Before reaching the Cache River in Arkansas, Route 17 stretches south through cotton fields and poverty. It passes worn houses with dark, wormed wood peering through tired paint and abandoned shops with windows long ago broken. It rolls through the Village of Cotton Plant and neighborhoods past their prime, places when even in their prime were never a bargain.
At the Cache, a dirt road leads off 17 down to a small clearing on the river’s shore. There is no sign informing a visitor where he stands, but this is the Bayou De View. And there is no sign offering the bayou’s history, because there isn’t much. The exception is the 2004 sighting of a bird thought to be extinct: The Ivory-billed Woodpecker. That the sighting is disputed is unimportant now. It was a brief, promising moment for the area. With the bird came visitors and with visitors came money.
From the clearing, you can see some of what remains of Arkansas hardwood bottomland. Most of its once 8 million acres was destroyed by our lust for hard wood and cotton. Poverty and progress, after all, need space to expand. What’s seen is not old growth. Old growth is rare. This is bottomland trying to renew itself.
Here the Cache River, like the town of Cotton Plant, is indifferent and bored. It oozes more than it flows. Its cold, dark water passes through a copse of Cypress south of the overpass. It is December and the trees are bare. The seasonal chill softens the odor of the decay. Mosquito larvae await the spring. There are no birds. The only sound is the occasional drone of passing traffic.
An old, faded Ford 150 pickup truck, its engine straining up the grade, turns off the highway and down to the clearing. A country and western song on truck’s radio laments of a broken home and a drunken husband. The driver, wearing a camouflage jacket and pants, steps out and walks to the river’s edge. He walks with the weary uncertainty of age or booze. His beard is gray and full. His clothes are as old and threadbare, the faded and soiled colors blending with the mood of the bayou. A brown hat sags and hints that it was once hunter’s orange. When the song ends a sonorous voice asked listeners to donate toys to needy children for Christmas.
The man stands at the shore for several minutes studying the river, staring south. His view is obstructed by the cypress forest. Yet he stares. After a time, he returns to his truck. Getting up to the highway is a challenge for the old engine. But the man knows his truck and gently coaxes the vehicle up the road. He enters 17 and drives north toward the cotton fields.
Poet Samuel Ullman said “Nobody grows old merely by living a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals.” Maybe so, but hopelessness can do the job in a shorter time.