old pathways, new directions

In my years of research, rural psychogeography has never been high on my list of items to explore or even think about. There are quite a few walkers who wander the less crowded landscapes outside the big cities (and who document their hikes with words and images), but it has always seemed more intriguing to me to think about interactions, experiences, and interventions in human environment taking place where lots of humans actually run into each other on a regular basis. The perambulations of a Wordsworth or a Thoreau—nothing wrong with them, of course; but really, how many early-morning mists and delicate spring blossoms do I want to read about? Where is the story? How does one do a dérive in a cow pasture?

I suspected that my presumptuousness was begging for correction. And while I believe that I will continue to find city spaces more inspiring than the wilderness, the Ozark mountains have not failed to work their memory magic on me. Cow pastures are rare in a topography that gets by with almost no level ground. Everything is sloped, angled, in a hollow, by a crooked creek, or on top of a bluff. It is a rough and beautiful landscape that seems mostly unspoiled. (Much of it is protected as a National River or National Forest.)

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What the Ozark Mountains are made of.

Once I started spending time in the mountains, I realized how misplaced my urban arrogance had been. I was wrong about the unspoiled landscape. Native Americans and white settlers have lived here for a long time, but often they don’t stay long in one place. This feels odd to me, coming from a country where it is still not common to move more than a few kilometers from where one was born.

In his short story “The Salvation of Me,” Breece D’J Pancake, born and raised in West Virginia, describes his Appalachian home as “a land where road maps resemble a barrel of worms with St. Vitus’ dance.”

In a similar fashion, the Ozarks are really a snakes’ nest of old road traces and trails. There are remnants of homesteads everywhere. That vertical rock I stub my foot on is actually a grave marker, and when I look more closely, I spot dozens more, many of them the graves of young children. An old rural school is now a chicken house. Small wooden churches stoop like the old oaks that surround them. Everywhere I hike, there is a story; but each one is told in a low voice that can be hard to hear over the wind and the water rushing over the boulders.

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Remains of a Homestead near the Buffalo River.

I am working on a number of projects in various stages of completion–my dissertation, the book on the Wichita Mountains with Don House and Sy Hoahwah, the paper houses, a new series of male nudes–but I know that soon I’ll need to find words and images that will do justice to the psychogeography of the Ozarks.

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“Thy mind shall be a mansion for all lovely forms”

And because synchronicity never lets us down, I’m closing with a link to the podcast of a recent conversation between two of my favorite writers/psychogeographers, Rebecca Solnit and Robert Macfarlane. Without them, my dissertation wouldn’t exist. In this meeting of the minds sponsored by Orion magazine, Solnit and Macfarlane discuss writing about nature and place.

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