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Volume 1, No. 10: October 12, 2004

Of Farmers and Decency

by Michael Bouman

The drive north to Half Rock from St. Louis proceeds for about five hours through a series of Missouri stories.  The traveler goes first through the fastest-growing county in the state.  The view from the highway is of continuous car dealerships and housing developments.  It reminds me of my teenage home of Levittown, Pennsylvania.  The Route 1 corridor between Trenton and Philadelphia was somewhat rural fifty years ago, but with Levittown already having displaced large produce farms, the post-war era was poised to erase the old Bucks County and give it an updated look.  My father had known that older, rural Bucks County as an apprentice architect fresh from the University of Minnesota.  During the eight years before I went to college, shopping centers, apartments, and housing developments engulfed what used to be distinct little towns well outside the suburbs.  Car dealerships and used car dealerships erased empty space along the highway and merged their big lots with big places to buy furniture or little places to buy an ordinary meal.  That highway was never really "scenic," but it had a look of a place set apart from the cities it connected.  The paving-in of my home place was pretty much completed by the time Joni Mitchell wrote, "you don't know what you've got til it's gone.....they paved Paradise and put up a parking lot."

To my eye, that's what you drive through on the way out of the St. Louis Metro area.  And then you're on the prairie.  The highway takes you into a region where the Sac and Fox people made winter camp and hunted for more than a century, ending with their separation into three groups and their forced resettlement in three different territories. 

The prairie was worthless to Anglo settlers until someone invented a plow powerful enough to break through the dense roots in the soil.  This took place a generation or two before the Civil War.  Then, because the prairie was settled by people who had depended on the institution of slavery, plantations flourished and African American slaves worked the land.   Driving west on I-70, you pass through "Little Dixie," past Boonville and Arrow Rock, and you turn north on 65 to Marshall and west to Waverly.  You imagine plantations, beautiful antebellum homes, a few with slave quarters still on the property, a region rich with potential for Black tourism, Civil War tourism, scenic tourism.  It's a beautiful place, this central region.  At Waverly the road turns north for a town with a Shawnee name, Chillicothe, and then straight north some more into the place names of my youth: Mercer County (my birthplace in New Jersey), Trenton (it was "our city"), Princeton (the all-male university I did not want to attend).  Veterans of the Revolutionary War planted themselves and their memories on the soil of northern Missouri.

The drive north to Dick Black's town of Princeton is through an un-paved home place.  The earth swells and dips like the sea.  Road signs have an image of horse-drawn carriages and say "Share the Road."  Amish farmers live their way of life undisturbed by the busloads of gawkers who tour southeastern Pennsylvania.  In Pennsylvania the quaint differentness of the Amish is exploited by business and local government.  The area near Lancaster is "Amish Country."  Quaint hex signs adorn virtually everything, making Amish a decorative art for the non-Amish.  I'm not saying it's a sin ...I have Oriental rugs, Navajo pottery, Italian glassware, Austrian linens.  They are all beautiful, and they all express something that is "other than me."  They share space with art work that comes from "my group," whatever that is.  What makes me uncomfortable is that gray area, that frontier between looking at something because of its beauty and just staring at people because they are different.  The theme of decency is in that idea somewhere.

No tour busses are seen on the lookout for quaint Amish farmers in the sparsely populated route north to Princeton, Missouri.  If there were enough travelers, you can bet someone would exploit the quaintness of the local population, because that is the way we are.  In the Ozarks it's the stereotype of the hillbilly that brings in the dough.  When I lived in Santa Fe thirty years ago, the impoverished Indians of the Santo Domingo Pueblo had to exploit their own Indianness to attract tourists and their money.  Their billboard on the highway said, "See the REAL INDIANS!" One of my adult students in Santa Fe exploited her looks at a club in Albuquerque.  I exploit my muse.  There are several definitions of "exploit," some of them tinged with indecency.  On a gray day on the way to Princeton, I ponder gray areas.

I don't wonder why no tour busses cruise the avenues of St. Louis to take sightings of Orthodox Jews, the Bosnians, the Vietnamese, the golfers, the teen phonaholics at the malls, or the gamblers.  Nothing in our mainstream culture signifies these groups, and many others, as food for tourism.  We (they) have no cachet of quaintness.

I only knew Dick Black for three years.  His sister, Randi Ferguson said I had to meet him and tell him about how we wanted Indians to have a part in the Lewis and Clark programs.  Randi says she is "four parts white and one part red," while Dick was "four parts red and one part white."  Dick was a wiry man, used to working with his brains and his hands.  He served as an advocate for a number of tribes who had issues connected with the repatriation of Indian remains and grave goods.  The day I met Dick we became friends.  That night, as I was driving home, Dick picked up the phone and talked to people in the tribes about our Lewis and Clark project.  He called me the next day and read me a list people who were expecting a call from me.  Just like that, our project became what I wanted it to be.  Dick opened the doors and helped me walk through them.

Reverend Jennie Vertrees officiated at Dick's memorial service at the Providence Baptist Church in Half Rock.  She opened the service with the observation that her family and Dick's family had known each other for a hundred and fifty years.  That span of time would date back to the technology of the plow that broke the prairie.  Dick said many times that farmers are decent to Indians and to their grave sites because farmers don't have to be intellectual about living on the land.  They are stewards of natural resources.  They experience a sense of kinship with the Indians who used the same land generations ago.

Dick's bond of kinship was somewhat knightly, now that I think of it.  The people who gravitated to Dick were energized by an unspoken code of honor.  Dick fashioned himself into an unflinching champion for the right of Native Americans to basic human decency.  When he learned early in the summer that he would soon die, he faced the approach of his end with an unflinching determination to meet the end in the presence of his friends and in full possession of his consciousness.  And thus he passed away into the circle of ancestors one Wednesday night in August, eight weeks ago.  The picture above was taken the preceding Saturday by Dick's friend, Bryce, to whom he had been "like a father."  Her daughter, Jelessa, the light of his life, sits on his lap.  I see the face of a man who is most alive when connected to others by love.

On Sunday, Dick understood that he would not see another weekend.  His doctor had told him that his own physical condition would alert him to the rapid playing out of his days.  It went that way for Dick; time to go into hospice care, time to call a circle of friends, time to take leave.  Not much time, but more than none.

We came together to acknowledge Dick's value to us and to our circles of kinship on October 1.  We came to a place in farming country outside Princeton called Half Rock.  After our ceremony in the church we went up to the cemetery and Randi passed out grass seed to sprinkle over the bare earth that covered Dick.  She opted for grass seed because sacred tobacco was not available.  At the last gesture with the seed the cloudburst came upon us and we dispersed. 

A poem by Dick's mother, Mary Lou Hazen, was printed inside the program of his memorial service.

Torchbearer

There are those who carry the torch
And those who light the flame,
And those who follow the light,
Knowledge and lore to obtain.
There is one who lit the flame,
And carries the torch on the way,
Over the rainbow span of time,
Bringing visions of yesterday
To the light and fulfillment of today.
A blend of the past with the present,
A keeper of the flame
That lights the hope for tomorrow;
The bearer of the name.