Friday, October 06, 2006

Missouri Uplands Revisited

Moving north out of Jefferson City you are literally ticking forward on an accelerated geological timeline. The craggy rolling hills and hollows that are products of millions of years of erosion submit gradually to a young, mere 400,000 year old glaciated topography. On into Callaway County, the Kingdom of Callaway, and back onto the plains, Dissected Till Plains to the scientist, from the tribal Scots-Irish lineage to the Germanic farmers of the prairies.

The tiny blip on the map that is Hatton, MO is an idyllic sort of place. The kind of rural village that you might find referenced in a Keillor monologue or perhaps run across in those glossy “country” mags that suburban soccer moms like to read. It anachronistically sports a whitewashed general store in addition to the requisite red brick Baptist church. Just past the town is a paved road that cuts north toward the Audrain County line. I turn left at that line and drive through the glaring sunlight down the white gravel road, past now golden soybean fields that were sown with milo last year (I know this because their sporadically seeded remnants, tall and bushy headed and alien, stick out like towers among the bean rows) and down the road to the land of my grandfather and father, and now I.

Harvest is in. Another year’s gamble on this hardscrabble claypan soil has turned snake eyes. The rain that came to other, more fortunate sections of the Midwest didn’t materialize here. Yet the farmers who love this land won’t be deterred. They have weathered far worse seasons and still their hearts remain anchored. I romanticize with this prose where they surely would not, but what motivator other than love would drive a man to put his worldly wealth on such marginal odds?

I steer the 4x4 down a cut crop haul road, wide enough for a large truck, and start into the field of stalks. Looking to the south the land rises ever so gently to a swell then tapers back in an almost imperceptible slope to a tree line draw—if you’re unfamiliar with the term, the excellent dictionary, “Home Ground” defines a woody draw as, “a troughlike depression, choked with shrubs, thickets, and small trees…woody draws regulate the runoff from rainstorms and help filter pollutants.” The elegant way of putting it.

The casual observer driving past on the road might observe “just a corn field” like any other, but to understand a place you must look closely. The 4x4 parked, I walk the plains. The story of this ground isn’t just choppy stalks in a random field. It can be likened to and yet in some nagging way is alien to the tallgrass prairies of my Illinois home. Ice sheets were here but they did their work a half million years ago, not as recently as 15,000 years ago. Winds and forces of time have done their intended task and dispersed the till and loess to a fine layer here, only 6 inches in some spots, maybe to a foot if luck resides, where it doesn’t, there is none, only exposed grayish, pale clay. Illinois prairie sod may have as much as three to six feet of black, rich topsoil.

I hike. Undulation of the land is ever so slight. The draw, a swath of trees maybe 30 yards wide at its fattest runs a quarter of a mile, attaching itself eventually to a narrower perpendicular treed fence line. I would date the growth of this draw to maybe 50-75 years. The inner boy hopes this a bastion of wild woodland, but my rationalist voice whispers that this is a trough that stayed too wet to plow when the old mule farm was transformed into cropland.

My path turns to the west, walking the fringe of the woods. There are but few oaks, some maples, shrubbery and trusty hedgerow Orange Osage. And there is life here. A hawk catches my eye as he floats in on the wind current over my head to the east. He drifts closer as I walk, spiraling in a tight coil, closer and lower, closer still to my position. I am alive here and the hawk glides past with nary a wing flap in a pact of silent acknowledgement of that fact. Thus established, his flight plan lazily diverts on another course, to another field in search of prey, or maybe just passing time on a Sunday morning.

Terraces fill the space where the water has chipped away the clay, making the ground inaccessible. The farmer has filled the rivulets in spots with soil and effort. It is still a struggle, though the deer still do run through here in great herds, this is no longer virgin prairie tossing on the winds. Time and its whims have left a mark.

Stalks will give way to winter wheat, and then again to fertilizer, and again to corn, corn-on-corn to feed the sparkly new ethanol plant a few miles distant in Laddonia. Visible on the eastern horizon is a lean silver tower, an experimental measuring station for an energy company considering this land for the placement of colossal wind turbines. Dynamism is the only constant. Just like the world at large, times here change, isolation cannot exist. Fundamentally yes, on a geologic scale change comes not in technological sweeps of the hand, but by a trickle of water acting here, a pebble tumbleweed nudged along by a stiff breeze there. Geologic time is not the time that marks our paltry lives, yet its constant, subtle presence can offer a solace of sorts in these times.

And so I have gained some greater, if all too minute understanding of the land; that is to say, I have learned as much as it has chosen to share with me on this walk. I slowly climb back behind the wheel and point the vehicle down the load path, the gravel country road shimmering in the distance in the blue of an Indian summer afternoon.


Lora said...

Sorry I didn't get to meet you at the race on saturday. But it was great!!! Absolutely beautiful trails!!

Next year I plan on the ultra...great job on putting this race together!

dirt_trail_runner said...

beautiful day, wasn't it?! i was running the devil's cliff aid station, i think i remember you coming through but i didn't make the connection at the time.

yes, dave did a great job of organization and it was fun doing the work on the race. see you there next year!