Bittersweet

First published in The Joplin Globe on Sunday, May 20, 2012:

 never saw a discontented tree,” said the great naturalist John Muir. Well, I have seen a lot of discontented trees in Joplin this past year, as I have moved through the still-healing disruption that tracks across our town, a lesion the entirety of which is only visible from a heavenly perch.

And perhaps it is fitting that only God—who some dare argue is the author of people-killing storms like our life- and city-changing tornado—can sit on his celestial roost and marvel daily at the totality of his 5-22-11 handiwork: folks still mourning their dead, blocks and blocks of emptiness, trees struggling courageously to provide shade so as to perhaps entice the return of the dispossessed.

Oh, it’s not as if there hasn’t been plenty of progress. There have been uncountable efforts to right Nature’s wrong, told and untold heroic sacrifices by strangers and friends to mend the many wounds and The Wound. All of which reveals not just Ozarkian doggedness and diligence, but authentically American vigor, the kind that did both good and evil while cutting a civilization from the wilderness of North America so long ago.

But despite that American heartiness, a quartet of seasons has nearly come and gone and the city is still unrecognizable from certain places on the ground. I still—still—get geographically confused as I walk through what those with official responsibilities call—perhaps out of emotional necessity—the “expedited debris removal area.”

Driving south from 20th and Main is to drive in a strange and unfamiliar town. Driving east from 20th and Main toward Duquesne is, well, even more strange and unfamiliar. And depressing. Looking north from 32nd and McClelland to the hill where St. John’s thrived will always remind me of what was lost. I will never again walk the track just east of St. John’s listening to the dogs bark in the neighborhood where Sarah and Bill Anderson were killed, he being a fellow coach in the Joplin South Little League years ago.

It is more than unnerving to think that despite all the money poured into Joplin from public and private sources, despite all the volunteers who have provided countless hours of rehabilitation labor, despite all the best plans of city leaders, both official and not, a person my age will not live long enough to see the mostly endearing Joplin I saw before the homicidal rampage of last year.

And while so much was irretrievably lost, so much is slowly becoming new again.  But that’s just it: the landscape for many years won’t have the gratifying familiarity or eye-pleasing value that can come only with time—and with lots of trees. Big trees, trees of all shapes and brands. Trees that keep you from seeing all the way from Duquesne Road to Maiden Lane, a spectacularly disheartening reality.

“The tree is a slow, enduring force straining to win the sky,” a French poet once said. Trees of the kind I speak can’t be shipped in here from folks who earnestly want to help us recover. Trees, like communities, require time to grow and become indispensably part of our experience, part of what makes a city like ours familiar—and welcoming.

That and much more is what the heart of Joplin is missing, what it will be missing for years to come. Beyond the utter sadness of the death and destruction that visited us a year ago, is the gloomy idea that haunts some of us daily: that no matter how much good work is done, whether planting homes or trees in the quasi-barren neighborhoods, we will never again see the Joplin we knew.

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