Taliesin West: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Desert Oasis

In 1909, famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright began constructing a house on the brow of a hill near Spring Green, Wisconsin. He had grown up in the hills of the state and was inspired by the landscape. His mother was of Welsh descent, and he named the 800-acre estate Taliesin, which is a personal name rooted in Welsh mythology that translates to radiant or shining brow. This was not Wright’s first home, nor would it be his last. He had completed a small two-story residence in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, in 1889. Fire almost completely destroyed Taliesin in 1914 and again in 1925, but Wright rebuilt both times.

In the early 1930s, Wright and his third wife, Olgivanna, established an architectural apprentice program at his Wisconsin home called the Taliesin Fellowship, which provided students with an immersive experience that integrated design and construction with growing and preparing food and the study of the arts. The term the Wrights used was “organic architecture.” Wright would continue to make changes and additions to Taliesin over the years after the fires, including converting a chicken coop into a dormitory for his architectural apprentices!

Wright and his students needed seasonal respite from the harsh winters of Wisconsin and found one in 1934 when he rented space for the Fellowship in sunny Arizona. The change in climate was so welcoming that Wright decided to create a winter location for his school. He purchased property in the rugged Sonoran Desert at the base of the McDowell Mountains in Scottsdale, northeast of Phoenix, where he and his apprentices would construct Taliesin West. This winter camp would become a study in how to blend architecture into a stark landscape incorporating water, shade, foliage, and indigenous materials to create a desert oasis. Wright’s architectural school used both Taliesin locations depending upon the season, even after the master’s death in 1959 in Phoenix at the age of 91. Although the Wisconsin program at Taliesin East finally closed in 2020, the tradition continues to this day with the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture in two locations in Arizona. Both Taliesin East and West are now historical sites open to the public, with guided or self-guided tours available.

Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona
Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona

During the week following Christmas in 2022, my wife and I returned to the Phoenix area for a vacation. It is one of our favorite destinations in the country and where we hope to spend considerable time during retirement. On this trip we visited Taliesin West, which was my first time seeing the site. We took a self-guided tour, using a mobile phone app with earplugs to listen to a virtual guide describe the structures and surrounding grounds as we walked through a series of numbered stations over the course of about an hour. The whole setup was quite slick – impressive and informative. Along with other visitors taking the same tour, we were able to stroll through the various rooms and outdoor spaces. It is understandable why Andrew Pielage decided to call his photographic exhibition of Wright’s work “Sacred Spaces,” showcasing how the architect skillfully designed structures that seem almost sanctified.

Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona
Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona

Several design elements of Taliesin West stand out in my mind. A common theme throughout is the use of sharp angles for roof lines, steps, walkways, and water features. This collection of points is reminiscent of the McDowell Mountain peaks visible to the east of the property. The stone and plaster walls, interior and exterior, imitate the rocky outcroppings around Scottsdale and throughout the Phoenix valley. Red, orange, brown, and blue are dominant colors for painted surfaces and fabric, reflecting the palette of the Sonoran Desert floor and the skies above that remain clear most of the time. Although rare in the desert, water is present in the form of rivers, such as the Salt, Gila, and the Agua Fria in Phoenix. Also, the Sonoran Desert gets more rainfall than any other desert in North America. Wright and his apprentices included several modest water features at Taliesin West. Some people have speculated that Wright may have become paranoid after suffering through multiple devastating fires and wanted water nearby as a safeguard. In any case, the presence of water created a literal oasis at Taliesin West.

Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona
Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona
Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona
Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation that owns and operates Taliesin West does a fine job of managing the site as a historically-preserved house museum. The rooms are presented in a fashion that makes them look as if Wright and his students have left for the summer but will return next winter. Spaces are appointed with original (or at least period) art pieces, artifacts, furniture, and furnishings. The story the curators are telling is as much about Wright’s apprentices and their accomplishments as it is about the master architect himself. There are various places where people could gather together, including a small theatre. There are at least three pianos in the buildings, implying how important music was to the general atmosphere the Wrights were producing. Toward the end of his life, Frank Lloyd Wright was hosting cocktail parties with Olgivanna at Taliesin West for select groups of people in the greater Phoenix area. What fascinating conversations must have occurred at such gatherings, no doubt dominated by the celebrity architect who had grown so fond of his sacred space in Arizona.

Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona
Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona
Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona
Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona

San Diego’s Japanese Friendship Garden

Japanese gardens are different from other gardens. They are characterized by simplicity and minimalism, designed to encourage reflection and meditation. They raise landscape architecture to a fine art form, creating harmony of several key elements in a natural setting: stone (from gigantic boulders to pea-size river rock), sculpture, plants, shrubs, trees, paths, and perhaps most important, water. Running water, cascading falls, and shaded pools with large koi fish are almost always included. On the botanical side, there are usually plenty of evergreens, but typically in a wide variety of shades and textures depending upon the garden’s geographic location. Although there are several different types of Japanese gardens based on terrain and purpose, most are composed of the above-mentioned features.

Japanese Friendship Garden, San Diego
Japanese Friendship Garden, San Diego

My wife and I have visited many different public and private gardens over the years, from coast to coast in America and a few in Europe too. We happen to have a Japanese garden where we live in Springfield, Missouri. We enjoyed a stroll through the Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, Arizona several years ago. In August 2022, we were on a vacation in San Diego, so of course, we specifically sought out the Japanese Friendship Garden there, which is one of the most famous in the country.

Japanese Friendship Garden, San Diego
Japanese Friendship Garden, San Diego
Japanese Friendship Garden, San Diego
Japanese Friendship Garden, San Diego

Like other Japanese Friendship Garden cities, San Diego has a sister city, Yokohama, in Japan. The partnership was established in 1957 and was one of the first sister cities on the west coast. The Japanese Friendship Garden in San Diego opened in 1991 and has expanded over the years to a size of twelve acres. Among the garden’s many features are a cherry tree grove, a large section of azaleas and camelias, a water feature that mimics the San Diego watershed, and a beautiful koi pond. There is a bonsai exhibit and places for rotating exhibits of art. It really is one of the finest attractions we saw in San Diego.

Japanese Friendship Garden, San Diego
Japanese Friendship Garden, San Diego
Japanese Friendship Garden, San Diego
Japanese Friendship Garden, San Diego

Piggly Wiggly and Me

I was a bag boy. That is to say, my first job was working as a bag boy when I was 17 years old. I started out for a brief few months working at a grocery store chain called Winn Dixie. My family shopped at this store’s competitor, Piggly Wiggly, which was much more prevalent in our town. One day when I was in the Piggly Wiggly where my folks shopped, the store manager stopped me and asked if I wanted a job. I accepted and ended up working there for the next five years. By the time I left, I had advanced to the position of front end manager, which meant I was responsible for supervising all the bag boys, running a cash register when necessary, and scheduling all the cashiers’ breaks. There were plenty of related duties as required, including making coffee and keeping a cup in the manager’s hand whenever he wanted one.

I couldn’t have known it at the time, but I learned so much about life and people during those five years. I witnessed blatant racism and discrimination against black employees. I saw my share of gender inequity too. I saw sexual harassment for the first time. Admittedly, as an older teen and a man in my early twenties, I got away with inappropriate behavior and language that would have earned me a reprimand 20 years later. I had not yet learned to respect people, especially women, as I should. My college education would eventually help me overcome my immaturity in this regard.

I had lived a sheltered life before starting this job. I was raised in a Southern Baptist home, had attended a Baptist private high school, and had very little contact with anyone who drank alcohol or smoked cigarettes, much less weed. Some of the people I worked with at the grocery store had lives drastically different from mine, and I saw glimpses of an unfamiliar world on many occasions. By the time I was 21 years old, I was working closely with women who were anywhere from 10 to 15 years older than I was. There were generous portions of flirtation and provocative language served all around, and more than my share of stupidity. I was a little more than infatuated a few times. And yet, I have no doubt that these women cared about me and had no intention of hurting me. To the contrary. They were incredibly patient with me. I hope they were never truly offended by my childish behavior.

Some of my fondest memories from those days involve the times the bag boys and I had to stay after hours to strip the wax from the floors throughout the store and rewax them. This was a laborious project that kept us working sometimes 5 or 6 hours after the store closed at 9:00 p.m. Most of these guys were slightly younger than I was, and we had developed a bond working so closely together week after week. Sure, we wasted more time than we should have, and we got distracted too often playing practical jokes on each other. Some of the pranks were over the top, and I would never confess them in writing – just hilarious. I had hints from time to time that some of these fellows had much tougher home lives than I could have imagined, and I probably wasn’t grateful enough for the safe environment I took for granted. I made more than spending cash at Piggly Wiggly. I got schooled. I learned to lead. I found new values. I made friends.

Oceanfront at Laguna Beach, California

My wife and I try to get to the beach at least once a year. In the past, most of our coastal visits have been to the Atlantic side of Florida; however, we have occasionally made it to other surfside destinations in Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, Oregon, and California. For the summer of 2022, we decided to spend a few nights at Laguna Beach as part of a trip to San Diego and Joshua Tree National Park. We booked two nights at Surf and Sand Resort because it looked like a really nice place where we could get an oceanfront room with a balcony, something that has become an absolute must for us.

We have learned the hard way the difference between oceanfront and ocean “view” when it comes to beach accommodations. Ocean view only means that some fragment of sand and water will be in your field of vision when you are looking out from a window or balcony. If we want to sit outside our room and gaze at the beach, waves, and water (and we do), we book an oceanfront room. When Surf and Sand Resort promises you this type of room, they really come through in a big way. Our room was on the fourth floor, and it was so close to the ocean that when we were looking out the sliding-glass door from inside, we couldn’t even see the resort’s namesake: surf and sand. The view was more like looking out of the cabin of a cruise ship on the high seas!

Laguna Beach, California
Laguna Beach, California
Laguna Beach, California
Laguna Beach, California

On our first night, we ate dinner at the resort’s restaurant at a table located on a terrace within a few yards of the breakers. The sounds, smells, and feel of the breeze on our skin all combined to make dinner something more than just a meal. The next morning we walked a few blocks to a charming breakfast spot that served the regular fare, along with some specialty dishes and incredibly delicious fresh fruit. For lunch we dined outside at a nearby Mexican restaurant that specialized in providing way more food than we could eat, but it was fantastic. Later that day we took a walk on the beach, which is bordered north and south by massive rocky ledges that jet out into the ocean, both of which were visible from our balcony. That evening we walked again a few blocks to a dinner spot that was on a deck right at the beach, offering stunning views of the sun sinking toward the flat line of the horizon.

Laguna Beach, California
Laguna Beach, California
Laguna Beach, California at sunset
Laguna Beach, California at sunset

Yes, we did spend a lot of time eating, but we also relished hours relaxing with books and magazines on our balcony. We took naps in the room. We sat for long stretches on the balcony just watching the magnificent Pacific Ocean and the various ships, boats, jet skis, and surfers that crossed our field of vision. The room was comfortable even though it was not equipped with air conditioning. We really didn’t need it. We kept our sliding glass door open the entire time we were there, day and night, listening to the crashing surf. I never saw an insect – not one. That would never happen on the Atlantic coast. Laguna Beach is truly a gem and worth the splurge. I hope we can go back sometime.

An Alien Landscape: Joshua Tree National Park

There is a bizarre and surreal place at the intersection of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts in Southern California that was several million years in the making. It was worth the wait. With massive rock formations rising up from the flat desert floor, Joshua Tree National Park is like a geological museum that is slightly larger than Rhode Island. It is hard to imagine that these stone towers, created from magma rising from deep below the surface and eventually hardening as it cooled, are what is left behind from millions of years of soil erosion. Boulders the size of boxcars are miraculously balanced on top of each other, like rock piles left behind by the children of gods.

Rock pile at Joshua Tree National Park
Rock pile at Joshua Tree National Park

There are also large masses of rounded granite that have been altered and even sculpted by rain, wind, ice, chemical reactions, plant roots, and other forces to form fantastic shapes and configurations. Set against the backdrop of nearby mountain ranges and surrounded by the desert floor, these structures are truly impressive. Throw in a developing thunderstorm billowing above (yes, it does rain in the desert) and you have all the makings of a classic Thomas Cole masterpiece.

Rock formation at Joshua Tree National Park
Rock formation at Joshua Tree National Park
Skull Rock at Joshua Tree National Park
Skull Rock at Joshua Tree National Park

Then there is the namesake of the park, the Joshua Tree, which would fit perfectly into the backdrop of almost any picture book by Dr. Seuss or on the cover of a paperback book about planets on the other side of the galaxy. Belonging to the same family of Agave plants native to tropical South America, Joshua Trees are a type of Yucca, which we often associate with the short, dark green spiky plants of the tropics and deserts. Joshua Trees have an almost whimsical character, proving yet again that nature has a sense of humor. The plant takes on many different shapes and sizes, as if taking its cue from the rocks around it. Joshua Trees have a rather limited range within the deserts of California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona.

A Joshua Tree at Joshua Tree National Park
A Joshua Tree at Joshua Tree National Park

There are several places in this wonderful park where visitors can get breathtaking panoramic views of mountain ranges and valleys that stretch out for miles. At just the right position and vantage point, the scene is reminiscent of something out of a science fiction movie. At the very least, these vistas could serve as inspiration for visual art depicting imaginary worlds. Joshua Tree National Park is one of those natural wonders of the United States that is somehow liminal, neither here nor there, but somewhere between.

Keys View at Joshua Tree National Park
Keys View at Joshua Tree National Park

More Babies, That’s Exactly What We Need

Gavel
Gavel

The reversal of a Supreme Court decision from at least one full generation in the past demonstrates that the United States is determined to claw its way back to the Middle Ages. We can now expect to see an increase in birthrates in America, along with an increase in dead pregnant women – a small price to pay for lots more babies though. It’s similar to having very few restrictions on firearms, which results in the mass slaughter of children in classrooms, but then again, we are going to have more babies, so we’ll have children to spare.

We should be thrilled about this new wave of infants on the horizon. Who doesn’t love a baby, right? I mean, deadbeat dads really love their kids, but just not enough to help feed, clothe, shelter, and educate them. And then there are all those devoted meth-head parents whose brains are so completely fried that they leave their little crawlers alone in the kitchen to pick up a bottle of Drain-O for a quick swig – not on purpose of course, so that doesn’t count. I guess it’s also unfair to lump all rapists in the category of men who don’t love the bambinos they end up siring. But none of the women in these situations would have considered getting an abortion anyway, so it’s all irrelevant. Besides, the good congressman from Missouri helped us all understand that if a woman is raped, she has the miraculous ability to “shut that whole thing down.”

Certainly all 11-year-old girls have matured enough to understand parental love. They’re ready; it’s built into their DNA, for heaven’s sake. And they can help the 12-year-old fathers along if they need some pointers, because those boys will no doubt be eager to learn and happy to give up little league and video games. Even better if the man who got her pregnant is actually her father. He clearly already knows how to love and take care of children. Everybody wins!

Thank goodness the only females who indeed get pregnant and have babies are the ones who come from fine, upstanding families who can provide the support and guidance young mothers need. Think how awful it would be if all those people on government assistance were the ones giving birth instead of the sweet white girls who live in gated communities and are married to young urban professionals quickly climbing the corporate ladder to success. Poor people have plenty of access to free birth control, so no worries about an unwanted pregnancy or welfare babies bleeding the taxpayers.

Now, I suppose it would be irresponsible to close this discussion without addressing a potentially troublesome and even tragic dilemma that can arise during pregnancy. Occasionally, for reasons beyond our limited understanding, the amazing transformation of a fertilized egg to a precious baby somehow gets interrupted, sometimes resulting in catastrophic failure. In these situations, the fetus can die in the womb or shortly after birth. In rare cases, the mother’s own life may be at risk while she carries the poor little one to term. But here in the greatest country on Earth, we put our trust in God first and medicine second. We know that God’s plan is the best plan, even if the mother’s life is sacrificed in an effort for us all to enjoy more babies, because that’s exactly what we need. Amen?

Introducing the Ozarks: An Annotated Bibliography

In late 2018, my wife and I moved from Georgia to Springfield, a town of about 170,000 people in southwest Missouri. It’s a great location for us because we have family and close friends in Georgia, Kansas, Texas, and Arizona. We really enjoy traveling, especially to the desert southwest, but we like the Florida beaches and places like New York City, Chicago, and Nashville. Living in Springfield strategically positions us near the center of the country and makes it easier to get to family, friends, and fun destinations. The icing on the cake is the small national airport that is a mere twenty minutes from our house, which is serviced by three major airlines and a few budget carriers.

Southern Missouri and northern Arkansas make up the bulk of the region known as the Ozarks. It as an area of the country defined by a variety of factors, from geology and topography to culture and customs. It is also quite beautiful. It is rich in natural resources, especially water, minerals, and forests. It is a complicated region in almost every category imaginable. Although it boasts no major cities, it does have some bustling urban centers. There are some wealthy people in the Ozarks, but there are far more families living in serious poverty. On the political spectrum, it is largely conservative with pockets of progressivism mostly in and around the cities.

Admittedly, I knew very little about the Ozarks. I had never set foot in Missouri and only visited once just a few months before we moved here. To get “learned up” about our new home, I did what I always do when encountering something new and unfamiliar. I started reading. The following is an annotated list of books I have read about the Ozarks over the last three years or so. My bibliography is in no way intended to be comprehensive or even representative; however, these books have given me greater insight into the history, culture, and people of the Ozarks. All of these titles are nonfiction, but I have also read fiction by Ozarks writers or stories set in the region. Perhaps sometime I will write a post reviewing those books as well.

A History of the Ozarks, Volume 3 by Brooks Blevins
A History of the Ozarks, Volume 3 by Brooks Blevins

A History of the Ozarks, Volume 3: The Ozarkers by Brooks Blevins
Brooks Blevins is the uncontested authority on the history of the Ozarks. He is a professor at Missouri State University in Springfield, where I am also employed. But his full-time residence is in northern Arkansas, so he has his feet planted in the two main states of the Ozarks. He is a fine writer, a serious scholar, a respected teacher, and an all-round nice fellow. I have only read this 3rd volume of his trilogy, but I intend to at least go back and read the 1st volume covering the early history of the region.

Blevins is at his best when he is dispelling many of the misconceptions and over-generalizations of the Ozarks as a place full of backwoods hillbillies with no connection to the modern world. He also does a great job of pointing out the most attractive features of the region without romanticizing or falling into the trap of exceptionalism, which is always tempting to do if you are so identified with a place, which I believe he is.

The chapters on “Ozarks Society” and “Putting on a Show,” along with his “Conclusion,” were the most interesting to me because they highlight how much the Ozarks have changed over the last 150 years and are continuing to evolve. I’m not sure I agree with Blevins that the specific location of the Ozarks, a topic of serious debate for generations, is best defined by where the Ozarkers live; however, there seems to be a strong sense of place appreciated by so many people who live here, quite similar to sentiments held by many people in the Deep South about their region. This is a solid historical overview of a complex and fascinating part of the country in the modern period.

Living Waters: The Springs of Missouri by Loring Bullard
This book is well documented and researched. The photographs of the springs and streams they feed are stunningly beautiful. The layout of the book makes it easy and enjoyable to read. However, aside from the technical aspects of the book, Bullard clearly has a passion for his subject that is both personal and professional, which is demonstrated in the text of every page.

The organization of the book is especially fine, with chapters focusing on features and functions of springs rather than on individual locations. Bullard incorporates a considerable amount of history to offer context and appreciation of how past generations have understood and valued springs in the state and have taken advantage of them as valuable natural resources. Of course, the environmental message throughout is of paramount importance — we must take good care of our state’s springs because of the vital role they play in providing clean water for the ecosystems they feed.

White Man’s Heaven: The Lynching and Expulsion of Blacks in the Southern Ozarks, 1894-1909 by Kimberly Harper
Harper presents a thoroughly researched and well documented scholarly study that helps explain why the southwestern Ozarks is such a white region of the country. Lynching occurred in many places across the South, and obviously, into the Midwest. Many white people who had lived during the time of slavery, whether they actually owned slaves or not, resented the new autonomy of black people in their communities during Restoration. Over the decades, resentment evolved into a fear. “While blacks may not have been true economic, social, or even political competitors in the region, whites viewed blacks as a threat to their wives, daughters, and police officers.” Obviously, much of the fear centered on the perceived sexual predation of black men. “It was believed that women were not safe in the country or the city, so long as African American men roamed free.”

However, Harper goes beyond the acts of horrible white mob violence to explore why African Americans were driven out of communities, often at the same time lynching took place. Similar action was taken in other parts of the country — Forsyth County in north central Georgia comes to mind. Other areas of north Georgia, especially in the Appalachian foothills, still have small black populations to this day.

In the Ozarks and in the north Georgia mountains, the economy in the early 20th century was primarily subsistence farming, which did not require much labor outside the extended family of the farmer. As Harper observes, “This was in contrast to the black-majority regions of the South, where inexpensive and readily available black labor composed a significant segment of the local economy, making African Americans indispensable to local white employers.” One could easily make the same argument in recent decades for why white farmers have not been so anxious to deport undocumented Latinos from regions of the South where industrial agriculture is dominant and depends on vast numbers of inexpensive laborers.

This is a fine addition to American history and African American studies. Harper’s book joins more recent work on lynching by prominent African American scholars. Highly recommended.

Hipbillies: Deep Revolution in the Arkansas Ozarks by Jared M. Phillips
I had the opportunity to hear the author speak on a panel with two people who were involved in the Back To Land movement in the Arkansas Ozarks at a conference in West Plains, Missouri, in September, 2019. The people who decided beginning back in the 1970s to trade in urban dwelling for a rural, subsistence lifestyle among the hills and “hollers” of the Ozarks are often referred to as Hipbillies — a hybrid of hippies and hillbillies.

Phillips does a good job of placing this movement in the context of 20th century back-to-the-land and counter-culture philosophy characterized by the works of people like Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder. He gives proper credit to the successes of the Hipbillies while also recognizing their failures and some of their less-than-pure intentions. He credits them for fighting for environmental health, sustainable agricultural practices, and social justice issues. One of their greatest accomplishments was succeeding in modest changes to how the US Forest Service approached the management of timber.

Phillips admires how the Hipbillies, especially the pioneers from the early 1970s, faced overwhelming odds and even life-threatening circumstances yet still persevered to make it as homesteaders in a part of the country where the land is not so forgiving. He dispels some of the myths about how native Ozarkers rejected the Hipbillies. Instead, they often embraced them and even saved their lives during harsh winters and unpredictable farming seasons. There were clashes in places like Eureka Springs, but that was more a conflict between counter-culturists and town leadership.

The Hipbillies had big dreams when they landed in the Ozarks. “What was sought, then, was a rehabilitation of American culture — one that began in the dirt and grew over time like the forest that slowly reclaims and heals a ruined field,” Phillips writes. He contends that the Hipbillies took themselves seriously as revolutionaries. They “came to the Ozarks seeking refuge and a place in which they might build a new world for themselves, and hopefully, all of humanity . . . . While they did not always succeed, the story is not over — they are still alive and are still powerful cultural, political, and economic forces in the Arkansas highlands.”

Hillbilly Hellraisers: Federal Power and Populist Defiance in the Ozarks by J. Blake Perkins
The myths and stereotypes about the Ozarks are deeply ingrained in our consciousness, but they never have painted a true picture of the people and their culture, desires, needs, problems, etc. Perkins’s book reinforces one essential truth about Ozarks people: they tend be proud and fiercely independent, even in the face of long-term adversity.

There is a strong tradition of tension between individual rural families and individuals and/or institutions in authority. Poverty has always been a dark shadow hanging over the Ozarks, even when other parts of the country were climbing out of it. Although many people here petitioned for government assistance in the past, there is a history in this region of distrust of government programs, which ended up being administered and exploited by local and state officials. Law enforcement was fine as long as it didn’t try to stop individuals from scraping out a living, even through illegal means. More than anything, native Ozarkers have always just wanted to be left alone. When their autonomy was threatened, especially by outside forces, they sometime became violent.

Ozarks Hillbilly by Tom Koob and Curtis Copeland
Koob and Copeland do a good job here of presenting the stereotypes of the Hillbilly as the term has been used in literature and other art forms to describe many of the rural folk in the Ozarks. The authors argue that, contrary to the traditional image of a lazy, shiftless, ignorant, depraved character, the Ozarks Hillbilly is quite industrious, shrewd, and highly skilled. Hillbillies are survivalists and generations of them have struggled to provide for themselves and their families in a harsh and unforgiving environment.

I found it odd in a book about the Ozarks how much time the authors spent on discussing Appalachian Hillbillies. They seem to have keen interest in the way Hillbillies were presented in Deliverance, the novel by James Dickey and the popular film adaptation starring Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty. There are definitely similarities between the two regions of the country, which have been explored by numerous scholars. The stereotypes of the rural residents of both areas also share commonalities. Perhaps a comparison/contrast book would have been even more helpful and intriguing. 

Where Misfits Fit: Counterculture and Influence in the Ozarks by Thomas Michael Kersen
For Kersen, the town of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, serves as an archetype for his thesis of how counterculture distinguishes the Ozarks and is among its more charming and sustaining features. As he states it, “The magic of Eureka Springs is that the town is a mass of contradictions and microconflicts that breed [sic] creativity.” No wonder that the book’s title is also the semi-official motto of the town: Where Misfits Fit.

Kersen does a good job of weaving the eccentricities of the people who occupy the Ozarks into the history of the region. He first offers his identification of the region, defining it by geography and culture. He then proceeds to outline its countercultural characteristics through popular myths, artistic expression, supernatural fixations, cult activity, musical influence and inspiration, and the back-to-the-land movements primarily of the 1970s (the author’s parents brought him to the Ozarks from Texas as part of this larger movement).

A thread running throughout the book is Kersen’s use of the adjective “liminal” to describe the Ozarks – a place that is difficult to box in and that continually crosses lines. He writes that “the Ozarks defies boundaries of all sorts — it is a work in progress.” Here again, the contradictions of the area come into play. For instance UFO enthusiasts that have been drawn here for decades rely on scientific knowledge about astronomy and space exploration but scorn scientists who fail to validate their paranormal claims. Kersen recognizes that “eccentric places attract eccentric people — people willing to live and think in the margins.” He also believes the Ozarks “offers something unique for its inhabitants and even American culture at large.”

I found some of the most valuable information in the Conclusions chapter, especially about the impact of in-migration into the Ozarks from countries around the world. The author wonders how Ozark identity will change as the racial and ethnic profile of the region continues to change. The book has extensive end notes, an impressive bibliography for further reading and study, and a decent index. Just a few points of criticism: the book could have benefited from skillful editing. There are too many typo kind of errors for an academic press book. Also, I suspect this book is a collection of separately-written essays because there is considerable repetition of information in the chapters. Otherwise, it is a fine book that is both accessible and informative.

Lake of the Ozarks: My Surreal Summers in a Vanishing America by Bill Geist
I was drawn to this book primarily because I visited the Lake of the Ozarks just a few months after settling here. I didn’t know anything about Bill Geist as I never watch Sunday Morning on CBS. I may have read his columns before but am not aware if I have. I can relate to many of the references Geist makes to growing up in the 1960s and 70s, although he is a bit older than I am. Some readers will no doubt be put off by the political incorrectness of the author’s perspectives, language, and the circumstances from his adolescence, but I suspect he is being perfectly honest and straightforward with his recollections and descriptions of his life and times working for his uncle and aunt at their lakeside lodge. There are some really laugh-out-loud passages in this book, which made it an enjoyable read.

Footprints in the Ozarks: A Memoir by Ellen Gray Massey
This is a pleasant read. It isn’t challenging; the text is straightforward; it doesn’t reveal anything new about the Ozarks region; it gets a bit sentimental in places; and it is so bucolic that the reader can almost smell the cow manure on the farm where Massey lived and raised her family. She also worked as a high school English teacher, and apparently quite a good one. She supervised her students over a ten-year period as they produced a quarterly journal titled Bittersweet. The value of this book lies in Massey’s descriptions of the social mores of her community, the relationships of family and friends, the tragedies her family faced (including the death of her husband), and how life in the rural Ozarks was fulfilling and rewarding to her, as it has been for so many others for many generations.

The Wow Factor of Niagara Falls

I have written several posts about waterfalls because they are among my most favorite elements of nature. I have driven, hiked, and climbed on many occasions to reach them. I have seen everything from little trickles of water falling from rocky ridges in the mountains of Appalachia to white misty veils crashing from great heights at Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Columbia River Valley. I have been mesmerized by all of them.

When my wife and I had an unexpected opportunity to visit Niagara Falls as a result of being in Erie, Pennsylvania, we both agreed it would be worth the two-hour drive around the Lake Erie coast to see this iconic natural wonder. Like the Grand Canyon and so many other magnificent landmarks around the world, photographs and videos simply cannot capture the grandeur of something so massive and powerful. Seeing the scope of the falls, hearing it, feeling the moist air and spray on your face, and even feeling the rumble of the crashing water is impossible to replicate electronically.

Niagara Falls, American side (left) and Horseshoe Falls (background)
Niagara Falls, American side (left) and Horseshoe Falls (background)

With almost 76,000 gallons of water pouring over the edge of the American falls every second, the volume is quite hard to imagine. Yes, that’s over 4.5 million gallons a minute! The water is about two feet deep at the crestline, which gives the edge of the falls a deep emerald hue. It is stunning. The deepest section of the Niagara River is just below the falls. It is so deep that it equals the height of the falls above, which is 170 feet. Upstream from the falls between its northeastern banks and Green Island, the Niagara River rumbles and rolls as it makes its way to the main attraction.

Pedestrian bridge over Niagara River
Pedestrian bridge over Niagara River

Niagara Falls has never been on our bucket list of places to visit, mainly because it seemed too much like a tourist trap. However, we were pleasantly surprised. There are plenty of chain restaurants, souvenir shops, and other retail vendors nearby, but the American side of the falls is bordered by a state park that makes no attempt to outshine the headliner. The Canadian side is full of high-rise hotels and some casinos, which is probably an enticement to cross the border for some visitors. We were perfectly content with the marvelous wonder of Niagara Falls with very few distractions. If you can stand on the observation deck beholding that vista and not say “wow,” I’m not sure what would impress you.

A Musical Tribute to Flannery O’Connor

During the early stages of the COVID pandemic in 2020, I wrote a pop song as a tribute to Flannery O’Connor’s brilliant short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Those who know me best will not be surprised that I would do such a thing. She is my favorite author, and I think she was a comic genius – far ahead of her time.

If Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy had a love child delivered by Neil Young, I can imagine this is what it would sound like when the baby cried. The title of the song is “I Just Don’t Fit.” I decided on a western-style tune to give it some distance from O’Connor’s South, but the darkness is still there.  It’s probably enough to turn Bruce Springsteen’s stomach, but it’s the best I can do with what I have.

Here is a link to a YouTube recording of the song. The lyrics are printed below.
https://youtu.be/8zkRxEC4_Fk

Me – vocals, lyrics, music, and acoustic guitar
Justin Larkin – harmony vocals, electric guitar, bass, drums, mixing, and recording. (Lyrics and performance copyrighted 2021; all rights reserved)

Here’s to clean spectacles and parrot-print shirts.

“I Just Don’t Fit”

(Verse 1)
My father called me a different breed, and I guess that’s what I am
I must have done a mighty evil deed that even Jesus can’t comprehend
You think that if I pray
You can walk away
But everything’s out of balance now with too many debts we can’t pay

(Chorus)
Something must be missing ‘cause I just don’t fit
No reconciliation so I shoot from the hip
If you’re looking for a good man you might as well quit
Something must be missing ‘cause I just don’t fit

(Verse 2)
I’ve tried my hand at so many things, and I’ve seen my share of pain
You’re gonna need more than common blood if you want to wash away that stain
Can’t accept the fall
Until you lose it all
The undertaker never gets a tip; the remittance is always too small

(Chorus)
Something must be missing ‘cause I just don’t fit
No reconciliation so I shoot from the hip
If you’re looking for a good man you might as well quit
Something must be missing ‘cause I just don’t fit
No, I just don’t fit

(Instrumental verse solo)

(Chorus)
Something must be missing ‘cause I just don’t fit
No reconciliation so I shoot from the hip
If you’re looking for a good man you might as well quit
Something must be missing ‘cause I just don’t . . .

(Final Chorus)
Something must be missing ‘cause I just don’t fit
No reconciliation so I shoot from the hip
I can walk away and leave you bleeding in the ditch
Something must be missing ‘cause I just don’t fit
No, I just don’t fit

I Will Miss You, Rick

I lost someone recently, and the space left behind seems unimaginably large right now. For over 30 years Rick was my close friend, longer than anyone has been a close friend to me. Others were probably friends with him longer than I was, which is quite fortunate for them. I don’t remember the first conversation we had when he came to my church as minister of music and youth. I can’t really say why we forged such a close bond. We had some things in common. We both loved BBQ; we liked bike riding together on farm roads back in the day; we both liked to travel, especially out West; we liked reading and occasionally made book recommendations to one another. In fact, I was reading a book that he had recently recommended when his sweet wife called to tell me Rick had suffered a serious incident with his heart.

We both loved music, but our abilities in that regard were not equal. I’ve always been a lazy musician, learning how to play something just well enough to get by, and he certainly knew it. He never said it, but he knew it. Rick was anything but lazy. He was quite accomplished at the piano, but that’s because he worked and worked at a piece until he got it right. He was like that with a lot of things, which made him so good at what he did in ministry, and then later as a piano technician.

We also shared a similar sense of humor, and for those who know me best, I hope they won’t hold that against him. He was so patient with my endless disruptions during choir practice. We ribbed each other mercilessly, and Facebook was just like . . . fuel. I consider myself so very fortunate to have had the opportunity to talk to Rick less than 24 hours before he passed away. I had texted his wife asking about his condition, and a minute later he called me. He told me he’d had a good day and was feeling much better, which is such a deceptively cruel but common occurrence with critically-ill patients. During the conversation, I said something — I don’t know what — but it was most likely ridiculous, as I am wont to do. Rick chuckled lightly and said, “They’ve got me hooked up to all kinds of monitors here, so I can’t laugh, or I’ll set off the alarms.”

Rick and I certainly didn’t see eye to eye on everything. But that’s not what defines true friendship, is it? One of the many qualities I admired in Rick was how honest he was. He would give it to you straight – always. And if he were able to speak right now and I could hear him, I have no doubt he would say, “The least you could do in my memory is get a haircut.”

I don’t really know what Rick got out of our relationship over the decades. I hope somehow I made life better for him, because he definitely did that for me. What I do know is that I became friends with Rick at a pivotal point in my life. I had serious questions without a lot of good answers. He was only a few years older than I was, but his maturity far exceeded his age. On those Thursday mornings we got together for coffee before heading into work, we had some really deep discussions that I will never forget and for which I am eternally grateful. I told my wife and his, I can’t imagine the world without Rick in it. I’m not going to get used to that. I love you Rick, and I’m going to miss you for as long as I’m still around.