Sunday, July 13, 2008

St. Louisians

The great disdain that folks in the Ozarks have for city dwellers goes back many years. I've spoken to 80 year old farmers in Miller Co. who blame "folks from St. Louis" for all the ills plaguing the Ozarks: green, slimy cyanobacteria in the rivers? "All them floaters from St. Louis..." (though it's actually caused by conversion of land to fescue pastures for cattle); low quail numbers? "Hunters from St. Louis killed them all..." (but, really, low quail numbers are linked to conversion of land to agriculture); the increase from .25 to .50 for a cup of coffee? "Those fancy hunters from St. Louis comin' into our stores..."

I learned about this opinion several years ago from a colleague, a lifelong resident of Camden Co. When hikers get lost in the woods, they "must be from St. Louis." When backpackers complain about the ticks and chiggers in August and the whip-por-wills in May, they, surely, are from St. Louis. Always one to defend city dwellers, I learned first hand why Ozarkers might think this way. My first day on the job, a nice couple from St. Louis asked me if their 4x4 could "make it up the hill" to a wildly popular overlook at the end of a paved road. "Well, my Civic can..." And then there was the 25 year old who set out on a 12 mile trail at 7 pm without any water for her or her overweight dog, leaving her family waiting for her at the trail head. She followed a logging road rather than reading a trail map, her dog died from dehydration, and she was discovered at sunset by a local law enforcement who announced over the radio that "the girl from St. Louis was found." It's not the city's fault, just some bad representation.

So it was pretty ironic on Friday night when I read a 1976 column in Sue Hubbell's On this Hilltop titled "Where the Lights are Shining." In it, she compiles conversations overheard in the Ozarks:
When a vacant house is vandalized, the neighbors nod their heads wisely and say that they wouldn't be surprised if the loot turned up in St. Louis. Junk and old tires in our rivers? Someone from St. Louis brought them down special. Land speculators from St. Louis are blamed for driving up the price of land so high that locals can't afford it. When a young man was arrested and tried in the county seat for possession of a controlled substance, he hired a clever lawyer from St. Louis who, an area newspaper reported sourly, "wore plaid pants" and got the case dismissed.

(Here, here: I should quickly point out that three of my favorite people are from St. Louis, and none of them get lost in the Ozarks, drive up land prices, or throw beer cans in the rivers. One has done more positive work for the Missouri landscape than anyone else in the state's history. Another is widely hailed as the "Father of Missouri Wilderness" and works arduously to protect large, uninterrupted tracts of woods in the Ozarks. And the third understands and waxes eloquently about the entomological relationships in the Ozarks better than anyone. At any rate, any city with not one but two opera companies, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods and a great REI store is a fantastic place in my book. It's not the city's fault that certain citizens can't read a trail map.)

So, earlier in the day, my colleague and I jumped into the Current River fully clothed to cool off after spending the day building a plant list in a mismanaged tract of woods. We decided to swim across the river to check out the ferns on a big dolomite bluff, but before we could return to shore, a virtual cavalcade of canoes passed by impeding our passage. The Current River is a wide, lumbering old river. No rapids, no whitecaps, and only the occasional rootwad calls for any maneuvering that might make an Ozarker set down his beer. The paddlers, however, were dressed to the nines for Class 5 rapids: kayaking gear, long sleeved water repellent shirts to protect them from hypothermia, fancy life jackets that probably cost more than the rental aluminum canoe, $80 kayak paddles. The two of us sat there on a dolomite boulder in our work clothes trying to refrain from laughter. Maybe they thought the Current was still in flood stage? Maybe they thought a mid-July float in Missouri was as treacherous as the Snake River in April? My colleague and I said it simultaneously: "I bet they're from St. Louis," then snickered at what the float outfitters in Eminence must have thought of all that fancy gear.

Really, though, if it weren't for the deer hunters from St. Louis buying up oak-hickory woodlands to bag their 12 point buck every year, we'd probably have more fescue fields and cattle grazing. If it weren't for floaters from St. Louis descending on the Ozarks every weekend, the canoe outfitters, private campground owners, and restaurants in river towns like Eminence likely wouldn't exist. And anyway, it's not the St. Louis landowners who clear woods for food plots, turning what my boss calls "nature's food plots" into patches of exotic species that threaten the very biodiversity we all want to protect.

Sure, kids from St. Louis can be truly obnoxious on Ozark rivers--they slap paddles against the water, holler in the canyons, act essentially like fools on parade sometimes--but could we really live without them?


Sabatia said...

On John Karel -

The concept of wilderness is a righteous one, and from time to time we all want solitude. Periodically, all of us want to escape the scrum engulfing this world. Unfortunately, Wilderness has become the apparatchik of one arm of the environmental movement that is used in a misguided effort to ‘save’ Nature from Man.

Wilderness is used by people like John Karel as a bludgeon to drive home some form of misguided ecological salvation that, in reality, is leading to the loss of some of the most globally significant ecosystems on this planet (witness Hercules Glades).

In John’s case it appears that what was once a noble cause has degenerated into a quasi-religious monotone that neither accepts, nor encourages, educated ecological discourse, and it could be argued that people like John Karel might be responsible for as much damage to our natural world as the mouldboard plow, the cross-cut saw, or open-range grazing

Wilderness is appropriate in the alpine zone of Mount Washington, ANWR, or in the cove hardwood forests that dot the spine of the Appalachian Mountains. That is because these areas – by and large - do not need human-driven management to sustain their ecological systems. In Missouri it is different. In Missouri the designation of Wilderness, at least on Federal lands, becomes the beginning of the end for some of the most biologically-rich ecosystems on this planet.

Without human-induced management, almost all of Missouri’s modern landscape will devolve into a biologically depauperate system comprised of Eastern Red Cedar, Kentucky-31 fescue, and off-site red oaks.

Nature is not static. To put a fence around a Missouri ecosystem, in the name of Wilderness, and pronounce it free from Man is to do more harm than good.

BTW - thanks for the great Blog. Really

Allison Vaughn said...

Thank you, Sabatia--(great genus). Yes,I hear you loud and clearly. Management of our woodlands require certain actions that run counter to the desired condition of wilderness. You're exactly right. While he's a brilliant man, a lovely person, he has differing views from those in the management side of things. As it were, I see both sides. I burn, use chainsaws, use herbicides, think certain agencies which I don't work for don't know how to manage their woods, but I still greatly respect John...(thanks, by the way, for reading).

Allison Vaughn said...

Too, having written a whole management plan on a wilderness area, the fact that natural processes cannot alone manage areas that have been abused by grazing and fire suppression requires manipulation. I certainly recognize that, and have gone toe to toe with wilderness advocates that cedars encroaching glades actually compromise the wilderness character by sacrificing naturalness in that the "hand of man" is obvious in the 70 years of fire suppression. It all goes back to desired condition and maximizing biodiversity. Of course, to save Hercules Glade, we need active management, and, most importantly, to get the blasted horses off of it. I could really go on for hours about the concept of wilderness and active management....

Nathan said...

Great post, Allison. I loved your historical exposition of a classic rural-urban antipathy. The "plaid pants" and "brought here special" made Erin and me laugh. Thanks for finding that gem from the past, while exploding the myths of the present.

Sabatia said...

Oh, I should not single out John – he has done some wonderous things for Missouri - but the natural world is not a cute and fuzzy teddy bear that is only meant to be hugged. In many cases one must do the tending to.

For example, it is maddening to me that the Wilderness concept – on Federal lands at least – trumps the salvation of endangered species (witness Mead’s milkweed), and even entire ecological systems, in the name of an “untrammeled by man” landscape. BTW – your comment “that the "hand of man" is obvious in the 70 years of fire suppression” is right on. Unfortunately, not many people see the natural world through your eyes, and to them a forest of Acer platanoides, with an understory of Lonicera maackii, is a great forest – nice and green and all.

Check out the criticism of Wilderness in Wikipedia:

Ted C. MacRae said...

Great post, Allison. The behavior of floaters, more than any other thing, makes me want to be vague about my city roots whenever I visit the Ozarks. It's a real bone of contention with me, to the point that I completely avoid the rivers until fall sets in and the floaters disappear. I can enjoy the beauty of the riverways, the fall foliage, and the crisp autumn air without the visual and auditory assault of drunken teenagers. City folk and rural folk alike share the blame for what has happened to the Ozarks, and efforts to return the Ozarks to their glory are also coming from both quarters. I may be initially hesitant to say, "I'm from the city" whenever I'm down there, but I enjoy my opportunities to interact with local residents, show them the insects that I'm studying, and let them see someone who is passionate about "their" neighborhood.

Allison Vaughn said...

You're exactly right. The grazing and timber harvest conducted in the past 100 years by the very folks who live there certainly shouldn't be overlooked. While we've never met, I bet you have a good, gentle demeanor--the antithesis of drunken floaters, one who appreciates the Ozarks more than anyone. I think land an aquatic resource management by Missouri citizenry can be summed up in the most commonly heard phrase when I'm in the field: "...and then they just all disappeared..." Overharvesting, mismanagement of timber resources, fire suppression, air pollution from burning tire piles, water pollution from clearing riparian areas...oh, Ted, you're smart. You know where I am on this.