Here is a place where I share thoughts and ideas about the Delta and its people. When you grow up in a place, connected to the land, it changes you, and finds a way to stay with you, no matter where you are.
In 1973 Don Henley sang “the sky won’t snow and the sun won’t shine” and this particular January Thursday was that kind of a day. Leaving Memphis via the “old bridge” I was treated to a great view of the continuing flooding on the Arkansas side, water stretching all the way up to the levee.
Along the Interstate, near Clarkedale, Arkansas, a flock of geese, mostly snows, had found a field worth visiting. Some of them nervously took flight as I took a few shots, but they didn't go far. The mild temperatures and plentiful food sources made eastern Arkansas attractive to them.
This was a great farmer’s rain . . . slow and steady, replenishing the earth for the coming spring planting. The amount of water this region has received in recent months is, if not historic, certainly remarkable. Many of the fields have as much water as they can take, and are shedding water into ditches, across roads, and even backing up into the odd yard.
I purposed to drive the backroads today, intent on seeing the impacts of the water, and how the land lay in general. My destination was the bootheel of Missouri, a geographic oddity that puts some portions of Arkansas west of their “northern" neighbors in Missouri.
I turned off Interstate 55 onto Arkansas 181 and wound my way through Keiser and Manila, and past signs pointing out numerous small towns, including those named for the daughters of a planter from many years ago. Finally, I turned due north toward my destination: Senath, Missouri.
Turns out that Missouri Hwy K effectively ends at Hwy 164 . . . although the gravel county road that clearly ran straight to Senath was tempting, it would have been more tempting on a hot July day, and my white Tahoe would likely have been caked in dust before I got where I was going. So I reluctantly turned west on 164, north on 108 and ran into a broad swath of 412 that took me into Senath on a dryer, more predictable road.
Cotton is still king in the SW corner of the Missouri Bootheel. Numerous operations ranging from gins to storage facilities to dealerships offering space-ship like multi-row cotton pickers made it clear to even the most casual observer that this was still cotton country.
Returning home after a day of meetings, I followed roughly the same path, and noted several larger ditches that would eventually flow into rivers like the Little River, the St. Francis, and the Tyronza, all destined for the Mississippi. These cycles of rain and flooding and drought have all contributed to the abundance of rich delta soil that supports not only cotton, but soybeans, milo, and rice, crops from which our farmers extract a living.
Unlike Desparado’s bleak message, a day in the delta when "the sky won’t snow and the sun won’t shine" probably just means a day of much needed soaking winter rain. Let us be grateful.
Monday, the last day of September. The calendar says fall, but the thermometer says August. It’s a gorgeous day, and a side benefit of my business trip was an afternoon drive through my native northeast Arkansas. I’ve probably driven from Marked Tree to Memphis 10,000 times. I can remember when it was a two lane road, then a four lane bypassing Marked Tree, Truman, and Bay on its way to Jonesboro and beyond. Now it is officially an Interstate. Memphis to Jonesboro is such a quick trip that nobody needs the old Travelair Motel in Marked Tree anymore.
The harvest is underway. Lots of cotton is ready, and I pass rice fields that have already been cut and burned, and others that are just about ready. Long cylinders of plastic-wrapped cotton lay in the fields, ready for ginning. Some of the beans are turning, but many are still trying to finish growing, taking advantage of the heat that makes up for shorter days.
Soon, more fall like temperatures will come, probably ushered in by rain. There’s an urgency to the harvest, to take advantage of these warm, dry days to get as much done as possible.
This cycle has repeated, through wet years, and dry; warm years and cooler ones, early frosts and delayed frosts, since my ancestors oversaw the logging that exposed the rich topsoil to farming activities. It is a blessing to see it played out year over year. As the day drew to a close, and I neared my destination, a sliver of a moon appeared in the western sky, determined to set early. In a few weeks it will become full, and while technically a hunter’s moon, will no doubt be of an aid to those still gathering their crops.
I have tremendous admiration for those who still work the land. It is hard, and largely thankless, other than the satisfaction of interposing oneself into the rhythms of sowing and reaping. Take a minute and thank a farmer. And take time to slow down or stop, and watch the harvest. It is the genesis of so much that we take for granted.
Finally, before you go, take three minutes and listen to Levon and the boys singing about the Southern Tenant Farmers Union:
In my continuing efforts to support the viability of our Delta towns, I offer an updated version of my 2010 blogpost on embracing and promoting quality of life in the region. Often, we ignore quality of life issues that are all around us in small towns. Benefits include a calmer lifestyle: schools, churches, and other activities just minutes away; and access to recreational areas that allow for last minute fishing or camping trips. If parents behave as if they must travel long distances for recreation and entertainment, children will grow up believing it. On the other hand, if children are exposed to these rural "amenities" they will quickly come to love and appreciate them.
It is possible to secretly make some of your trips educational, and rural areas are full of such opportunities. In eastern Arkansas, for example, one can visit the Louisiana Purchase State Park (near Blackton) where there is a monument marking the spot from which the entire Louisiana Purchase was surveyed. In the fall, a tremendous education in agriculture is all around the Mid-South, as crops are harvested, processed, and prepared for market . . . if you are not a farmer, find one who'll let you and the family watch the show! Several eastern Arkansas towns feature museums that tell the history of the region, including the Hemingway-Pfeiffer museum in Piggot, the Southern Tenant Farmers museum in Tyronza (time your visit to eat lunch with Clara at Midway Cafe), and the Sultana Museum in Marion.
In west Tennessee, one can visit Reelfoot Lake, a fisherman's and birdwatcher's paradise that also offers insight into the geologic history of the region (Reelfoot was created by the 1811-1812 New Madrid earthquakes) For more on the earthquakes, visit the museum at New Madrid, Missouri, and while you are there, get an up close view of Old Man River from the observation platform. Mississippi is not without its history, as well - travel Highway 61 through Clarksdale and the crossroads region to learn about the birthplace of the blues. Northeastern Mississippi, especially around Corinth and Baldwyn, are ripe with Civil War sites.
Throughout the region, you will also find great spots to eat, just ask around - or message me and I’ll suggest a few. There are too many to start naming here!
I wonder how many of us are close to these resources but have never spent time there? In order to preserve and expand our small communities, citizens must actively seek to promote those aspects of their communities that foster a better quality of life. I’d love to hear from you if you visit any of these sites - or find others!
Yesterday I had occasion to travel in the Delta. The day was brisk and overcast, and the fields - many of which were the object of vigorous planting activity as late as Friday, had standing water in rows. Water that reflected the gray sky. Weekend rains had put an end to the planting for now. I hope that water gets off quickly, allowing today’s sun and light winds to return the soil to planting condition. It is getting late.
With a cousin in tow, I continued the task of sorting through my late mother’s home, preparing it to sell. Separating 60 years of accumulation into keep, sell, or trash (mostly trash) has become a tedious task. Only occasionally was I rewarded with a photo of an unseen relative (most notably a great grandfather about whom details were sketchy) or an obituary that provided names, places, and details that an amateur genealogist thrives on. But mostly, it was discarding old clothes, sewing patterns, or recipes. Fabric that was never stitched into that article of clothing, cookies that were never mixed and baked, pans with broken handles that held an unknown sentimental attachment.
We managed to find time for lunch at Midway Cafe in Tyronza (get there early before Clara runs out of the chicken fried steak, and order your pie with your meal so you get the kind you want.) We also visited the Marked Tree cemetery and solved a mystery about the location of a grave. Then it was back to sorting through things.
(Norwood Creech Photo)
I was alone at the end of the day. I distributed some photos to friends in town, and bought a Diet Coke for the road. As I turned south onto I-55 at Lake David, the sun came out. Everything is going to be OK.
At the heart of a successful community are thriving small businesses, with local ownership. No segment of our economy is under more attack today, however. In order to preserve these valuable assets, communities need to embrace and support them. At a civic level, efforts must be undertaken to understand the true nature of the business, their positive attributes, and any needs they have that threaten their success. Some communities have undertaken to survey their local business community (perhaps extending this to a county or regional effort) in order to fully understand the challenges and opportunities that exist. From this compilation, efforts can be made to match local suppliers and producers, address common problems (such as Internet access or other infrastructure issues) and find ways to aggressively promote these local businesses.
A natural extension of this effort is a program to aid your local businesses in competing with the threats posed by large retailers. No local business can survive head to head competition, but with careful attention to inventory mix, promotion, and personal service, many can find a niche that allows them to remain viable and profitable. Community support is also essential, and a successful small business program will also involve promoting the "shop at home" concept to the benefit of your local businesses.
Future posts will provide more specific guidance into efforts you can undertake in your community. I'm currently offering my services to assist communities in initiating these programs.
5,000 Families in Flood-Damaged Delta to Receive Free Medical, Dental Care
Delta Regional Authority, Gov. Beebe to Launch Taskforce “Razorback”
300 Military Medical Personnel to Provide Shot in the Arm to Delta’s Health Care
LITTLE ROCK – 5,000 families in the flood-damaged Delta will receive free medical and dental Care, Delta Regional Authority Federal Co-Chairman Chris Masingill and Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe announced today.
The health initiative named Taskforce “Razorback” and led by military reservists from across the nation, will operate for the next two weeks, June 8-18, in the towns of Eudora, Helena-West Helena, Marianna, McGehee, and Wynne.
The Delta has faced record level flooding over the last two months. Receding waters have only begun to reveal the extent of the devastation to families and towns across the region – with millions of dollars of crops washed away, thousands of homes destroyed, and businesses shuttered.
Taskforce “Razorback” – Delivering Free Medical and Dental Care to Delta Families -Free health and dental services for approximately 5,000 people in five towns will be delivered. -Any resident is eligible for services that include testing for diabetes, high-blood pressure, eye exams and general dentistry.
-Patients will be referred to doctors in their area for any follow up care that is needed.
-300 medical personnel from the Army Reserve, Navy Reserve, and Air Force Reserve with valuable and realistic training will be provided.
-The health care gap left by the closure of 9 Arkansas hospitals located in or adjacent to the Delta area that have closed since 1985 will be shortened.
Chairman Masingill said, “This initiative honors the strength and determination of Arkansas families during this challenging time. Not only are we renewing our commitment to these families, but we are providing a major shot in the arm to the region’s health. Existing health disparities are a hindrance to the Delta’s vibrant communities and the DRA is committed to combatting them.”
“This care would be important in any year, but it is especially needed after the recent floods and storms we’ve experienced in the Delta,” Governor Beebe said. “We are proud to see these military professionals helping those who need it the most with assistance from the Delta Regional Authority.”
The Delta region, including Arkansas, consistently suffers from poor health outcomes. Compared with national rates, deaths in the Delta region from circulatory diseases are 21.2% higher, deaths from cancer are 12.7% higher and deaths from accidents are 42% higher. In 2002, infant mortality rates in the Delta region were almost 30% higher than the national average.
The Delta Regional Authority is a federal-state partnership that serves 252 counties and parishes in parts of Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee. Chris Masingill, appointed by President Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate to be the DRA’s Federal Co-Chairman, along with the governors of the eight states comprise the Authority’s board. For more information, please visit: www.dra.gov.