One of the more interesting responsibilities of my current job is participating in an oral history project exploring the history and culture of the Ozarks, a physiographic region of the country located in portions of southern Missouri, northern Arkansas, and small portions of eastern Kansas and Oklahoma. I have solicited interviews from several people so far including a retired NASA astronaut; a farmer who moonlights as a musician; a folklorist and musician; and most recently, a woman who is a visual artist, a writer, and a horticulturist growing ginseng in the hills of northwest Arkansas. Since this is a personal blog, I won’t reveal her identity but will call her Ms. Ozart for the sake of convenience.
Ms. Ozart had a career in environmental science, but she also pursued artistic endeavors from an early age. Now that she is no longer working away from home, she can focus most of her time and energy on what she loves most: growing native plants, gardening, painting, and writing. She was not raised in Arkansas but lives here now with her husband, a couple of horses, and a dog who at one time kept her chickens safe from predators. The dog is old, deaf, and retired. Ms. Ozart no longer has chickens.
It was her fascination with one specific plant that attracted Ms. Ozart to this part of the country. Ginseng is a perennial herb native to deciduous forests, especially in places like Appalachia and some parts of the Ozarks. It thrived in these locations and throughout many other areas of the country until it was grossly overharvested in the 1970s, mainly because of the purported medicinal benefits of the root. It is now considered an endangered species. The demand for the plant’s root has been high in China for centuries, and plants from the U.S. are still routinely shipped there. Ms. Ozart isn’t interested in harvesting the roots or selling them. It takes anywhere from 10 to 15 years for the root to develop to a marketable size. She is much more interested in propagating the plant and selling the seeds so other people can do the same.
At her invitation, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ms. Ozart at her beautiful property. Because ginseng is rather valuable, and poaching is a constant threat, she prefers to keep her exact location as private as possible. Respectfully, I have included no photographs of the area with this post. In our preliminary correspondence, Ms. Ozart asked me if I would prefer to meet her in the nearby town and have her drive me to her home. She told me if I had a nice car, I probably wouldn’t want to go far beyond the town. Images of being blindfolded in the trunk of a large sedan came to mind. She warned me that my phone’s GPS app may have trouble finding the address, especially if I happened to exit the program in route from the nearby town. Cell service doesn’t exist this deep in the Ozarks – no bars . . . nada. I am fortunate to have a Ford F-150 pickup, so I decided to take my chances and trust my phone to get me there.
I have spent most of my life in rural areas. The last town where we lived in the northeast Georgia mountains was in a county with several small towns and a total population of just over 40,000. It was a booming metropolis compared to where Ms. Ozart resides. The “little town” several miles north of her location where she offered to meet me consisted of a tiny square that was like an appendage off the side of the two-lane state road. There were about six buildings housing such enterprises as a bank, a café, a feed store, and an art gallery where some of Ms. Ozart’s work is on exhibit and for sale. I continued farther out into the countryside until my riding companion, Siri, instructed me to turn left onto a dirt and stone road – not gravel, large stones. Sometimes, the rocks were semi-submerged boulders. The shocks on my truck will no doubt need to be replaced soon.
Ms. Ozart had warned me that it would take about 15 minutes or more to travel from the paved road to the base of her driveway where she would meet me. When I looked at the map and discovered the distance was only a few miles, I thought she was exaggerating. She wasn’t. Had I attempted to ramp up my speed to over 20 mph, my truck and I would have been launched airborne into either a tree or flowing water, both of which were in abundance on either side of the wide path that was given the designation of the county name followed by a four-digit number. The transportation department didn’t even bother with naming it for a prominent family that had carved out a living here generations ago, which is a common practice for farm roads in Georgia. I crossed over the same river twice and a few tributaries on surprisingly sturdy concrete bridges that were more like large culverts. I was expecting rickety wooden structures, which of course would never be able to support farm equipment and heavy trucks that undoubtedly traverse this byway every day.
I was traveling through a rather mountainous terrain compared to much of the Ozarks, with high ridges rising from rolling valleys fully furnished with fence lines, crumbling rock walls from long-abandoned structures, small creeks and branches, clusters of trees and shrubs, rock outcroppings, and grazing cows — lots of cows. I am convinced the livestock in northwest Arkansas have social security numbers. Even in December with the predominant hardwood trees undressed for the approaching winter, it was like an opening scene from the Daniel Boone television program from the late 1960s. Aside from the occasional power lines, the countryside probably looks much as it did in frontier days.
Notwithstanding the absence of cell service, most of the folks living along this county road are not really off the grid. They have electricity, running water, propane gas, satellite television, perhaps even slow and spotty satellite Internet service, and other amenities that people enjoy in the most remote parts of the country. Although Ms. Ozart has dreams of someday being a true homesteader, she freely admits that most of her provisions these days come from Walmart and the occasional delivery truck whose drivers risk life and limb to reach her door.
When I arrived at the base of her driveway — the cross section of a creek, a road intersection, and a pasture gate — Ms. Ozart was waiting for me in her small, well-seasoned red pickup truck. “You might want to ride the rest of the way with me,” she said. “Your truck probably doesn’t have four-wheel drive, does it?” And here I was, thinking the wagon trail that had gotten me this far was hazardous. I transferred my recording equipment to her truck, and we headed up the ridge on a rutted, winding trail just wide enough for one vehicle.
We stopped after about 100 yards to look at one of the locations where ginseng is growing on a raised plateau just across the creek from the “driveway.” The plants are dormant this time of year, and the leaves are gone, but she wanted to show me the spot just the same. She gingerly scampered across several rocks to reach the other side, warning me to secure my footing on the slippery surfaces as I followed. I could just imagine conducting the interview in blue jeans soaked in icy creek water. Luck was on my side. I remained high and dry.
We safely made it back to her truck and continued our trek toward her house located about a half mile up the hill. We were no longer crossing creeks and branches. We were going through them. She was describing the habitat for ginseng and its companion plants while showing me the more interesting features of her property, including lovely cascading waterfalls and massive rock outcroppings in tall ravines. At one point she stopped the truck to point out another hillside where she had discovered ginseng growing wild. I admit it was difficult for me to concentrate as I was keenly aware that she had parked the truck directly in the middle of a flowing creek. I kept waiting for the sensation of sinking and drifting as we sat there, but after she finished her story, she simply engaged the four-wheel drive and slowly maneuvered forward out of the water. I was thankful for her truck. I was more thankful I wasn’t driving.
We arrived at Ms. Ozart’s house and set up at her kitchen table for the interview. The room was comfortably warm with the help of a gas space heater. She had chili bubbling in a slow cooker that filled the house with a mouthwatering aroma. She put on a pot of coffee, graciously served me a cup, and sat across the table from me and my video camera for a 45-minute conversation that was fascinating and entertaining. She pulled out of her refrigerator seedlings of ginseng and other native herbs she overwinters packed in moss in plastic storage bags. She demonstrated how she makes pigments for paint by grinding rocks from the local creeks into powders of various hues and textures and mixing them with oil, honey, and other suspending agents. She talked about how the Ozarks region is an inspiration for her writing and her visual art. She and her husband have built a rich life in this isolated slice of wilderness, which I find quite remarkable and admirable.
After we finished and I packed my equipment in her pickup, she drove me back to my truck. “Do you really get supplies delivered to you out here?” I asked as we bumped our way down the hill. “Oh sure,” she said. “Lowes delivered my washer and dryer too.” Admittedly, I was a bit surprised by this news, given how narrow and rugged her driveway is. When we reached a sharp curve where the creek widens next to the road, she pointed toward the stream and said, “I came down early one morning and found a FedEx truck tilted sideways and halfway in the creek right there. The driver had made a delivery to my house the night before, and lost control going back down on this turn. He showed up later that morning with a wrecker. It took the better part of the day for them to get his truck out of the creek, but they did it.”
When we reached my truck, I thanked her for her hospitality and told her how grateful I was that she drove the last leg up to her house. She chuckled a bit and said, “I thought that would work best.” I watched her from my rearview mirror retrieve the mail from her mailbox at the driveway entrance and then climb back in her truck to head home again. Somehow the rocky road leading back to the state highway didn’t seem quite as treacherous this time. The cows appeared just as disinterested as they had earlier. I recognized a few landmarks that I had remembered to look for on the way back to make sure that I wasn’t lost. I allowed myself to look around and soak up the pastoral vistas along the way, but I slowed down considerably and took great care crossing the bridges.