Note

by Richard Turner

Two Ozark Rivers. By Steve Kohler. Photographs by Oliver Schuchard. (University of Missouri Press: Columbia and London, 1984, 1996. Maps.)

By constantly stressing a theme of inter-connectedness, Two Ozark Rivers goes well beyond a simple examination of the history and beauty of the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers. From its layout--weaving graceful text with breathtaking photographs--to an organization tracing the geologic and human developments that have shaped the river environments, Two Ozark Rivers gives those familiar with the rivers a greater appreciation for the experience, and leaves those who aren't familiar anxious to make their acquaintance.

In the prologue, author Steve Kohler calls the rivers "demanding taskmasters" and hopes that the book "does justice to its subject matter." He also worries that a book which illustrates the grandeur of the rivers might attract more people to them, thereby jeopardizing the very beauty and wildness he praises. Kohler reconciles this dilemma by deciding that if he tells the rivers' stories well enough, readers will be moved to treat them "carefully and with respect." This reverence for their subject enable Kohler and photographer Oliver Schuchard to produce a book which certainly "does justice" to the rivers, and leaves the reader not only with appreciation for their history and beauty, but--the this reader at least--the respect the authors so desire.

In their words and photographs, Kohler and Schuchard show that the rivers and surrounding environments are the product of thousands of years and dozens of interconnected forces--from geologic and evolutionary to economic and demographic--and that the process of change is ongoing. The most obvious way they stress this theme is in the book's layout.

Of the total number of pages, the division between text and photograph is almost exactly half. While learning about the geologic changes which created the area's numerous caves and springs, for instance, the reader encounters illustrations of such striking beauty that each page of photography warrants nearly as much time and contemplation as a page of text. And the photographs themselves tell a story of constant change, depicting the ebb and flow of the area's natural and human forces. A graceful springtime dogwood is followed by boiling summer storm clouds, then by a silent snowfall. Grand vistas are followed up by close-ups of native flowers. Serene glades are followed by the menacing stares of indigenous birds of prey.

And though there are few photographs of people in the book, there are many which show how people   have lived in, used, and--often--abused, the area. Hayfields, barns and still-active grain mills illustrate how humans can live and work in harmony with nature. Long abandoned saw mills and sawdust mounds, and stretches of river bank eroding from the effects of deforestation, testify to a time when opportunists moved in, clear-cut the forests, and moved on--leaving the area in economic and natural devastation for a time. Everything is chosen, it seems, to demonstrate that in an environment so diverse but fragile, no force acts without consequence.

Kohler's text makes this clear as well. In the prologue he describes the river environment as a "friendly wilderness," and says that "we go to the woods or the mountains to discover for ourselves a comfortable niche in the real order of things." The rest of the book explains in very particular yet gracefully-written detail what this order is. One chapter describes the geologic changes which shaped the rivers' watershed. One explains cave formation and the interconnectedness between caves and springs which in effect creates the rivers. One details how the economy of the area changed from self-sufficiency based on hunting and farming, to a money-based economy built entirely around a logging industry that--because it went just as quickly as it came--left a legacy of economic and environmental hardship still evident in the area today. The final chapter ends the book on a hopeful note, however, explaining how combined efforts of governmental and civilian groups restored the area to such a state of natural grandeur that in 1963 President Lyndon Johnson signed the Ozark National Scenic Riverways bill, designating the rivers as a national park--the first rivers to be so named.

Two Ozark Rivers tells two stories. The first is the history, both geologic and cultural--how the land was formed, who inhabited it, what they did with it. The second is how all the elements in the first story--rock and water, man and animals, money and machines--act together in a dynamic interplay that defines for us what these two great rivers are and what will become of them. Kohler's frequent use of the word stewardship underscores his and Schuchard's purpose. To read this book is to know the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers. To know them is to respect and want to preserve them. Two Ozark Rivers surely does justice to its subject.


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