Sunday, July 19, 2009

Haunting the Ozarks

Haunted Ozark Forests
Among the other things the Ozark Mountains of Missouri are famous for is a haunted atmosphere that pervades the hills, hollers, and crags. I have heard tales about ghosts, spirits, and haints told by average people in the most matter-of-fact ways.

Spirits or ghost are sometimes called “haints” as in “…haint really people and haint really ghosts”; in other words something else, something beyond description. I’ve also heard an even more macabre definition, “…haint alive and haint dead” something truly unfathomable for the modern rational mind.
The really odd thing about haints is that I have heard people talk about these entities that were seen in the woods. No, no, not in a haunted mansion, shed, or house not an old insane asylum or prison but in the woods.

For sure the Ozarks are a strange place anyway. “Stretching from St. Louis, MO to McAlester, OK and about 150 miles or so either side of that line is area of hills, ridges, small mountains, and general rough country”, that was a very old description I read in a copy of a journal entry from the 19th century and still good today. It is a sort of an odd kidney shaped region mirroring an ancient Balkan kingdom like Transylvania.

A cartographer in the 1950’s actually made a map of the Ozark region. It depicted the Ozark-Ouachita plateau as one contiguous region just the way people have seen it for centuries rather than the reductionist segmented, St. Francis Mt., Salem Uplift, Boston Mt., Ouachita, Mt., Osage Highlands, blah, blah conglomerate that one sees on Internet search engines.

Yet it is the Missouri Ozarks and just the northernmost part of the Arkansas Ozarks that the tales of spooks and haints really abound. For many years I pondered, “Why would that be?” What is so different about our Missouri Ozarks that makes them so haunted and foreboding?

In my reading I have not seen any spooky references to the Ozarks by American Indian accounts. No tribe really “owned” the Ozarks but several drifted through staying awhile and moving on with the seasons; something like tourists today. Some reports even spoke of the Ozarks as a spiritual place full of springs and streams inhabited generally by positive energy.

Indeed the Ozarks are full of magical places. I think there are more caves and springs and other portals to the underground in the Ozarks than anywhere else in North America. Because of the mysterious geology with soft limestone and spongy sandstone rubbing against some of the hardest god awful flint rock and cherts imaginable one is confronted with an installed conundrum. This makes the Ozarks in many places seem dry and craggy while a stone’s throw away is a lush spring with ephemeral plants that appear and disappear in the blink of an eye; God’s magic abounds everywhere.


But what about the ghostly haints; the strange sensations that one encounters while deep in the Ozark woods. The rustling, the weeds parting in front of you and then in the flash of a perception you “see” a Gila monster or a scaly anteater for the fraction of a second; but it’s not really there, or was it? More than once I have been left puzzled and shaken by the encounter with the impossible.

Then there is the energy. Energy is such an overused term. Good energy, bad energy, green energy, positive, negative, on and on the adjectives go in a dizzying confusion. But there is something that seeps out of the cracked, crunched, fissured, sink-hole filled landscape; call it energy if you like. One can almost smell it, almost see it but it is just at the edge of the senses so the brain can just barely touch this mysterious stuff oozing out of the earth.

Please don’t scoff gentle reader at the rambling of this writer. Just south of Joplin, Missouri is the famous “Ozark spook lights”. Sometimes globs, or bands, or shafts of light bubble up from the ground a phenomenon that has been seen by thousands over the years. No less than the US military has conducted “hush-hush” experiments in the area concluding that the whole thing was “anomalous”. Yet at times the frequency of the Ozark energy seems to slow down beneath the speed of light and manifest as bright balls or globs that are perceivable to the human eye. That’s what I think.

Some feel that the mystical properties of the Ozarks can be exploited for the good of Mankind and harnessed to cure the sick; clinics abound in the hills and hollers. With all the spiritual new age theorizing about spectrums of healing and “good vibrations” there is still the old tales about haints and oddly dressed people trudging through the woods, weeds, and fields of the Missouri Ozarks. What about them?

Blue Demons from the North

Beyond the spectrum suite of psychic healing is a cold reality buried in shallow graves and pits all across our Ozarks. No less tortured than the hills and castles of Transylvania is an occulted history concealed there in the leafy thatch and pungent musk of the rocky ground.

Around 1860 Missouri became a killing field. First came waves of invaders from New England, based in Kansas the Jayhawkers murdered their way into Missouri. Then from Hessia, Westphalia, and Prussia came the 48er’s; Marxist murderers and thugs kicked out of Europe after the failed Revolution of 1848. After them came outsiders and pillagers and rapists and plunders and murderous demons from wherever they could be mustered to subdue the proud people along the Kansas border, in the Ozarks, and throughout the rest of the state. Historian Donald Gilmore does a good job describing it in his book Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border.

It took about 15 years to finish the war and then mop up all those who refused to surrender. There was little of no law; military or otherwise. The killing was relentless and for the most part unbridled. The actual toll in lives lost will never be known. The carnage is examined in Canadian author Michael Fellman’s book, Inside War as he takes a stab at it from a Northern perspective while Don Gilmore tries to set the record straight as does Paul Petersen with his work about Quantrill.

Another book, The Burning by Richard Sunderwirth is a personal homespun look at evil and the state sponsored terrorism that occurred at Osceola, Missouri. The murder of civilians by invading troops from the North is unfathomable, uncountable, simply beyond understanding: I know I’ve tried.

Once the sun has set on a day it is history and fodder for debate. It can be then twisted and turned to suit the victors and the establishment. But the truth is still there in the hearts of the descendants and tangled up in the myriad energies of time and space. When scholars argue over “facts” it falls to the poet to find truth through intuition or far-sight or vision or whatever that faculty might be called that “sees” what is unseen.

So here in the Ozarks of Missouri and its immediate environs where the deadly death dance of unbridled warfare stepped to the fiddle of the Devil and his blue demons only the haints those ragged ghosts lurking in the woods and God know the truth. The haints cannot speak in the tongue of modern man so it is through the fog of time that they come forward and leave their impressions on the minds of those sensitive enough to feel the cries from the mortally wounded, tortured, and murdered.

I believe the haunting of the Ozarks is man-made. The gentle spirits that inhabit the springs and the bluffs and caves have been disturbed by the brutality of power and politics. Displaced by the forces of modernism and its material cousins the plight of those kindly nymphs and fairies is told by Edgar Allen Poe in “Sonnet-to Science”; although not about the Ozarks the poem is about the same subject.

These sensations we feel are imperfectly read by our meager facilities so their expression is in symbols and metaphor. Fleeting glimpses of another reality and time that have the power to move, influence, and cajole the sensitive and stir them to express themselves in a unique way.

Taking cues from the dead and angels that speak for them people try to convey a glimpse describing it as a ghost or haint or whatever fills out this vague impression one might feel. In the quiet nights deep in the forest or on the rock-strewn savanna the whispers in the wind and the rustle of things unknown evoke a haunting that cannot be silenced. -David  Reif
Credits:  illustration; photograph, A. Ann Reif, 2003