I sit next to an eight-foot tall bookshelf in the Arkansas Times office. Its shelves are filled with titles penned by Arkansas authors and the pages are rich with knowledge about The Natural State. A peek at the spines suggest onlookers should search for the state’s best burgers, check out artist V.L. Cox’s original works, educate themselves with political novels and consider a staycation using various exploration guides.
The books have rarely changed over the last year and a half I’ve worked at the Times, but a new slim volume laid horizontal atop the other titles caught my eye recently. It was “Letters to Dan: A Philosophical Guide to the Ozarks” by Don House, released in early 2023.
Flipping through, I noticed black and white photos leading into each chapter, many of which had enticing names. Three seemingly scandalous chapters immediately piqued my interest: “Punk Bitches,” “Hack and Squirt” and “Crazy Asshole.”
Ripe with excitement, I delved further. House’s book won the inaugural Sassafras Award for Excellence in Environmental Writing, which the Ozark Society dreamed up to uplift innovative nature writing voices. Also a photographer, House is not an Arkansas native, but the “rugged isolation and unique character of the Ozark Mountains” drew him to the state, according to his website. He currently lives off the grid in Northwest Arkansas and is making a trip to WordsWorth Books in Little Rock on Tuesday, Nov. 7 for a reading and book signing. The event runs from 6:30-8 p.m., and copies of the book will be available for $20. You can RSVP here.
House’s book, as he explains within the first few pages, is an assemblage of reflections written to his friend Dan Kasztelan: “All of the essays in this collection started as letters to Dan. The ritual continues to this day. Only the address on the envelope changes from time to time.”
That seems pretty self-explanatory given the title, but get this: Kaszetlan never replies to the letters. He reads and absorbs each message, but the content isn’t discussed until the pair meet up every few years to catch up. House claims that Kasztelan finds a way to weave everything he’s written to him during their time apart into the long-awaited conversations.
The book invites readers into the normal days of House’s life through stories that are comforting and intriguing. He tells tales of floats along the Buffalo and the Mulberry and trips to various cemeteries. He also shares the heartbreak he feels when he loses his dog, Carl.
House’s passion as a naturalist shines through, too. He discloses early on that he’s going to capitalize the names of plants and animals and things, and it consistently brought a smile to my face when I ran across a “Bird,” a “Deer” or an “Elm.”
Most importantly, House always comes across a friend, writing generously while never seeking a reply.