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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

Deep in a southern Missouri forest, on a geologic thing called the Ozark Dome, lives Ted Haviland, who gets his water from a backyard well that shoots down hundreds of feet, passing through two source pools encased in a massive web of rock. The topography beneath his home is called karst. It has been described as Swiss cheese, blue cheese, a sponge, a strainer—the point being that it is porous, veined, caverned, populated by underground lakes and run through with innumerable underground streams, which pass beneath the Ozarks like a circulatory system. Anything left on the surface long enough (a tire, a paint can, a collapsed septic tank, whatever) can leach down to these veins. And this is a place where backyard sinkholes are frequently used as dumpsters.

These sinkhole dumpsters are just a small aspect of the strong libertarian culture here, where there's the sense that land ownership is absolute. It means that if you own a sinkhole, you can dump whatever you want in it, no matter if it's going to end up in Ted Haviland's well 25 miles away. It means that a person can burn down his termite-infested house and build a new one 10 feet east, can ATV anywhere, can let a horse craft apple necklaces on the river surface.

As an outsider, you might come into the region and, as I did, marvel over some endless green valley, only to have a woman whisper in your ear, "That's a giant sinkhole." A man will offer you a puff of his pipe and say, "That baccy's from 1962." The grocery clerk will shake his head gravely because you lack protection—meaning, you should be armed. You will see Glocks on hips, cowboy-style, and barely pubescent chain-smokers. You will learn that squirrel gravy tastes good; that 'coon is a dark, greasy meat to be eaten with ample sauce; that "possum on the half shell" (i.e., armadillo) is just about the only thing you don't want to eat; that killing a snake is easy because it will literally bite the bullet; and that, on Saturday nights, the counterculture here orbits around Gothabilly bands in dark hollows.

With a bend of the waist and a plunge of the hands, Ted Haviland moves around wildly, trying to stir up whatever critters are hiding in the rock bed so he can capture and count them.

And you will learn that to some people, water is a precious element. Ted Haviland and his wife, Pat, have their own 10 acres of woodland near Mountain View, Missouri, where they can do whatever they want. One of his pastimes is to hunt squirrel with a muzzle-loader. She likes to shoot snakes. But when it comes to the ground and groundwater, they don't mess around. And for the 20-plus years they've worked as water protectors—Ted dislikes the term "environmentalists" because it reminds him of "a dreadlocked woman shouting from a tree"—their sole charge has been the Ozark waterways. Forget the broad strokes of conservationism—the far-flung coal plants and the melting ice caps, the Internet buttons, the donations, the abstractions. The Havilands are mud trudgers, old-school word-of-mouth organizers who maintain a world they can reach out and touch, and the Jacks Fork River flows right through its center.

Which brings us to the Prongs, a little bight near the headwaters of the Jacks Fork where the Havilands monitor quality about four times each year. They are Missouri Stream Team No. 713. They protect this bend.

Among National Park Service rangers, the Ozark National Scenic Riverways is notorious as a near-futile assignment. To patrol 134 river miles, four major campgrounds, hundreds of miles of unauthorized ATV trails, and, between May and October, 9,000 debaucherous equestrians, there are a mere 16 law-enforcing park rangers.

The tension between the rangers and the region's residents goes back to the 1960s, when a large portion of the park's 80,000 acres were acquired via eminent domain. Local activists like Ted and Pat Haviland bridge that divide while aiding the understaffed Park Service. "Thin as we're stretched, the Stream Teams help us out tremendously," Bill Black, superintendent of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, said when asked about the Stream Teams' 2012 Jacks Fork River cleanup, during which 150 volunteers collected more than a ton of trash. "They set an example to keep the park clean, and folks respect that." 

Now, Ted is doing his bug dance in the August heat. It's a dance he's done hundreds of times. In the middle of the river, with a bend of the waist and a plunge of the hands, he moves around wildly, trying to stir up whatever critters are hiding in the rock bed so he can capture and count them. It looks like a dance you might do around a fire if you were demonically possessed. I stand downriver, catching his splash and seining the mud cloud.

After a few minutes of this, I follow Ted out of the water. He walks with his pasty arms stuck out for balance, his head tucked. At 71, he is spidery, agile, with an up-jutting chin, a sloped hat, and clear blue beamers set back in his head. His face seems to converge at a vanishing point between the eyes. He speaks in a chewy whisper. You feel you're hearing secrets.

"Now just put it right on that table there," he says.

Obeying, I position the seine—a screen amid two plastic pipes that rolls up like a map. Once set on a portable table, it's a scrim of pebbly mud, with water flowing over and through in deltas. Or so it seems to my eyes, which are still in flat-screen mode, unready to discern subtle changes in texture.

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