In rural south-east Missouri, never a region of particularly rich soil, driving unpaved backwoods roads, you see how thin a layer civilization actually forms. Its brittle surfaces broken and eroded, you see the sickly striving of ill-watered barbarism sprouting like disordered, dusty spreads of weed. Interstate-44, pointing from St. Louis to Springfield, MO, was not long since meth-alley in local parlance. Here, not long ago—maybe this is an urban legend, but if so it is a good one—a motorcycle gang leader was said to have been buried seated astride his splendid Harley Davidson like a feudal lord of old atop his sacrificed white steed. The region is just south of the Lake of the Ozarks, an area experiencing a bit of a boom, and directly south of Springfield is Branson, the recently emerging competitor of Memphis in all things Country Music. That area is booming too. But get away from well-paved and billboard-festooned approaches to these areas and you see a good deal of hidden disorder. But the disorder isn’t exactly new. The landscape is and ever was rather scruffy, the population, now as ever, eking out a living from marginal farming, hunting, fishing, and the salvage of old cars and their parts. To be sure most farms and homesteads are tidy, picked up, and nicely kept, but in the course of a ten-day trip we saw unusually many properties in dreadful disrepair and chaos. Talking to friends and family, we once more tuned in to the old tales of woe: excess of drugs, the consolations of alcohol, dysfunctional families, the seeming failure of the male element to pull its weight: a matriarchal society supporting men who barely function. This is not a scientific survey but rather a sampling of the odor of a landscape.
On the trip from out there to Kansas City, aside from endless giant ads selling fireworks, we saw the wondrous contrast of two cultural forces embattled one with the other: Porn and Christianity. On I-70 bound westward, there is a place where the world’s seemingly largest Adult Superstore raises a gigantic sign trying to attract the needy trucker; and right opposite this place there looms the largest conceivable white cross, its beams the thickness of the Washington monument on the Ellipse in DC.
Thoughts ran through my head during this trip: the thin layer of civilization. The Progressive Age, which either dawned or reached adulthood in the eighteenth century, now fading gradually, envisioned a time of ever-improving human conditions. The thought in my mind on this trip to Missouri was: It’s not about achieving the millennium, my friends. It’s about maintaining a decent level of civilized existence against the relentless pressures of decay that seem intent on bringing down every tower of Babel humanity begins to build.