Sunday, June 19, 2011

It's the Story We Tell

Turtles Crossing the Road
When we are driving Amy and I play a game called "Slug Bug."  Whenever we see a Volkswagen Beetle or "Bug" we call out "slug bug" and the color of the car and gently tap the other.  The farther into the Ozarks we get the fewer Volkswagen Beetles we see but the more turtles we see.  So we've started our own game called "slug turtle."  As we are driving down the Ozark back roads you'll invariably hear one or the other of us shout out "slug turtle" as I steer the car to avoid the the terrified terrapin as he ducks his head inside his shell. The game helps break up the monotony of a long trip.

On our recent trip to the Ozarks, one of our goals was to visit Sue Hubbell's old farm.  Sue lived on the farm in the 1970's and 1980's where she wrote the book A Country Year about her life on the farm.  Its one of my favorite books.  When she moved, the farm was bought by the Missouri Department of Conservation and included into the Barn Hollow Conservation and Natural Area.  I had found directions to the conservation area and so off we went.

The area is located just 3 miles north of Mountain View, Missouri.  We found the intersection where the directions told us to begin and I my heart dropped to find that it sported a Walmart and a McDonalds.  Progress had flowed right up to the doorstep of this idyllic land that Sue described.  This was not what I had imagined I'd find.  I was looking for the tranquil country life that Sue described in her book and what I got was cheap goods and cheap food.

The Little Pond
We made the drive three miles north and found the parking lot to the conservation area.  As we walked the half mile trail to the overlook I began to recall parts of the book that Sue had written.  When I heard and Indigo Bunting I was reminded that she had written about their claim to her land that preceded her own deed to the land.  When we walked past a pond I remembered she had written about the frogs calling from the pond.  The beauty of the land was still there although tainted somewhat by the proximity of the "progress" I saw just three miles away.

The Barn Hollow Overlook
The half mile trail through the Barn Hollow Natural Area ends at an overlook platform from where you can look into Barn Hollow, a deeply dissected valley with 100 foot shear dolomite bluffs on either side.  The cool shaded creek valley is the home of the ringed salamander, a species only known to exist in the Ozarks.  While there I heard the echoing call of a Belted Kingfisher and was reminded that Sue had written about hearing that same call many times from her farm.

I was still bothered by the encroachment of civilization on this eden but felt the peace that places like this bring.  As I was looking over the map of the conservation area I noticed that the entrance we had entered was on the south side and that on the north side was another entrance that had a house and an out-building marked on the map.  This portion of the map looked familiar.  The I realized that it was just like the map in Sue's book A Country Year.  Then it dawned on me that the the trail we explored was south of Sue's farm and that her farm was actually on the north side of the conservation area, a twenty minute circuitous drive through narrow back roads.  The story I had been telling myself about what I saw wasn't about her land or the book.

So after lunch Amy and I drove the twenty minute drive down increasingly narrow gravel roads following the twists and turns deeper into time to Sue Hubbell's farm.  Just before you come to a gate and sign indicating the private property of the VFW Camp mentioned in Sue's book there is a turn off  with an unmarked blue gate.  The yellow Missouri Department of Conservation signs had been torn down and only a small piece of the sign was left laying in the gravel road to give a clue to the identification of this place.

The Entrance to Sue's Old Place
Walking pass the blue gate about 30 feet is a side road heading off to the right and into an open field.  This was Sue's driveway.  I found the old power line and junction box that provided electricity to her farmhouse.  There was an old stone flower bed and the remains of what look life some daffodils that Sue may have planted.  I found evidence of an old barbed wire fence and the signage indicating the end of public use area that the MDC posts on all their properties.  There was no doubt that this was it.  This was also more like what I was looking for,  and hoping for.  This was the eden that Sue had written about.  It was beautiful and distant from anything that could be called progress.

I had gotten the story wrong.  I had recalled Sue's memories of her life on a farm and put them in a place that wasn't her place.  I had felt that progress had intruded on her eden even though it really had changed anything about the natural area we first explored nor the area that was Sue's old home.  Then I realized its the story we tell that's important.  We can tell a story that includes frequent trips to the Walmart's and McDonald's of the world or we can tell another story.  The story that recalls the time of day when the catbird calls, or the comings and goings of a fox and her kits or the time when you find a little peace in nature.  The place could be in the middle of the city or right next to a Walmart.  We can choose to tell a story of the life along the creek or the life of commerce in the local big box store.  Its the story we tell and remember that matters.

Give Me the Back Roads
Yet, I am reminded that not all stories work equally well.  Some stories we tell ourselves can cost us dearly.  The turtle tells itself a story that pulling its head and legs into its shell will protect it.  In the forest that may work most of the time and can ward off the inquisitive raccoon or wily fox but it doesn't stop the tires of a speeding car.  The truth is somewhere in between the stories we tell to create our world and the stories we tell to blind us to the dangers of life.  Its finding that fine line that is the challenge.

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