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Tales of the sassafras trees


A low morning sun flashed through breaks in the bare hardwoods as we drove the roller coaster road to the store. On a spring vacation in the Missouri Ozarks, we needed one item to complete a pie recipe. Reaching the town of Champion (population 22), we parked near a little emporium with weathered pine slab siding and rusted tin roof, the only business edifice in town. My wife and I woke the cat sleeping on the displaced bus seat on the porch as we rushed in.

We were, of course, in a hurry.

Inside, Duane the proprietor sold us the canned milk, then emerged from behind the counter to perch on the wooden pop cartons stacked around the wood stove. On the way we had cautioned ourselves we were far from the city, that this was the Ozarks. Consequently, time had slowed down. So we sat by the warm stove, visiting, catching up, joking. Duane’s question, “How you’uns been?” required time to answer, and he had time to listen. Then it was his turn.

First Duane reminisced about the bad winter just past. He recalled the morning after a December ice storm when he parked his pickup outside the store, set the brake, went in to fire up the stove inside, then glanced up through the window to witness his Ford heading south. The wheels weren’t even rolling! Now that’s an ice storm!

Our talk drifted somehow to sassafras trees. Ordinarily these trees grow in the forest understory and never top out at more than five or six feet, but occasionally in a fencerow with access to sunlight one will grow to unusual size. We compared notes on whoppers we had seen. I spotted one once just north on Fox Creek when I worked there for the Conservation Department years ago. A neighbor happened to wander in for some cough syrup. He eavesdropped while he browsed the few shelves and said he had a biggy on his farm, too. He paid, then sat on the cartons with us and told about a gum tree near his barn that not only qualified for the record books but was home to a family of rare pileated woodpeckers, and about a persimmon tree by the pond often visited by bluebirds and cedar waxwings. Our talk had segued into Ozark bird lore.

Barbara, Duane’s wife, wandered in, sat on the last available pop crate, and our conversation took an abrupt right turn to mountain people’s superstitions, on which subject Barbara knew a lot. Her list for that day: Always put your right shoe on first. If you find your initials on a spider’s web you will be lucky all your life. Always leave by the same door you came in. It’s bad luck to return borrowed dishes unwashed. If a girl wants a new dress she should catch a butterfly of the same color and mash it between her teeth.

We left with a kind of glow from the visit.

The next day we visited West Plains, a much larger town, in search of a replacement glass pane.

Twenty years ago when I lived nearby, my vintage kerosene refrigerator needed a new part. Then a local hardware store sat on West Plains’ town square, complete with scuffed hardwood floors, big lazy ceiling fans and even a soda fountain in the back, featuring root beer floats, good coffee and big slices of homemade sweet potato pie. I knew they could help me somehow. The clerk looked at the broken wick separator, led me down the aisles, up to the attic and found stashed high on a dusty shelf a replacement, though the manufacturer had gone out of business in 1963. A leisurely conversation about kerosene refrigerators, once common in those parts, followed. I learned a lot about how folks survived in the depression years before electricity came to the Ozark hollows (not until the late 1950s).

Now that local hardware store was long out of business, unable to compete with the discount store out on the highway. We ventured into the sprawling supercenter, passing a sign at the door indicating employees were taking up a collection for a colleague ill with cancer (who though full-time was probably without health care benefits). Inside, the guy cutting glass was too hurried and harried for much conversation.

Shopkeeper Duane and his little community store are endangered species. This seems to be the way of things for the last 20 years or so: increasingly large chains forcing small stores out of business, as community-based economics yields to corporate greed. Studies show that, propaganda to the contrary, the money flows out of the community when these giants move in. Workers too often are held to a schedule with too few hours to get benefits. Small town squares, once vital centers of rural communities, get boarded up; the locally owned stores can’t compete with predatory pricing and volume buying.

Megamarts elbow their way in, then standardize, homogenize. A saunter through the West Plains store is not much different from the same trip through, say, one in Lodi or Oshkosh. And it’s not just stores dealing in general goods anymore. It’s every kind. In my city, there used to be three or four small, quirky bookstores, where the clerks knew me, where heated arguments could brew up at the checkout counter over trends in sci-fi or the merits of Charles Bukowski’s poetry. Now they all are gone, victims of the megabook chains.

To add insult to the injury to local community, many big chains glue on a façade of friendliness or homeyness that is veneer thin, with maybe a greeter at the door or a coffee bar (also an outpost of a corporation). But they are not friendly or homey; they make our world increasingly boring, predictable and soulless. And for what? Just to get a rock-bottom price on a blender, a box of Cheerios or the latest Harry Potter?

It seems more and more we live in an economy that thrives by undermining its own foundations, expanding mindlessly while gobbling up all that is best about community and quality of life. “Growth for the sake of growth,” said curmudgeon Edward Abbey, “is really the ideology of the cancer cell.”

A crusader against this trend is poet and farmer Wendell Berry. To read him, you would think he was a spokesperson for Catholic social teaching. Both speak eloquently for a human-scale economy, one where people matter over profits. “A community economy,” Berry writes, “is not an economy in which well-placed persons can make a ‘killing.’ It is an economy whose aim is generosity and a well-distributed and safeguarded abundance.” A sustainable local economy will depend on consumers loyal to local products and locally owned businesses. It wasn’t that long ago that this was the norm.

My wife and I decided that we prefer paying the extra money to locally owned businesses rather than save with the big guys. The slightly higher prices are an investment. We vote with our money. We want to see Duane and his ilk increase and multiply. We paid more for the canned milk, but if we hadn’t we would have missed out on the talk -- and probably left the store by the back door instead of the front.

Rich Heffern is the former editor of Praying magazine and a staff member of NCR. His e-mail address is rheffern@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, May 18, 2001