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OPINION | REX NELSON: Letters to Dan

by Rex Nelson | May 31, 2023 at 3:16 a.m.

Don House has spent four decades photographing and writing about the Arkansas Ozarks. From his base in Hazel Valley in rural Washington County, he has explored everything from abandoned cemeteries to barns.

The Ozark Society Foundation recently released a remarkable book titled "Letters to Dan: A Philosophical Guide to the Ozarks." It's a collection of letters about the Ozarks that House sent to a friend named Dan Kasztelan. Amazingly, Kasztelan never answered any of those letters.

"Friends come in different flavors," House writes. "I first met Dan Kasztelan when he walked into my studio and gallery in Fayetteville some 35 years ago. He laid a ragged portfolio on my workbench and showed me some of the most interesting photographs I had ever seen. They were all of his family who lived on a mountaintop 20 miles east.

"His photographs featured a rural family and the realities of life working the land, farming with large animals. I looked through black-and-white images of his stepmother killing and processing chickens, his younger brothers and sisters riding in the backs of pickups and wagons, his father plowing with horses. Someone from another region might think the images were historic, but I knew better. I asked to see more, and later I put together an exhibition of his work."

The two men became friends. When Kasztelan left Arkansas to attend Quaker seminary, House began writing letters.

"I write to Dan, but never receive a response, never a return letter, year after year," House says. "Instead, every five years or so, Dan will return to visit his family, sit on my porch and continue the conversation we interrupted half a decade earlier, as if no time has passed. He will incorporate all of the things I have written about. He has read and enjoyed the letters, but he is simply not a letter-writer.

"This dynamic works perfectly for me. I need to write about what I am seeing and experiencing in the Ozarks, and I need a set of eyes and ears. The only way I can write is to a specific reader, and without him I can't write. If Dan had actually answered, he would have distracted me with questions and observations that I would have had to respond to."

The book was awarded the Ozark Society's inaugural Sassafras Award for Excellence in Environmental Writing. The award was launched to recognize manuscripts about the area of the country the Ozark Society represents.

"Submitted manuscripts were received and reviewed by an Ozark Society committee, and a final selection was chosen by Davis McCombs, an accomplished writer, educator and former U.S. Park Service ranger," says Marvin Schwartz of the Ozark Society. "The society has a long history of publishing books on Arkansas conservation issues, starting with classics such as Ken Smith's 'Buffalo River Handbook' and Neil Compton's 'Battle for the Buffalo.'"

In fact, House ends this book with a quote from Smith: "For the Buffalo, and for other places too, we have to care, enough so that caring includes our actions toward protecting the land and leaving it unimpaired for another generation of human trustees. Care. ... If we care a great deal, we call it love. So it is love--love of the land, love of people and love for those who will come after us--that should guide our actions. Let it be love."

"It's not often one encounters 'personal essays' that spend so little time focusing on the self," McCombs writes. "Like the lens of the author's camera, the writing throughout this extraordinary book is trained unwaveringly and lovingly on the hills, rivers, cemeteries, old churches, small-town diners, people, plants and animals of the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas.

"Among this book's many pleasures, for instance, is the moving portrait of Carl--the author's aging dog, guide and companion--who becomes, by the end of these essays, as vivid a character as the very vivid humans that pass through the memoir. As I read the manuscript, I began to see that each essay--in its understated, eloquent way--speaks to the wonder and complexity of the natural world and to the interconnectedness of all life.

"The authenticity and urgency of this message is woven deep into the fibers of the writing. Behind each word lies the authority of a lifetime of observation and insight. Taken together, these essays form a testament to what the author memorably refers to as 'my decades of paying attention.'"

The Ozark Society was founded in 1962. Its efforts during the first decade of its existence to protect the Buffalo River from dams proposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers led to the 1972 designation of the Buffalo as the first national river. There are now Ozark Society chapters in Arkansas, Missouri and Louisiana.

The Ozark Society Foundation was established in 1975 to publish books with proceeds supporting the public policy and education mission of the society. More than two dozen books have been produced through the years.

I can't imagine a better selection for the first Sassafras Award. McCombs notes: "These lyrical and meditative essays possess qualities as rare--and possibly as endangered--as the Ozark-dwelling wood frogs the author writes about. ... I'm talking about such virtues as patience, subtlety, brevity and humility."

Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at

Print Headline: Letters to Dan


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