This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozark Hills. I had only about one toe in the Ozarks this past weekend while I and some companions visited friends and family up near Columbia. Our aim was to reconnect with a young woman we’d known almost since birth, had sometimes helped raise and had stayed behind as she went on her way into adulthood. She’s in her mid-thirties now and is bright, confident and remarkably self-aware.
Her closer family, in welcoming these former adjunct mothers, planned some small outings to entertain us and show us the area where they lived. And they did. But one of them in planning the outings, happened on some fellows I had met earlier, in other circumstances, and it was here our voyage veered away from its original intent and headed us off into the cosmos. Really. It was a good reminder of how all things connect, whether or not we see the connection.
My story begins much earlier, when I was invited to speak at a meeting of the Missouri Master Naturalists at their state gathering up at Lake of the Ozarks. At that meeting I met a woman who thought I’d be a good speaker at another gathering, this one of Missouri River Relief, an organization that has taken on the task of tidying up the state’s big rivers. So I went, met them at St. Joseph, told them a story or two, and marveled at both their success and their stamina, for they had gone out that morning with several boatloads of volunteers with the temperature on the river a scant 26 degrees, and filled two giant dumpsters with everything from tires and mattresses to junked cars and way too many formerly owned diapers from that cold river. It’s what they do.
They organize all year gathering volunteers and support for six “major” cleanups, and spend more of their own energy and knowledge in supervising other groups and organizations in cleaning smaller streams. That night, after the first day of the cleanup and the talk, they sat me down at a campfire beside the river and told me the story of that place. We were sitting within a stone’s throw of the very spot where pioneers headed west, crossed the Missouri River and drove their wagons right off the map, led by a guide who simply followed a track through the grass that would take them through Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and all the way to Oregon, if they lived. Whether they did or not, no one they left behind would ever know what became of them. It was on this spot, they told me, that someone among a band of settlers coming from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia penned a longing lament that became a popular song of the times, called simply Shenandoah.
“Wait a minute,” I said, for I knew the song. “What’s with the Indian chief and his daughter and all that business?” They explained saying the song had become so popular among the flatboaters and other rivermen that it had traveled to St. Louis, then on to New Orleans and across the Big Pond to England, where people had never heard of Shenandoah, nor did they know what it was. They changed and added to the words until it made sense to them, and then they sent it back to us. The songwriter had been singing to the river, not to an Indian chief. I thought about that all night, and by morning, had put the words back to where I thought they might belong.
And last weekend, in the dusk dimly lit by the eclipsing moon, and with considerable help for these old bones, I and a quartet of companions boarded the giant 24-foot-long Jon boat of the River Relief and headed upriver from Cooper’s Landing, toward St. Joe, to wait for the clouds to part so we could view the rare and elusive total eclipse of the supermoon. After an hour or two drifting down and motoring back up again, the clouds opened into a wide bowl of sky, and there she was, a dark, rusty eye, just beginning to open in a vast field of stars made visible by the earth’s shadow cast on her face. We howled at her. Dogs and coyotes some distance onshore howled back. I sang the song. Then we sat in the profound darkness as it slowly lightened, listening to the water’s song, marveling at our own insignificance in a vast, wondrous, living universe in which we are all merely along for the ride.
It’s just a suggestion, but if you have a Christmas list or are looking for activities and organizations worthy of a small endowment, consider adding to your list as I am to mine the river keepers of Missouri River Relief, who work so hard and are so generous of spirit, who chose to share with us this gift, a blessing beyond measure that they could just as easily have kept to themselves.
This is Marideth Sisco, from the edge of the Ozarks, on the edge of a small and fragile planet, at a rare, brief moment in time and space when it is granted the power to darken the moon, and we its tiny creatures the eyes to see it.