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Elbows Deep

As activism goes digital, it also becomes more abstract. Ted Haviland and the Ozark Stream Teams stay focused on a place they can touch.

Text by Jake Abrahamson | Photography by Nate Luke

At the end of the table is the future of Ozark groundwater. About a half-dozen kids talk to one another. While most Ozarkians their age are out riding ATVs or horses through the river, stirring up sediment and flattening grass, the Stream Team progeny prepare to build cardboard canoes. A few teenagers—too old for the competition but probably too young to smoke—slouch and take drags from Parliaments.

Ted announces that it's time for the youngest kids to build their canoes. He suggests that I join the youthful Boyer family. The trio sit in a little triangle among collapsed cardboard boxes and rolls of duct tape. My plate buckling under a puddle of baked beans, I ask if they could use another hand. "Yeah, you can help us," Matt Boyer says, introducing himself. "She's with me," he adds, gesturing to Trista, then down to a girl in a Nickelodeon swimsuit. "And that's Phoebe."

Matt, 29, has a golden ponytail and two nipple rings and wears denim shorts. Trista, 28, has huge green eyes and wears a sundress. He repairs vehicle transmissions, and she works at a local water department. We are to build a canoe out of box fragments that five-year-old Phoebe will use to race the other kids. After several years of these picnics, they've made this into an art form. You double-plate the hull, use the entire roll of duct tape as a sealant, and angle the bow. But it's also a young art form, which leaves room for ingenuity. As we pass and rip the tape, the conversation moves from our guesses about leaky spots to Matt's sword collection.

"What do you do with the swords?" I ask.

"They're mostly a hobby."

"Or for a zombie apocalypse," Trista says, laughing. "Self-defense. Tell him about the time with the neighbors."

"Our neighbors were always fighting and screaming. He was always beating on her. This one time she was really shrieking, so I went out with the Decapitator in my pajamas."

"What's the Decapitator?"

"It's basically a really big sword."

"But it's dull?"

"It's sharp as hell."

"Then what happened?" I ask.

"I told him he better stop beating on her."

"But have you ever actually used swords?" I search for a plausible example. "Like for hunting?"

"Sometimes I'll wear them around town."

Ted walks figure eights through the field. As MC of the canoe-building event, he struts and prowls, a drill sergeant with watch in hand. "Fifteen minutes!" he calls out, puffing baccy smoke up over his pebbly blue eyes.

The Boyers don't actually believe in the undead kind of zombie. They have a vague fear of people driven insane by viruses and zillion-strong fleets of nanobots hijacking human bodies. Their true worries are nuclear war, a stock market catastrophe, massive drought, and, at the center of everything, Phoebe's future.

Done building, we head for the river. The adults dot themselves through the shallows. Some sit and splash the hot water over their chests. The Prongs are about 25 miles upriver from here, and the difference in water quality is noticeable. Last week, a farm spilled waste a few miles upstream, and now algae flows everywhere, tailing off underwater logs like bright green hair in the wind. The algae gets worse about seven miles down, where horses from across Missouri converge at a camp in the town of Eminence and drop massive amounts of manure in the water, before everything clears up near the town of Two Rivers as the Jacks Fork merges with the larger Current River.

Captain Phoebe floats to the finish in second place, her hair and shoulders visible above the cardboard gunwales. She smiles and splashes, barely aware of having won or lost. She probably won't remember this afternoon, but she'll remember this river, these picnics, these canoe races, and all the people in a fuzzy throng, memories seeping into her soul like water through the Ozark ground.

Jake Abrahamson is the assistant editor at Sierra.

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