ARKANSAS~~ songs in shades of green
By Betty L. Owen
the mind, that ocean where each kind
does straight its own reflection find;
yet it creates, transcending these,
far other worlds, and other seas,
annihilating all that’s made
to a green thought
in a green shade. ~~andrew marvell “the garden” stanza 6
I lay on the ground with my camera pointed skyward, trying to capture the awesome height of the trees in that Ozark forest. I wanted to preserve forever the way the light danced on the leaves; the multi colors of greens that had no names, and stained the air with a verdant taste.
It was a magical place, all flickery with emerald and gold; with shadows moving restlessly over the thick carpet under my feet. I prowled like a cat, over rotted logs and stones, expecting at any moment to see a gnome or an elfin being peeking from behind a tree.
These tall trees with their feet deep into the earth and their arms spread toward God, were a presence in the forest. I felt their movements, the bending and the soughing, and yes, their music~~ songs in tones of green. For trees do sing. I have heard them.
It was springtime when we first drove through those Ozark hills. A Coloradoan could not rightly call them mountains, but the soft rounded hills undulated with greenness. The roadsides were bordered with natural stone formations, beautifully layered as if by a master stonemason into low rock walls, or high cliffs picturesque with hanging vines. The land gently rose, and the little road wound in and around the hills, opening occasionally onto vast meadows of tall grasses with last year’s cuttings rolled into great bundles. The woodlands, I was to learn later, were trees of hardwood, oak, walnut, hickory and cherry. And in the understory, in a shimmering green twilight (I will never forget the sight) grew the dogwoods, breathtakingly delicate with their white porcelain blossoms laid out like tea-cups on a table. It was a fairyland, and I was bewitched.
The State of Arkansas had never figured prominently in the pattern of my life until my wedding day. It became a household word when we were presented with the deed to 20 acres of land in these Ozarks as a wedding gift. Although we never did anything with the land for the 60 plus years that it was ours, it has remained a sort of passport to another world; a place upon which to hang our dreams. It has always been a place of an uneasy silence, because it is a country unto itself and embraces a culture removed and remote from the familiar, mysterious and unfathomable and self-contained.
Arkansas has helped to explain facets in my husband’s personality that had baffled me, so out of character they seemed; his great love for hillbilly and bluegrass music; his inclination to demonstrate a clog dance at odd moments; his colloquial expressions that did not fit into our western dialog and often embarrassed me.
We were both raised in the shadows of the Colorado Rockies, but Claude’s family lived in the Ozark hills for 2 years when Claude was a boy of 8 years. His father, John H. Owen had been a judge in Golden, Colorado, had lost his election at the start of the big depression and was feeling at loose ends. The family decided to pull up stakes and move to Arkansas. They owned a new Veley touring car free and clear and they proceeded to pack it up with their possessions and they set out, camping along the way. The year was 1930.
Claude’s parents both had roots in the Midwest. His grandfather had migrated with his family from Missouri to homestead in Eastern Colorado. Claude’s mother’s people still lived in Missouri.
The story goes that Claude’s dad traded the big Veley automobile for 40 acres of land near the little town of Ozone, Arkansas. Ozone is located in what is called the Boston Mountains, up the hill on Highway 21 out of Clarksville, Arkansas. Today the area is part of the US. National Park System. In the 30’s the land had some cabins left over from a logging camp, one of which was large and sturdy enough to be made livable.
This trade was made with a Mr. Matthews who wanted to sell out and move back to Colorado. The trade included a pen of chickens and the contingency that Mr. Matthews would continue to live with the family until spring, and that he would have chicken for dinner every Sunday.
Claude tells of chinking the cracks in the log cabin with mud, and papering the walls with newspaper for insulation. They built a loft for sleeping and used wood and coal oil for heat and light. They planted a garden, raised goats for milk and in short, lived off the land. Claude’s dad cut trees and sold them to a company that made oak barrel staves. Claude, at 8 years old, held one end of the cross-cut saw and told about it with great pride.
The natives, however, were suspicious. These new folks seemed uppity. The lady wore fancy dresses. They talked like ‘furriners’
There were incidents and Claude’s dad had to assert his rights with a shotgun at the ready. The natives made ‘moonshine’ in the woods. This was Arkansas, and it made a lasting impression on young Claude. It was there that he learned to hunt, trap and shoot. He learned the language of the back woods, and he observed first had the commerce of the natives. He watched the exchange of fruit jars filled with the strange white liquid, and he understood what a ‘revenooer ‘ was.
To the natives the making of liquor was considered a God given right and most of it was made for their own consumption. The situation got complicated when it was sold to outsiders. Claude’s mother became concerned about these influences upon her children.
Backwoods schools and quality education proved to be seriously lacking also, and the family found after 2 years that the children needed to return to civilization. Claude believed that he was learning everything that was important, and would have happily remained.
It was to this very plot of land that Claude and I returned 15 years later with our own children, to walk beneath the trees and search out the old landmarks. Although the road had been widened and altered, and the natural spring that he remembered no longer bubbled, the rocky bluff that he called ‘The Eagle’s Nest” remained, a monument to his boyhood.
And the tall trees still whispered their secrets and sang their eternal songs.
The poem quoted at the beginning of this essay is taken from the book THE CHOIRING OF THE TREES by Donald Harrington. This book is a novel that chronicles Arkansas as it was in 1915 and it still remains in the most part true today. The author is an Arkansas native and in a beautiful lyrical style writes of his native state and its peculiarities and its awesome beauty. In it he describes the very area around which my tale is centered, mentioning the little place called Ozone.
By Betty L. Owen