Ozark Life

Terra Fondriest

2017 - Ongoing

The Ozark Plateau is an elevated span of land spreading mostly through Arkansas and Missouri, punctuated with free-flowing rivers, limestone bluffs, oak-hickory covered hills, and rolling pastureland. Ozark Life is a long-term project that explores the everyday stories and connections of the people who call this rural region of the US home, where the census reports there are 12.3 people living per square mile. As a mother and documentary photographer raising two young children in the middle of the Arkansas Ozarks, I have an insider perspective and intimate appreciation for the community and culture that surrounds us. By introducing you to my family, friends and community, I hope to break down stereotypes that outsiders may have about rural communities by telling the compelling stories of our lives, sharing the narratives that are both unique to this landscape, yet fundamentally human.

People within the Ozarks often communicate through the work of hands, through tangible means — which relates back to their deep connection to the land. Hunting, fishing, logging and farming were common practices of early settlers to this region and still account for a large part of everyday life today. A young family introducing their newborn baby to one of the ranch horses — he will be the fifth generation of Norton to grow up and raise cattle on the same soil. The Usrey family suited up and collecting honey from the family’s hives that are scattered about their farm—the land plays an important, almost unspoken, role in daily life.

For the first 18 years of my life, I grew up in the Chicago Suburbs, but have lived rurally the most recent 19 years. I have an understanding that this Ozark Life looks different on the outside than the way most people live. This project is a way to have a conversation between those in our region and those living closer to the city skylines. I believe that any time can we help others understand a way of life that appears different from theirs by relating it back to the common human experience, there is potential to bridge a gap and inspire camaraderie. For me as a mother, this project is a passion, a creative outlet during my daily grind, a way to connect and grow in my community, a personal challenge to explore the common threads of humanity between where I grew up and where I live now. To celebrate the situations unique to these hills and life in rural landscapes.

This project spans the past three years, and I plan to continue documenting my community in this same way for at least 9 more, when my oldest child will graduate from high school — sharing and presenting these visual narratives both inside and outside of my community throughout the process.

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  • Young Ozark Love: October 14, 2017. Taylor and Trey, ages 20 and 21, got married on land that’s been in the family for 3 generations, a pasture that belonged to the groom's grandfather. They'd dated most of high school and had been planning this day for over a year. The ceremony was in the afternoon, followed by a potluck under a nearby oak tree. It was after that, that the younger crowd moved to where the trucks were parked to start their after party.

  • Turkey Season: March 31, 2018. The neighbor boy was practicing for youth spring turkey season which opened the following weekend. 'Youth turkey' is for ages 6-15 and marks the opening of Spring turkey season in the Ozarks. Dad here has always been an avid hunter, so he is bringing his son up the same. Besides hunting for turkey and deer meat, their family also raises meat pigs and chickens.

  • The Introduction: May 22, 2017. Will and Rachel introduce their newborn son to one of their ranch horses named Pistol. They run a fourth-generation cattle farm here in the Ozarks of Arkansas and horses are a part of their everyday life. Currently, they keep 7 horses that they've trained for riding and working cattle and use them in the day to day operations of the ranch. This is their second child and will be the fifth generation to farm on the same soil if baby Kal chooses that path.

  • The Chopping Block: May 27, 2018. Each spring, we raise enough meat chickens to fill the freezer for the year. I typically do the killing, but this time I'd nominated my husband to 'off' the 14 that we were doing that day. They get fed non-GMO feed and take about 6-7 weeks to grow to butchering size. This is the 7th year we've raised birds for meat. We like knowing what goes into our food.

  • Clocking In. January 16, 2019. Jamie clocks in at the Ozark Timber mill to start work for the day before the sun is up, just like he's done for the past 16 years. He's trained to run most of the different equipment there, but on this particular day, ran the 4x4 sawmill. He's one of 20+ workers at the short-staffed mill. "No one wants to work anymore," states Eddie, the Chief of Operations. They've been having a hard time finding long term workers like Jamie. Ozark Timber has been in operations since the 1960s, manufacturing high end fencing.

  • Gaming in the Ozarks. August 19, 2018. Fortnite. It's a video game that came out in 2017 and is on it's way to becoming the most popular video game ever. Over 125 million people now play it. This is one of the children in a family of five that live here in the Ozarks. Everyone had finished eating dinner, so he headed down to the 'man cave' to play Fortnite with a friend via Wi-Fi, so had his headphones on communicating as they worked through the game. Trophies of animals they’ve hunted on their land hang on the wall.

  • Summer Jeans. May 14, 2020. 10 year old Kyler sits in a camping chair manning his lemonade stand at the family yard sale.

  • Biscuits and Gravy. June 14, 2019. Steve’s grandson, Liam, wants to see what ‘Papa’ is doing as he makes biscuits and gravy for their breakfast. Steve’s daughter (Liam’s mom), Liam, and Steve all live together on the South Mountain in Marshall, Arkansas while Steve’s health is slowly declining from heart and liver failure. “My little buddy Liam is what keeps me going,” says Steve.

  • Daily Medicine: June 14, 2019. Steve Treat is on about his fifth life. He had his first heart attack while in his 30s and a liver transplant in his 40s. His health has always been his nemeses, but you wouldn’t know it from talking to him. He’s a good-natured man who grew up in the Ozark hills and has endless stories to prove it. Unfortunately, he’s currently in full liver and heart failure. Steve claims he’d be ready to die if it weren’t for his 15-month-old grandson Liam. Liam waits here for Papa to finish taking his meds so they can get back to playing.

  • The Home Birth: February 24, 2018. Kylie is very close to giving birth to baby Cyrus, surrounded by her husband, close friends, and the midwife watching over that's been delivering babies in this community for 43 years. This is Kylie's third child, the second of which has been a home birth. She and her friend to the right of her have just become certified as our area's first doulas and are starting up a business while each raising 3 young children.

  • Washing in the Creek: September 21, 2019. The Knapp family had a well drilled for their new home before they built it, but it collapsed shortly after. So, their family heads to a spring fed creek once a week to fill large containers of water that they haul back home for the week ahead. While they are at the creek, baby Karoline, the youngest of four kids, gets washed by mom and plays in the water.

  • Afternoon Milking. August 22, 2020. Clair Gorton and his daughter hand milk their 12 organic dairy cows every day at 2am and 2pm. Clair’s customers claim his milk to be the best they’ve ever tasted. This particular cow was getting over a small infection, so he was milking her into this plastic bucket to feed to the pigs. For human consumption, he milks into sterilized stainless-steel buckets.

  • Ozark Beekeepers: July 26, 2018. The Usrey sons learned beekeeping from their father. He’s kept bees most of their lives, but his health can’t keep up with it anymore, so his sons and grandsons do the hive work now. On this day, it was time to rob the honey from their hives that are scattered about the family property. This particular hive was very productive with honey, so they were shifting around 'supers' which are the upper smaller boxes in order to bring some honey back home and leave some as food for the bees.

  • Skimming the Sorghum. November 2, 2019. Tina Farmer works on skimming the foam off the sorghum liquid as it cooks into molasses. Her family has grown and cooked sorghum for as long as she can remember, and skimming it is one of the constant jobs as it bubbles and thickens. By day, she is the genealogist at the Boone County library.

  • Summer Feet: August 11, 2018. After an evening of playing with the neighbor kids down the road, my kids feet looked like this on the car ride back to our house. All summer long, these two don't wear shoes. They have one pair of sandals for when we go to town.

  • The Neighbor Kids: March 31, 2018. The neighbor kids know when someone pulls up to their house because the dog alerts them. They always come out on the front porch to see who it is, which was the case here. At this time, their family belonged to one of the local Mennonite churches where the women and girls wear homemade dresses and skirts and the men wear collared shirts and pants.

  • Clogging Class: January 23, 2019. Before clogging dance class on the town square in Marshall, AR, my daughter sat down on the sidewalk to get her dance shoes on in the headlights of another car who was waiting to pick up their dancer.

  • The Bus to School. January 9, 2020. Driving behind the bus to the local St. Joe school as I head down our road to the highway for the morning.

  • Talking to Dad. May 6, 2019. Dad is away on 2 week wildfire assignment, so he had made his evening call home to talk with the kids. The neighbor had given us 4 baby blue jays that had fallen out of a tree when their kin cut it down, so we were sitting on the front porch hanging out with them. Our cat Gretchen was close by, keeping an eye on those birds and playing with my son. My husband frequently travels for prescribed burning or wildfire assignments and the kids and I hold down the fort and sometimes acquire animals while he’s gone.