My family has always referred to our home town area as the Bootheel, meaning the southeastern leg of Missouri. The term included our county, Stoddard, and all those south of it. I don’t remember any quarrel about the name–its use was prevalent everywhere, in speech, papers, publications. Admittedly, metaphorically Stoddard was at the very top of the heel, embracing the heel section of the insole and up a bit, stopping short of the ankle.
I was surprised when people described the Bootheel as flatland, with long stretches of cottonfields. That was true of the counties south of us, but the landscape surrounding our town, Bloomfield, was more diverse: swampy in patches, with cypress trees standing in shallow water, their trunks extending up to the sky and reflecting down into the soil, their roots like the arms of giants; hilly, too, the higher ground verdant in summer, covered with trees, wildflowers, berry bushes, and teeming with wood life. At night, driving along backroads, we dipped down into fog and came up into high moonlight. It wasn’t actually like Brigadoon, but it was magical.
After some years away from Missouri, I returned to learn that “the Bootheel” had become a disputed term. At a folklore society gathering, I was advised that only residents of six counties could claim to be from the Bootheel. My particular home town area was actually Crowley’s Ridge. The people correcting me seemed incensed, as if I were deliberately trespassing. It wasn’t like learning that I had an entirely different lineage than the other members of my family, or like losing a homeland to a hurricane (God bless those who can’t return home for any reason), but it was at least disturbing. I clung to the term because it was part of my past. How can you stop being from a place? It takes a mind shift to alter the facts of your history as you knew it and remember it.
Then, just a few years ago, 2005, I was a guest speaker in Cape Girardeau. In the next morning’s Southeast Missourian, the Speak Out column referred to a Bootheel author who had recently given a reading in the city. Obviously, he meant me: “As it turns out, she is from Bloomfield, Mo. Bootheel?” The one-word question suggested I was a pretender. I wrote a letter to the editor; so did my brother. Since then, though I vigorously believe that I am from the Bootheel, I give my birthplace as Southeast Missouri, Crowley’s Ridge, the northern edge of the Bootheel.
Crowley’s Ridge truly is a special place, distinct from all the surrounding area. Robert Forrester, historian and writer, wrote a book about it, titled Highland in the Swamps. Exactly! More about that later.