The Soil That Keeps us Grounded

Jun 3, 2016

This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozark Hills. It’s June in the Ozarks. I could have written about my potatoes, which look promising, or my strawberries, which are heaping abundance on my head. But then I saw a post on Facebook that put literally everything I know about life into a whole different perspective. And it’s not about Politics. Somebody posted a sign that’s attributed to the Farm Equipment Association of Minnesota and South Dakota. It offers this message:

Despite all our accomplishments, we owe our existence to a six inch layer of topsoil and the fact it rains.

Well, how’s that for reducing things to the essentials. But we know that message could not have originated from any farm association in the Ozarks.  Anyone living in these hills would be grateful to God to have six inches of topsoil, or three, or one. Farmers here, unless they are farming a creek bottom, are as likely to be dealing with soil that’s mostly just crumbs of organic matter lodged in sand and gravel and scattered over slabs of clay and limestone. Why would one live in such a place? Well, because it’s beautiful. And because we’re too stubborn to call it quits. Like a mechanic once said in praise of an elderly Ford I’d often repaired - resurrected, more like – “those old things run a long time after they wear out,” he said. And it did.

It wasn’t always that bad here. I mean, it’s always been both beautiful and hard, but in earlier, what we call “pre-settlement” times, the land was a patchwork of broad prairies and savannahs, and mature pine and oak forests. But the deep sod and fertility soon fell to the moldboard plow that severed the deep sod blanket that held the soil in place.

We tend to forget that the Missouri River, now known as the Big Muddy, wasn’t that muddy until we made it so. In the forest, it was worse. Life there became harder when the little creek bottom farms fell to heavy feeding crops like corn and cotton, and people moved on when the soil was used up. There was even a word for it. Those places were “farmed out,” we said. It was the same with our wildlife. Hungry settlers shot and ate everything edible, and then complained that the game just “went away.” It didn’t go away. We killed them all and ate ‘em, except for those slim specimens living in country too rough to go after them. By the time the Conservation Commission was established, in the 1930s, the deer had vanished and the wild turkeys had been reduced to a single population of just 30 birds hiding in the deep hollows around Caney Mountain in Ozark County. One of the commission’s first efforts at conserving what was left was to order more than 7,000 acres of that steep, rocky territory to be fenced off, because people were hunting with dogs. Berniece Morrison took the job, cutting cedar posts and stringing woven wire fencing, by hand, in country only accessible by horse or mule. But when he was done, inside the fence, the department began importing deer and more turkey. And that’s why we have deer and turkey hunting seasons today.

But that, of course, is only part of the story, and the rest requires a little more history. On the western verge, as the topsoil became scarcer, farmers were forced onto more and more marginal land to feed their cattle, and soon, that soil, too, became depleted, the more so because it was on steeper hillsides, and was easily dislodged by the rains and sent on and on downstream. It was not until the 1960s, when fescue grass was introduced, that the situation improved as fescue’s deep, tenacious roots seized that soil and held it in place, and so today’s farmers can stay in one place and stop moving on when their home places became farmed out.

Fescue, although not the perfect cattle feed, made good food, and was also the likely savior of the eastern woodlands that had been decimated by the Pennsylvania Lumber Barons, those ones who came and converted those forests into the lumber that built new cities on the frontier, like Tulsa & Wichita & Omaha. Then the lumbermen moved on, leaving behind a barren land where no one could live. But we did. And when the fescue came, we prospered.

We will not see again the likes of those forests that were so grand that often one log made a wagonload, and were so clear of knots that often the tree was topped at the first branch, and those tops left to die, and dry, and be set alight by a stray spark or lightning strike. The fires from that slash, that lumber waste, burned so hot they burned away the thin soil entirely and exposed the gravel. The rains that followed washed the leavings down into the streams and created the gravel bars that remain today. They too did not come here until we did. And there’s your installment of Ozarks history and commentary.

We should be grateful for our forebears for their hard work, and to the fescue that has brought the Ozarks back from the hard, rockbound poverty of its past into one of the nation’s top beef-producing areas. Times are better now. We are still far short of that fabled six inches of topsoil, except in our home gardens, where soil exists mostly because it’s imported. But it’s enough for now that the rains are plentiful, growing us a splendid hay crop, although we can’t get to it until the rain stops.

In the meantime, I think it’s worth mentioning that in this lull between the rainmaking and the haymaking there’s time to reflect on the fact we owe our existence in this place, to our own stubbornness, as well as to finding a tenaciously rooted grass that thrives on the poor soil that it fiercely and stubbornly defends. And, too, the stubbornly independent rain that falls too much and will end all too soon. We could complain, or just be thankful for what is in reality the recurring embarrassment of riches, always at hand in these Ozarks Hills.