From a song I once writ whilst residing in a land far, far, away: (Add melancholy melody)
Did you ever see the Ozark colored with autumn
When grey squirrels are barking from the top of the trees
There’s nothing like a fresh cool drink of mountain water
And walking down a game trail through autumn’s falling leaves.
Beautiful Ozark Mountains
And hardwood trees
Groundhogs, ‘coon dogs
And sweet mountain music
There’s no other place
That I had rather be
It took awhile after leaving my homestate of Arkansas to really appreciate its laidback culture, tree covered mountains lush springtime greenery and dazzling late year brilliance as autumn works it magic on the vast hardwood forests of the Ozark. Just a beautiful place to be.
Having grown up a ridge runner in the Boston Mountain outback, even the starkness of a winter landscape offer fascination as hoarfrost growing like crops in the field, and along every patch of moist soil, crunches underfoot on cold and frosty winter mornings. Skeletal trees, branches laid bare, their summer coat stripped away and the fallen leaves now laying like a soft brown carpet stretching out across the forest floor brings feelings of nostalgia; wet weather streams covered over with sheens of ice run down to cascading waterfalls which form into giant glistening ice sickles as the stark landscape in its far reaching entirety proudly presents its own rough hued but special beauty.
A change of seasons: Social life amongst the people of my raisings centered around the church and despite doctrinal differences of the various denominations which often produced conflict within the religious community, an annual "old folks day" honoring the aged and the aging was held during the hot days of late springtime up at district 88 Crawford County.
A special time when religious folks laid aside the militancy of their picayune differences and came together in Christian brotherhood. Even unbelievers offering community solidarity and otherwise having little outlet for their social bent came out to help erect the old brush arbors used for the event. Brush arbors, themselves, were outside shelters constructed by churches to beat the heat during the hot days of the summer revival season.
There was no air conditioning in the old high ceiling country school houses which also served as social centers and the community church; only thing one could do for relief from scorching misery was open the doors and the several large side windows of the building, and the ladies to break out their hand fans and vigorously fan. For the men, definitely no place for suit coats, tight collar shirts and choking neckties.
Brush Arbors were roughly constructed open sided shelters with vertical poles anchored into the ground and additional poles laid across the top to support a roof of brush, branches and sometime hay. If my recollections serve, the roof of the Arbor at District 88 was usually of persimmon branches.
At the 88 Old Folks Day, refreshments on a hot summer day was communal, plentiful and delicious. A brand new zinc washtub was placed in the well house, filled with lemonade and thereto added a large block of ice. The entire set-up was comfortable as could be managed under the hot humid circumstance of an Arkansas summer.
To honor the old folks, trophy ribbons were awarded in three or four categories of age and at noon the ‘preaching, the singing and "testifying" ceremonies were temporarily set aside for "dinner on the ground" a community potluck with a variety of good old country dishes including tons of cakes and pies. As a kid, the food-spread was my favorite part of the festivities.
The Old Folks Day celebration reaches back well over 100 years, and still operated when I returned to Arkansas in 2006 but the days of the Brush Arbor are long gone, having disappeared with the coming of rural electric service; the church buildings and community centers are now air conditioned and comfortable; no longer is the once close knit hill country society isolated by inadequate transportation and bad roads, economics and industry have changed allowing for the disassembly of the original culture.
Like red wasps in autumn, heave a stone and scores of them their purpose completed, abandon their nest and drift like a cloud on the prevailing breeze out across fields and meadows, to winter in cracks and crevasses carved into wood and rock—has the old culture drifted away and disappeared. Not only has the attrition of time erased old familiar faces, families and family names have now mostly disappeared from out along the hills, ridges and hollows, all lost to changing times; only oldsters as I will remember them, fancy the romanticism of them and in quiet moments grow melancholy for their loss.
Groundhogs and ‘coon dogs. Fox chases, a sport once popular with my Uncle John Larue, Sam Cluck and other old timers of the back country largely disappeared when fish and game restocked the area with deer. Dogs often became distracted whenever a dear was "jumped" a no, no to the sport of a fox chase, and whereas a fox stayed within the circle of his own territory, a deer would lead a dog so far afield he often did not find his way home. Some disappeared and would never be found.
Participants of the sport took their walkers, black and tans, redbones and blue ticks out into the countryside at night, turned them loose on the trail, built themselves a bon fire, and listened for the baying of the hounds as the dogs picked up a scent and engaged in the chase. With the hounds in hot pursuit of the prey, men stood around the fire debating whose hound was leading the chase, whether old Blue, old Dan or old Silky. A great deal of pride was attached to the man whose dog led the pack, which could be determined by the dog’s unique bark or "baying." This went on ‘till the wee hours, amidst the camaraderie, the BS-ing of ribald jokes and tall tales. Finally, hunting horns, or "calls" made of cow bull or goat horns were used to call the Fox Hounds back to base and the chase ended.
Hunting and "marking" (as in identifying ownership) of feral hogs, and bee tree hunting were other sports practiced by men of the back country, but unlike the fox chase, they offered dietary and sometime monetary benefits for back country culture.
For entertainment, country folk formed singing conventions, and developed their own musical talent, an endeavor, which yours truly has greatly benefitted in friends, fun and travel — but unfortunately not much, money-wise as involvement in the hobby can prove expensive. All well worth it, mind you.
Nine years removed from the dreariness of California, I find myself happy and contented in one of the greatest states ever. I still play Dixie on my old mandolin and sometime I even break into a verse or two of that song I wrote all those many years ago:
Did you ever see the Ozark
Covered with springtime
When the grass is green
And wild flowers bloom
It’s a treasure of love
That I’ll always remember
Like a pretty girl’s smile
Or a big yellow moon.
A toast to Arkansas as an enduring culture: May the encroaching tides of Sacramento and Albany never prevail.