The Arkansas Delta is a series of river basins that empty into the Mississippi from the west: the St. Francis, the White, and the Arkansas. Various agricultural systems have been tried here—slavery, sharecropping, industrial farming—all producing wealth for a handful amid widespread poverty. The ancient forests have been cut, many towns have dwindled into ghosts, and yet there is this one thing: The place still beckons, captures the heart, and persists like the blues songs that grew out of the pain and the rough-edged Saturday nights.

There are soft reasons for hope on the delta: the sentimental tug of the light at dawn, the scent of violent growth in the remaining woods, the lazy movement of the rivers across the pan of dirt. But none of this makes up for a hard history of poverty, lynchings, and an out-migration into cities because of a rejection by the delta itself.

The delta is the soul of the South, a place always becoming a New South and yet always shrouded in its past, a place that gave the nation the blues and harbored the Ku Klux Klan and in the sixties was a cauldron of social change that boiled up in young black people and spilled over to young white people all across the country. Now it is a vast agricultural machine that has swept clean the land, that seems to hardly need people or towns.

Beyond sIze, shape and location the maps gave some idea of the lie of the land by their thin light-brown contour lines, one for each twenty feet up from the sea. Any freshwater was shown in blue as thready streams, occasional ponds, or even swamps full of stylized reeds, all drawn as neat as little bouquets. The green overprint for woodland had not been added at that time, but the woods were assumed to be there anyway. What was much more helpful were the “culture marks” in black, various symbols used to show buildings, roads, mines, quarries – everything, in short, that we did not want.

Instead, what was wanted was a hundred acres more or less, at least a few miles out at sea with a good natural water supply, a varied terrain of hills and dells, plenty of woods, and no black marks at all. A miss on one or more of these points eliminated most of the islands.

from Art Kelum’s journal in We Were an Island: The Maine Life of Art and Nam Kellum by Peter P. Blanchard III

People came from Minnesota, from Illinois, from Scotland, from Norway, and from points in between to accept the dare, tossing down their labor, their youth, and their hopes onto a craps table with long, empty horizons that were green in springtime, brown in summer, brown in autumn, and then implacably white. This was called homesteading.


Craig French, from another old family, stood at the big windows of the house he has built on a rise 20 miles south of Malta, facing out over undulant prairie toward Beaver Creek. With his spotting scope on a tripod beside him, two pairs of binoculars nearby on end tables, he said: “I like getting up and looking at what I get to look at every morning.” 

from the January 2012 National Geographic article: Riding out Another Season by David Quammen

After lunch on a gravel bar I sat in the shade and watched Sam struggle with the fly rod as most beginners do, flailing it like a whip instead of achieving that “art…performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o’clock,” as Norman Maclean wrote in A River Runs Through It. But gradually he checked himself and stopped the rod close to ten. The line uncurled on the water like a prayer, dropping the Craigshead spider fly into an alluring eddy. He was too pleased with himself to notice the shimmering torpedo emerge from the depths. Only when he tried to back-cast did he find himself hooked into a living, breathing dynamo.

from the November 2011 National Geographic article: America’s Wild and Scenic Rivers by Joel K. Bourne Jr.

I hit it. The way the dove dropped, in an awful flutter of wings, mirrored the state of my insides; my heart collapsed in free-fall panic. As a boy of the suburbs, I’d never killed anything before, or even considered it; my imaginary targets had always been Nazi infantrymen. I leaped the concrete-block wall dividing our yard from the neighbor’s, only obliquely aware, at that moment, of how severely forbidden was this terrain. (The neighbor was a middle-aged mumbler, schizophrenic if you trusted neighborhood rumor, who was fond of sunbathing nude on the roof.) No matter: I dashed across his backyard to where the fallen dove was flailing in the shade. Desperate to end its misery, I pumped the rifle to its airy maximum and shot the dove point-blank in the head. The stillness that followed didn’t console me. My eyes soaked, I shot it again, and then again, sobbing, and then again and again until I was finally out of pellets.

from the Garden and Gun article: A Taste for the Hunt by Jonathan Miles

While these capillaries of civilization reach far into the park, there’s an inescapable sense wherever you go in the Adirondacks that just a short distance away a wilderness begins — many wildernesses, in fact. What’s arresting about the Adirondacks isn’t the tantalizing promise of another view lying out of sight, though the park is an endless beaded chain of new perspectives. What’s arresting is the absence of a view, the dense enclosure of the eastern forest, the depth of the biotic floor you step across as you move deeper and deeper into a kind of Leatherstocking shade. It seem irrational to feel the trees closing behind you, as if the forest is cutting you off from the present. But the gravity you feel — drawing you over rock and moss, through small streams where the light opens overhead, across deadfalls, and into pure dim stands of hemlock — is the returning wilderness of the place. 

from the September 2011 National Geographic article: Adirondack Park: Forever Wild by Verlyn Klinkenborg

But there is a special reason why the reinvigoration of those parts which are stirred into conscious activity by natural scenery is more effective upon the general development and health than that of any other, which is this: The severe and excessive exercise of the mind which leads to the greatest fatigue and is the more wearing upon the whole constitution is almost entirely caused by application to the removal of something to be apprehended in the future, or to interests beyond those of the moment, or of the individual; to the laying up of wealth, to the preparation of something, to accomplishing something in the mind of another, and especially to small and petty details which are uninteresting in themselves and which engage the attention at all only because of the bearing they have on some general end of more importance which is seen ahead.

In the interest which natural scenery inspires there is the strongest contrast to this. It is for itself and at the moment it is enjoyed. The attention is aroused and the mind occupied without purpose, without a continuation of the common process of relating the present action, thought or perception to some future end. There is little else that has this quality so purely. There are enjoyments with which regard for something outside and beyond the enjoyment of the moment can ordinarily be so little mixed. The pleasures of the table are irresistibly associated with the care of hunger and the repair of the bodily waste. In all social pleasures and all pleasures which are usually enjoyed in association with the social pleasure, the care for the opinion of others, or the good of others largely mingles. In the pleasures of literature, the laying up of ideas and self-improvements are purposes which cannot be kept out of view. This, however, is in very slight degree, if at all, the case with the enjoyment of the emotions caused by natural scenery. It therefore results that the enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it, tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body, gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system. 

from Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove: A preliminary Report, 1865 by Frederick Law Olmstead