Arriving for our Sunday afternoon concert, we were greeted by a pack of small mutts lying in the middle of Main Street. They did not yield as we drew closer in the van, but simply lifted their heads. When I stopped short, and whistled out the window, all they did was raise their ears. We drove slowly around them and parked in front of the general store where our gig was to be held. They then came running over to us with tails a-wagging: our welcoming committee.
Lupus was built upon a stretch of the Missouri River back in the early 1900s when the railroad came through. It sprung up virtually overnight – a small boomtown with saw mills, hotels, banks, city hall, houses, and general store. The day we got there all was quiet. There were no hotels, banks, nor sawmills to be seen, but there were a few foundations with trees growing from inside them. The few remaining houses were set upon stilts, elevated ten feet in the air. We later learned about the big flood in 1993. FEMA came in and said they would give grants for folks to either relocate or raise their houses up. So with the exception of the cinderblock “City Hall” and the Lupus General Store all the houses got lifted up – a new garage or storage place for everybody!
We took a stroll over to the river and found the water was running high. My thought was it wouldn’t take much to breach the banks, and not much more to send the water over the railroad tracks and into the streets of town. Every time the river floods the effect is like the stroke of an eraser wearing down the town: mortar releasing brick, and nail loosening clapboard. It is the river’s nature to meander and flood. The Army Corps of Engineers can build all the levees they want, but the fact of the matter is, as the river becomes more streamlined and channeled it only builds more weight and momentum to break down the levees that attempt to contain it. Ultimately, one can only accommodate the river.
I like a forest’s way of living with a river. A river will meander to cut new paths and abandon old ones. The forest yields to the will of the water. Old trees are consumed where the river wants to flow and young trees emerge from the new rich soil where the river has departed. The population of trees remains the same – a net wash, as it were. If I had a home here I’d like to be up high to observe it all unfolding in time lapse, and I would welcome the drama of a good flood.
Our host, Doug Elley, soon arrived to greet us, and when I complimented the stately bald cypress trees in front of the store, he said that he had planted them some thirty years ago. Doug related that he had been canoeing down the Missouri and drew his canoe upon the banks of the river at the edge of town wanting to see what was over the other side. He said right there and then he fell in love with Lupus and decided to move there. The next day he returned and offered a man $1,000 for a home he was selling and the man responded that $800 would do.
The Lupus General Store where we were to play is an alluringly funky structure and to my mind contains the DNA of its namesake. Brick-a-brack and antique-y memorabilia inhabit nook and cranny. Photos, books, second-hand clothing, a piano, strings of Christmas lights, a stage for concerts with a sound system bought from a garage sale, and a little kitchen in back. The store is like an elderly person who in their day has seen an awful lot, and if one were to sit at their feet and listen to their stories, life in the heyday of Lupus, Missouri would begin to come forth.
I commented to Doug about the posters of John Hartford up on the wall. He said that John loved this area, and played in the towns up and down the river here in his day. John Hartford was also a riverboat pilot, and he knew the people of the river and the river’s ways. For me, a kid from suburban California, John made a big impression when I supported a couple of concerts for him in the early 1980s. That experience opened doors that I’ve had access to ever since. It fostered an appreciation and a connection to this vulnerable part of American culture.
Doug started the concerts in the general store in 2003 with Jack Williams playing the first show. The archive book of who has played there over the eight years is a representative cross-section of the national folk circuit. I was allured to play here after reading a wonderful little essay written by Violet Vonder Haar, then a young singer-songwriter and high school student. Violet attended our show and introduced herself. She is now an elementary school music teacher. Here’s a link to her essay: http://blogs.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendId=298588349&blogId=346329624
Doug served fifteen years as the mayor of Lupus and owns several properties including the general store, but what impressed me most were all the trees he’s planted. Not only the countless bald cypress and various species all over town, but some ninety pecan trees that after many years of maturing are now beginning to bear fruit. A man after my own heart: foresting the landscape.
After the concert Doug gave us a tour of his stately and weather worn turn-of-the-century house. Fine and large kitchen windows overlooking acres of pecan trees blended with native forest, and the house’s interior plaster cracked by the trauma of the house being jacked up on stilts. The thought then came to me that after the last wooden plank of the General Store has become driftwood downstream, after the last cinderblock has melded with the mud of the river, the trees that Doug has planted will lend their root, wood and canopy to whatever fauna live here. The earth will remember its shape, and for a very long time to come the hills will be painted by the descendants of the trees that Doug has planted.