Archive for March, 2011

The blacklands of southwest Arkansas

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

One of the many things I love about Arkansas is its geographic diversity.

There are mountains in the west and the north — the Ouachitas and the Ozarks.

There’s the Arkansas River Valley cutting across the state.

There are the pine woods of the Gulf Coastal Plain in the south.

There are the vast flatlands of the Delta and the Grand Prairie in the east.

Meanwhile, Crowley’s Ridge bisects that flat Delta land, providing hills and a habitat for plants that more resemble what might be found in the Appalachians.

A unique part of Arkansas — and one that few people ever hear about – is the blackland prairie area in the southwest section of the state.

Here’s how the Nature Conservancy describes these prairies: “The blacklands of southwestern Arkansas, a landscape dominated by tall native grasses and vibrant wildflowers, had a watery beginning. Millions of years ago, the Gulf of Mexico covered the region. As the gulf receded, it left behind deposits of shellfish that formed a chalky layer underneath a deep mantle of rich, black soil.

“It’s from this dark soil that the blacklands got their name. The state’s blackland prairies and associated woodlands harbor more than 600 types of plants, including 21 globally imperiled plant communities. Some 315 animal species are found at blackland sites, including rare birds like Bachman’s sparrow, Henslow’s sparrow, painted bunting and Harlan’s hawk.

“Originally about 12 million acres of blackland prairies and woodlands covered parts of Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Today only some 10,000 acres remain in scattered patches. Most of the original blackland landscape disappeared in the past 150 years, and high-quality remnants are increasingly rare. The open terrain and rich soils were appealing for agricultural fields, pastures and tree plantations. Today remaining blackland sites are losing ground to suburban development.”

Beginning in the 1980s, the Nature Conservancy partnered with the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission to identify the least disturbed blackland sites in the state.

In 1991, the conservancy teamed up with the commission to acquire the Terre Noire Natural Area in Clark County. That preserve now covers 490 acres.

In 1997, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission acquired what’s now the Rick Evans Grandview Prairie Wildlife Management Area. It covers 4,885 acres, making it the largest blackland conservation site in the country.

That marvelous acquisition wasn’t the end of the blackland conservation efforts.

Almost 120 acres were acquired in Hempstead County between 1998 and 2001 to create the Columbus Prairie Preserve. Following controlled burns at the site, one of the state’s rarest plants — the eared false foxglove – began to thrive there.

The Nature Conservancy transferred 66 acres in Howard County to the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission in 2004 to create the Saratoga Blackland Prairie Natural Area.

Three years ago, the conservancy, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission entered into a partnership to conserve the 1,018-acre Oak Ridge Ravines Preserve in Hempstead County.

A visit to these blackland locations can make for a great spring outing.

If you’re coming from central Arkansas, start your trip by getting off Interstate 30 at the second Arkadelphia exit as you head west. The Terre Noire Natural Area can be found by taking Arkansas Highway 51 for about eight miles toward the west.

The wildflowers there, which bloom from early spring until the fall, include blazing star, pale purple coneflower, compass plant, gum plant, wild petunia and ironweed.

“The blackland region of Arkansas has been badly degraded,” the Nature Conservancy website states. “Because of its high- and medium-quality native prairies and woodlands, Terre Noire was identified as critically important to conserving the blackland ecosystem. With its close proximity to the city of Arkadelphia, the site required immediate protection from urbanization. … Stewardship at Terre Noire includes restoring the mosaic of prairie openings within oak/pine forest and maintaining the assemblage of naturally occurring blackland prairie species.

“Prescribed burning, cedar cutting, prairie seeding and erosion control by staff and volunteers have ridded the prairie of much woody vegetation and have boosted populations of native prairie plants. The conservancy will continue to conduct burns, closely mimicking a natural fire regime, to promote natural species diversity.”

After visiting Terre Noire, get back onto Interstate 30 and head west toward Hope. Follow U.S. Highway 278 for two miles west after exiting the interstate and then turn left onto Arkansas Highway 73. Go 14 miles to Columbus and then turn north onto Hempstead County Road 35. It’s two miles from there to the front gate of one of Arkansas’ hidden jewels — Grandview.

The Grandview Plantation had a reputation dating back to the 1800s for producing valuable crops. The area later was managed as a cattle ranch and as a prestigous private hunting club. Cattle ranching, however, led to the introduction of nonnative vegetation. Overgrazing was common.

The Arkansas Game & Fish Commission has worked hard during the past 14 years to restore the natural prairie at Grandview. The site also has an education center, two small lakes, a nature trail, a shooting range that’s open by appointment and two lodges that can be rented by groups.

You can move on from Grandview to the Columbus Prairie, which is managed as a nature preserve with regular prescribed burns and constant cedar removal. In 1998, just one eared false floxglove plant was recorded at Columbus Prairie. More than 50 were recorded the following year following a prescribed burn.

Columbus Prairie is almost adjacent to Grandview. You go about a mile on Hempstead County Road 35 until spotting the Columbus Prairie sign on the left.

To reach the Saratoga Blackland Prairie Natural Area, get back on Arkansas Highway 73 and continue west to Saratoga. Turn north at Saratoga onto Arkansas Highway 355. You’ll quickly merge onto Arkansas Highway 32. Continue to Chapel Hill Road and turn right. The natural area is at the end of Chapel Hill Road.

“The ocean bottom material left by the Gulf of Mexico usually formed the rolling hills and sandy, acidic soil typical in the Gulf Coastal Plain natural division,” according to the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission website. “The blackland prairie region of Arkansas is located within the Gulf Coastal Plain, but it is atypical. Confined to the southwestern corner of the state, the region consists of several distinct areas of alkaline soil characterized by chalk outcrops, black soil and cuestas — long, low ridges with a relatively steep face on one side and a long, gentle slope on the other. It is on the steep sides of these cuestas that we find the blackland prairie communities. … Historically, fire played a major role in controlling woody vegetation and in maintaining the open, grass-dominated understory characteristic of these natural communities. This unique mosaic of landscapes in southwestern Arkansas supports a wide variety of plants and animals that specifically require an open, fire-maintained habitat.”

By bringing back fire, numerous plant and animal species are returning to the remaining remnants of the blackland prairie.

It’s a piece of our state that’s well worth a road trip on a spring day.

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Why I like Mike (Anderson that is)

Monday, March 28th, 2011

Mike Anderson wasn’t hired to heal a whole state.

But less than a week after he was named the new head basketball coach at the University of Arkansas, don’t you get the sense that he has done just that?

The quotes from Nolan Richardson’s bizarre news conference of Monday, Feb. 25, 2002, remain seared on our brains.

– “I know for a fact that I do not play on the same level as the other coaches around this school play on. I know that. You know it. And people of my color know that. And that angers me.”

– “When I look at all of you people in this room, I see no one who looks like me, talks like me or acts like me. Now why don’t you recruit? Why don’t the editors recruit like I’m recruiting?”

– “Do not call me ever on my phone, none of you, at my home ever again. Those lines are no longer open for communications with me.”

– “Ol’ granny told me, ‘Nobody runs you anywhere, Nolan.’ I know that. See, my great-great-grandfather came over here on the ship. I didn’t, and I don’t think you understand what I’m saying.”

Sports Illustrated would describe that Monday news conference as a “bewildering self-immolation.”

In his 2010 book “Forty Minutes of Hell: The Extraordinary Life of Nolan Richardson,” Rus Bradburd writes: “How was it possible that this pioneering coach, winner of the national championship, whose style of play had altered the way college basketball was played, was going to be most remembered for a press conference?”

It indeed was a bizarre period in our state’s history.

And, make no mistake, there was history being made. To understand Arkansas is to understand how deeply ingrained Razorback sports are in our culture. It’s about more than football and basketball. It’s about a state’s pride, its inherent inferiority complex, its passion, its priorities.

“I could not avert my eyes from the train wreck Nolan Richardson’s career had become, and I read as much as possible about his fantastic fall,” Bradburd writes. “Nearly every piece said that Richardson had brought on his own firing. The coaches I talked to — the white ones, anyway — wanted to know what a guy making that kind of money had to complain about.

“Richardson seemed unable to move beyond 1968, determined to fight a war most Americans believed had ended long ago. To understand Richardson’s mindset, I knew I’d have to seriously examine the two most influential people in his professional career. Both of these men were icons in the world of college athletics, but they couldn’t have been more different.

“One, Don Haskins, was Richardson’s own basketball coach, who accidentally began the avalanche that was the desegregation of college basketball teams. The other, Frank Broyles, was Richardson’s boss at the University of Arkansas.”

Richardson was fired on March 1, 2002.

A whole state seemed to choose sides.

There was the Frank Broyles camp.

There was the Nolan Richardson camp.

Listening to sports talk radio, the calls often broke along racial lines.

“Instead of a rousing debate about whether the struggling Razorbacks need a new coach after 17 years, too many of us got dragged into an argument over Nolan Richardson’s skin color — just the way he wanted,” an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial stated at the time.

As the battle played out, no one heard much from Mike Anderson. Sure, Anderson served as the interim coach for two games after Richardson was fired. Yet his voice never entered the debate.

Though liked by those in both the Broyles camp and the Richardson camp, Anderson had no realistic opportunity to replace his mentor.

After all, he had been Richardson’s assistant at Arkansas for 17 years. The wound was raw, and people assumed Broyles would dictate a clean break with the Richardson era.

That’s just what happened.

Stan Heath was the hot young coach that year, and he was hired at Arkansas.

Thus began the Razorbacks’ nine years of wandering in the college basketball wilderness (it only seems like 40).

I’ll resist the temptation to get carried away with the analogy by painting Mike Anderson as Moses, leading Arkansas to the basketball promised land.

It’s yet to be seen how Anderson will do as the head Hog.

Long before his first team takes the floor, however, it’s evident that he has won a huge victory. Just his mere arrival has closed a wound that had festered far too long in our small state.

It became evident that something special was happening as I read the various Facebook posts the day of Anderson’s hiring.

It became even more evident during the combination news conference/pep rally Saturday morning at Bud Walton Arena.

That event almost had the air of a religious service at times. Grown men and women had tears in their eyes that gray March morning.

Outsiders might consider it strange, but they don’t understand how important Razorback sports are to our sense of self in Arkansas. That might be a good thing or a very bad thing depending on your perspective, but it’s the way things are here.

The head football coach and the head basketball coach at the University of Arkansas are every bit as important as the governor. I worked in the governor’s office for a decade, and I know that to be true.

A message is sent whenever a new coach is hired.

With the hiring of Mike Anderson, the University of Arkansas sent this message: Those events of 2002 are truly in the past. We’ve grown up. We may not have forgotten, but we’ve forgiven.

We’ll celebrate the good days of the Richardson era — and there were many — while letting go of the hurt.

We’ll look to the future as another African-American coach — a man who was not born in Arkansas but considers this home — hopefully returns us to the upper echelon of college basketball.

Bradburd ends his book this way: “Other coaches of color of his era had terrific teams, but what distinguishes Nolan Richardson is the nature of his trailblazing career, as the first black coach to go into the old Confederacy — and the embers of racism — and have astonishing success. Richardson — outspoken, passionate and righteous — is the most important African-American coach America has known.

“Despite his garden full of statues of children at play, he could not freeze time. Memory, though. Memory endures because Nolan Richardson, as relentless as 40 minutes of hell’s full-court pressure, won’t let us forget. He has begun to fulfill his former chancellor’s request to be happy, even if he’s still an outsider, on the wrong side of the fence at the university where he won the championship. The basketball court where he finally returned belongs to him — although you won’t find his name on it. Regardless, Richardson’s shadow and history remind, admonish and exhort Arkansas.”

Mike Anderson has come home.

Now, Nolan Richardson can feel at home again in Bud Walton Arena, cheering on his beloved Razorbacks.

We have Frank Broyles Field at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

That’s as it should be.

Let’s also have the Nolan Richardson Court at Bud Walton Arena.

We’re a big enough state and a big enough people to celebrate the accomplishments of each of these Arkansas sports titans — Broyles and Richardson.

You see, their differences are not our differences.

The azaleas and dogwoods are starting to bloom. As Easter approaches, there’s a hint of redemption in the Ozarks air.

Thanks, Mike. Welcome home.

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The Natural State bucket list

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

Let’s have some fun heading into an early spring weekend.

On the previous post, I listed a few things that every true Arkansan should do at least once — things such as digging for diamonds at Murfreesboro, eating a hubcap cheeseburger at the original Cotham’s in Scott, floating the Buffalo River, watching the sun rise from a duck blind on the Grand Prairie.

Now, it’s your turn.

In the comments section of the blog, please list several items that should be on what we’ll call the Natural State bucket list.

They can be festivals you must attend, restaurants in which you must eat, activities in which you must engage, tourist attractions you must see, etc.

I included searching for the Gurdon Light late at night and fishing for trout early in the morning on the White River.

You get the idea. Once the list is complete, I’ll publish parts of it in my Arkansas Democrat-Gazette column.

Let’s hear from you. What things must you do at least once in life to earn your Arkansas bona fides?

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Digging for diamonds at Murfreesboro

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

There are certain things every Arkansan should do at least once.

– Eating an entire hubcap cheeseburger at the original Cotham’s in Scott.

– Riding in a canoe down the Buffalo River.

– Calling the Hogs at football games in both Fayetteville and Little Rock.

– Searching for the Gurdon Light late at night.

– Having a catfish dinner at the Georgetown One Stop.

– Fishing for trout early in the morning on the White River.

– Watching the sun rise from a duck blind on the Grand Prairie.

– Spending a night at the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs and the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs.

– Attending a Battle of the Ravine.

Yes, there are some things you simply must do in order to earn your Arkansas bonafides.

Digging for diamonds at the Crater of Diamonds State Park near Murfreesboro is one of those things.

I know you’ve talked about it. But how many of you native Arkansans have “played tourist” for a day and actually gone and done it?

I have.

It’s unlikely you’ll come home with a diamond, but you’ll have fun. The state Department of Parks and Tourism has made massive improvements to the park during the past dozen years. It’s well worth the drive to southwest Arkansas.

You’ll search for diamonds in a 37-acre plowed field. For history buffs, though, the park’s Diamond Discovery Center might prove more interesting than digging in the dirt. The interpretive center outlines the various methods used through the years to find diamonds and is home to a diamond hunters’ hall of fame.

Using proceeds from Amendment 75 to the Arkansas Constitution, the Parks and Tourism Department also constructed the Diamond Springs Water Park, which covers 14,700 square feet. It features a wading pool with spray geysers, water jets, animated waterspouts, cascades, two water slides and waterfall hideaways. It’s open during the summer and is a good place to cool off after being in that plowed field with no shade.

There’s also a restaurant that’s open from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day.

Here’s how the Arkansas State Parks website describes the history of the mine: “For years, locals wondered about the unusual green dirt about two miles south of the small farming community of Murfreesboro. Geologists examined the soil in the late 1800s and found it to be similar to diamond-bearing volcanic material elsewhere in the world, but they failed to uncover any of the precious stones at the time.

“Early in the 20th century, a local farmer named John Wesley Huddleston purchased land near Murfreesboro that included part of this volcanic material. In August 1906, he discovered the first diamonds on his property. Known as Arkansas’ Diamond King, Huddleston soon sold his land to a commercial mining company for $36,000.

“A diamond rush developed as soon as word of the find got out. In fact, the Conway Hotel in Murfreesboro is said to have turned away more than 10,000 people in just one year who could not be accommodated in the hostelry. The tent city of Kimberly was established between Murfreesboro and the diamond mine, but nothing remains of it today.”

The Arkansas Diamond Co. began commercial mining operations on land purchased from Huddleston. An adjoining landowner named M.M. Mauney refused to sell his land. Later, however, Mauney sold an interest in the property to Horace Bemis, who died soon after forming the Ozark Diamond Corp.

Bemis’ heirs sold his interest in the property to Austin and Howard Millar, whose commercial operation was destroyed by a January 1919 fire.

In 1951, land leased from the Millar family was turned into a tourist attraction and opened under the name Diamond Preserve of the United States. The name later was changed to Crater of Diamonds.

Ethel Wilkinson of Logansport, Ind., owned adjoining property and opened a competing attraction known as The Big Mine.

The two attractions had billboards across southwest Arkansas.

In 1969, General Earth Minerals of Dallas purchased both attractions. Extensive studies were done, but it was determined that commercial mining was unfeasible.

Gov. Dale Bumpers made expansion of the state parks system one of the cornerstones of his administration, and the state purchased the land from General Earth Minerals for $750,000 in 1972.

For students of Arkansas history, it seems fitting that the diamond mine ended up in state hands. That’s because a state geologist named John Branner had been the first person to say the land might contain diamonds. Diamonds were being found in the peridotite soil of South Africa, and Branner knew there was a similar area of soil near Murfreesboro. He searched the property in 1889 but found no diamonds.

When Huddleston made those first discoveries in 1906, he sent the stones to Little Rock jeweler Charles Stifft, who confirmed that they were diamonds. Stifft, in turn, sent them on to New York, where they were pronounced to be of fine grade.

In a later interview with the Arkansas Gazette, Huddleston recalled finding the first diamonds: “I was crawling on my hands and knees when my eyes fell on another glittering pebble. … I knew it was different from any I had ever seen before. It had a fiery eye that blazed up at me every way I turned it. I hurried to the house with the pebble, saddled my mule and started for Murfreesboro. … Riding through the lane, my eye caught another glitter, and I dismounted and picked it up out of the dust.”

There’s a historic marker to designate the approximate spot where Huddleston made his find.

The Strawn-Wagner Diamond, found at the state park in 1990 by Shirley Strawn of Murfreesboro, is the most perfect diamond the American Gem Society has ever certified.

The diamond weighed 3.03 carats in the rough. Following the recommendation of certified gemologist Bill Underwood, the diamond was sent to Lazare Kaplan International of New York in 1997 for cutting. The gem was cut into a round diamond of 1.09 carats. The cut allowed the maximum amount of light to be reflected.

Among the other famous discoveries at Crater of Diamonds is the Uncle Sam Diamond. At 40.23 carats, the white diamond is the largest diamond ever found in North America. It has been cut twice. The second cutting resulted in a 12.42-carat diamond.

The 4.25-carat Kahn Canary Diamond was worn by first lady Hillary Clinton at presidential inaugural galas in 1993 and 1997. It was loaned to her by owner Stan Kahn of Pine Bluff. George Stepp, a logger from Carthage, had found the diamond at the state park in 1977. Kahn later purchased it from him.

Since Crater of Diamonds became a state park, the largest find has been the 16.37-carat Amarillo Starlight Diamond. W.W. Johnson of Amarillo, Texas, found the diamond in 1975 while vacationing in Arkansas with his family.

The weather has warmed. Before it gets too hot, you should make a trek to Murfreesboro and live Arkansas history by sifting the soil at Crater of Diamonds State Park.

It’s a must-do on the Natural State Bucket List.

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The Big Woods of Arkansas

Monday, March 21st, 2011

William Faulkner was among those who wrote about the majestic Big Woods of the Mississippi River Delta.

The Big Woods once stretched down both sides of the Mississippi River in parts of Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri.

When DeSoto arrived in the region in the 1500s, the Big Woods made up the largest expanse of forested wetlands in North America.

There were 24 million forested acres in the Big Woods in the 1500s.

Today there are fewer than 5 million acres remaining. During the past 200 years, the vast majority of that land has been drained, cleared of trees and converted to row-crop agriculture.

Since the 1930s, meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has eliminated 16 curves in the Mississippi River, shortening the stream by 150 miles.

There are locks and dams on all of the river’s major tributaries. Those tributaries also have been straightened and channelized.

There are dikes. There are levees. There are giant pumps and diversion canals.

Of the remaining 5 million acres of forested Delta land, almost 1 million of those acres are in Arkansas.

The Big Woods of Arkansas is a national treasure — an international treasure, in fact, since in 1989 these remaining bottomland forests in east Arkansas were recognized by the 49 countries of the U.N.’s Ramsar Convention as a “Wetland of International Importance.”

A stretch of about 550,000 forested acres in east Arkansas is the largest corridor of bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the Delta north of the Atchafalaya River in south Louisiana.

The Nature Conservancy sums up the situation this way on its website (www.nature.org): “As forests continue to be broken into smaller fragments by roads, ditches, urban development and gravel mines, the number of plants and animals that can survive in those patches decreases. Water quality also is declining as sediments, fertilizers and pesticides wash off cultivated fields with no streamside forest to trap and filter them.

“The rivers of the Mississippi River Delta and the Big Woods are vital to the health of their surrounding bottomland hardwood forests. Without naturally functioning rivers, the ecosystem changes dramatically. The forests are no longer wetlands.

“Dams, levees and irrigation projects along the Mississippi River have virtually eliminated flooding along the river’s main stem, and tributary flooding has been reduced by 90 percent. Unable to disperse among the forests, water runs faster and stronger in straightened river channels, thus accelerating erosion. As riverbanks erode, forest vegetation loses its foothold and is swallowed by the river.

“Ultimately, the forest is cut off from the river entirely by steep riverbanks, and the risk of devastating floods downstream increases. Additionally, steeper riverbanks and structures such as levees isolate trees from the life-giving power of the rivers.”

I ate fried catfish for lunch yesterday at Gene’s in Brinkley on my way home from Memphis, and I noticed that the large poster of the ivory-billed woodpecker is still on the wall of the main dining room there. While many people now seriously doubt that it was an ivory-billed woodpecker that was spotted near the Cache River, the national excitement generated by the search did open a lot of eyes to the birding opportunities in the Big Woods of Arkansas.

The Nature Conservancy joined forces with Audubon Arkansas, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Wildlife Federation and others to form the Big Woods Conservation Partnership and even set up a Big Woods birding opportunities website.

Maps were published to show hiking trails and canoe access points. More people than ever before discovered the charms of the Big Woods.

When soybean prices soared in the early 1970s, tens of thousands of acres were drained and cleared in east Arkansas. Since then, much of that marginal cropland has been replanted in hardwoods.

The conservation effort of the past four decades in east Arkansas truly is a remarkable story with expansions of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, White River National Wildlife Refuge, Dagmar Wildlife Management Area, Black Swamp Wildlife Management Area, Wattensaw Wildlife Management Area and Benson Creeek Natural Area.

Long before the reported spotting of an ivory-billed woodpecker, the Nature Conservancy was hard at work in the Big Woods.

“Arkansans are fortunate,” Nancy Delamar of the Nature Conservancy wrote in a piece for Arkansas Business way back in 1994. “Our wetland-rich state still has a substantial amount of floodplain forest intact. Conservation and restoration of a long corridor of forested wetlands has already started in Arkansas. Wildlife management areas and refuges exist in the Big Woods as well as several large tracts of sustainably managed, privately held forested land. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are planting hardwoods as well as the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and the Arkansas Forestry Commission.

“The Conservancy and other private landowners and companies are also planting native hardwoods in the bottomland — whether the trees are for a natural wildlife habitat, future duck hunting, timber harvesting or ‘I just like to see these trees grow’ philosophy.

“Wetlands of the Big Woods include the bottomlands of Bayou de View, the Cache River, the lower White River and the lower Arkansas River. … The lower 41 miles of the Arkansas River have been listed in the Registry of Arkansas Natural and Scenic Rivers. It is the single remaining stretch of undisturbed ‘big river’ in Arkansas.

“Several rare plants and animals find shelter in the Big Woods, including the federally listed endangered interior least tern. The Big Woods contains nesting sites for bald eagles, and parts of the Big Woods have tracts large enough to provide habitat for native black bear. The Big Woods is vitally important as a migration route for neotropical songbirds, giving food and rest; and the region provides the single most important mallard wintering area in the lower Mississippi Valley.”

Some of the wildest, most remote areas of the Big Woods can be found in the White River National Wildlife Refuge, which was established in 1935 for the protection of migratory birds. The refuge is three to 10 miles wide and almost 90 miles long. There are more than 300 natural lakes and potholes in the refuge along with slow-running streams, sloughs and bayous.

A good place to start any exploration of the Big Woods is the White River National Wildlife Refuge visitor center just off Arkansas Highway 1 near St. Charles. The visitor center was constructed in 2003 and covers 10,000 square feet.

The center’s website describes it this way: “The foyer is home to a 28-foot-tall replica of a cypress tree. In addition to the birds and other wildlife that inhabit this symbol of the swamp, the tree houses two bear families. A cross section of a bear den illustrates the unique denning habits of black bears on the refuge. Another scenario includes a female cub encouraging her older cubs to leave the den. The base of the tree is surrounded by an underwater diorama showcasing flora and fauna typical of the refuge’s oxbow lakes.”

Of the two small theaters at the center, the website states: “One educates the visitor about the importance of flooding on the refuge while broadcasting images on the floor and the wall. The other highlights nature at night. Inside this theater the visitor experiences the refuge on a typical night. As the light dims, a narrator discusses the common sounds of nocturnal wildlife such as frogs, owls, insects and fox. As each call is played, an image of the animal calling is backlit on the theater wall.”

Looking for a different type of spring outing?

Try the Big Woods of Arkansas, a state treasure that far too many Arkansans have never explored.

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Arkansas’ Kings River: Priceless

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

The Buffalo River hogs the spotlight when it comes to the state’s Ozark streams.

And rightly so.

It’s a gorgeous stream, and the epic battle to prevent the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from placing a dam on it led to one of the great chapters in Arkansas history.

The focus on the Buffalo, declared by the National Park Service as the country’s first “national river,” takes attention away from the equally special Kings River.

Maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Those of us who love the Kings enjoy the solitude that often can be found there. We would hate to see it “loved to death” by tourists.

An exciting piece of news for Kings River aficionados came last spring when the Nature Conservancy of Arkansas announced that it had purchased 4,561 acres of land with seven miles of frontage along both sides of the river. That allowed the Nature Conservancy to establish what’s already one of the crown jewels in its collection, the Kings River Preserve.

“The Kings River is beautiful and forested along most of its corridor,” the Nature Conservancy’s Arkansas director, Scott Simon, said at the time of the purchase. “Our primary goal in purchasing the property is to help maintain water quality.”

The Buffalo River begins in Newton County while the Kings River begins just to the west in Madison County. While the Buffalo generally flows to the east before joining up with the White River south of Mountain Home, the Kings takes more of a northerly course, joining the White River east of Eureka Spring in what’s now Table Rock Lake.

Tim Snell, the Nature Conservancy’s water resources director, explained the plans for the preserve this way when last year’s announcement was made: “We’ll work to reduce sediment entering the stream, which can fill in gravel beds and choke out organisms at the bottom of the food chain, affecting those at the top like smallmouth bass. We hope to help the Kings River continue to be a treasured recreational resource and a prime spot for smallmouth bass fishing.”

Few people know the Kings better than Ernie Kilman of Kings River Outfitters.

“The Kings River is such an incredibly scenic place, and that’s because it’s a natural stream — one with forested and bluff-lined banks,” Kilman said. “Knowing that my son will be able to canoe on this river with his children and grandchildren and it will look the same — or better — than it does now is a wonderful thought. It’s great knowing that this land remains in good hands.”

The Nature Conservancy’s tract is a short distance downstream from the McIlroy Madison County Wildlife Management Area, a 14,496-acre operation of the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission through which the Kings River flows for several miles.

The land purchased by the Nature Conservancy earlier had been a cattle ranch. The tract was a mix of forest and pasture with many of the pastures planted in fescue. The Nature Conservancy wasted no time planting trees along the banks of the river to prevent further erosion.

Here’s how the website www.arkansas.com describes the river: “High in the Boston Mountains of Madison County lie the beginnings of the Kings River. From this steep country the stream twists its way northward to the White River. … In its upper reaches, the Kings cuts a narrow gorge through sandstone, shale and limestone. On downstream, the surrounding countryside is not quite so precipitous, but the water is the same — clear and cool.

“The Kings’ most attractive features are found along the rock banks and bluffs where floaters will notice wild azaleas, ferns, umbrella magnolias and other fascinating plants. In addition, observant visitors can view a great many signs of wildlife — beaver cuttings and deer and raccoon tracks, for instance — and may even spot some of the local creatures.

“A float on the Kings River is a return to fishing in its purest form — no motors, no loaded bass boat, only your partner quietly paddling as you both absorb the untainted outdoor grandeur. The Kings has countless rock bass and hefty channel cats, but when fishing this stream, first and foremost on the minds of most anglers are the big smallmouth bass.

“If you want to catch the real Kings River lunkers, take along heavy tackle. … Two sportfish often overlooked by Kings River anglers are the walleye and white bass. Both species are common in the portion of the river near Table Rock Lake during the spring spawning runs in March, April and early May. White bass will hit a variety of shad-imitation lures and minnows, while walleyes are usually taken on live baits such as minnows, crayfish and worms or artificial lures, particularly deep-running crankbaits and jigs.”

In a 2001 feature for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Buddy Gough described a Kings River float with a legendary Ozarks guide: “J.D. Fletcher was a grumpy old guy at the start of a recent Kings River float.

“‘All that rain didn’t do any good at all,’ he said as he eyed the river’s water level in the aftermath of thunderstorms that swept the Ozarks two weeks ago. The veteran fishing guide’s mood had been soured for weeks by a dry spring that had failed to produce runoff to flush up the river and bring the big smallmouths out of hiding.

“‘I can’t remember when the river hasn’t flushed up for us to fish in May,’ he said.

“For a fisherman whose memories of the Kings River reach back 43 years, that was saying something. For our much-postponed outing, Fletcher had hoped for a rise to allow fishing on his favorite stretch of river between Trigger Gap and the U.S. Highway 62 bridge near Berryville. Instead, he had settled for a six-mile stretch of the lower river between Stony Point and Smith’s Landing. He called it his summer float, meaning it normally had enough water flow to float fish in the summer months.”

Near the end of that day’s float, there was a narrow pool half a mile long with the current flowing over chunk rock. Fletcher said: “I got here with my son Jeff one time, and we caught 22 smallmouths before we left this pool. Another time, I caught a five-pound largemouth here. I remember because it was the 50th bass of the trip and it weighed five pounds.”

In May 2005, Gough went back on the Kings River with Tony Harlan.

“The weather and water conditions may not have been auspicious for good fishing at midmorning Thursday, but the river was beautiful to behold,” Gough wrote. “Under bright sun, the water reflected blue sky and leafy trees in many shades of green. Intermixed among the greenery were locust trees heavy with their clusters of white blooms. Although the water was low, it dazzled the eye with its sparkling clarity as it danced over clean gravel shining in golden colors.”

Spring approaches, and my thoughts turn to the Kings River. It’s an Arkansas treasure.

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The smallmouth streams of Arkansas

Monday, March 14th, 2011

Spring is upon us.

I look forward to that first wilted salad of fresh lettuce, radishes and bacon grease.

I look forward to frying up some crappie.

I look forward to the dogwoods and azaleas blooming as April begins.

And then, as April turns into May, I look forward to the water warming in our Arkansas streams and the smallmouth bass beginning to bite.

My grandfather, my grandmother and my father taught me to enjoy all types of fishing.

I first learned to use a fly rod not by going after trout in a mountain stream but instead fishing for bream while using a popping bug on the slow streams, bayous and sloughs of south Arkansas.

I enjoyed being out with my grandfather in the middle of the night, jug fishing for catfish while using empty Clorox bottles.

I had just as much fun fishing with my dad in a tiny flatbottom boat for crappie on the secluded slough at the Pennington farm near the Ouachita River as I did being in his bass boat on DeGray Lake fishing for largemouth bass.

Our trips to Empire in Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana to fish alongside oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and to Lake of the Woods in western Ontario to fish for walleye will long be remembered.

For my money, though, there’s nothing finer than floating the mountain streams of Arkansas in search of smallmouth bass.

The fewer people I see on those trips, the better. Dennis Whiteside, a stream guide who knows the Ozark rivers and creeks better than most anyone, is a master at guiding a canoe. Dennis has put me on some smallmouth streams that I never would have thought of.

For instance, I crossed Long Creek at Alpena near the Boone County-Carroll County line while driving on U.S. Highway 62 for years without ever thinking of it as a smallmouth stream. Several years ago, however, Dennis and I caught the water just right on Long Creek. It was a day to remember.

When I was growing up in south Arkansas, the Caddo River was our smallmouth stream of choice. The six-mile float from Caddo Gap to Glenwood is probably the most popular, but smallmouth can be caught further down the river as it makes its way from Pike County into Clark County and forms DeGray Lake.

Our state is blessed with talented outdoors writers, and one of the best is Keith Sutton. Here’s what he had to say about the Caddo in an article for Arkansas Sportsman: “Launch at the low-water bridge west of Arkansas Highway 8 in Caddo Gap; take out beneath the U.S. Highway 70 bridge at Glenwood. In between, you’ll encounter small rapids, long gravel bars and plenty of good smallmouth fishing around boulders and fallen treetops. Bait choices run the gamut from live crayfish to willow-leaf spinnerbaits. Try to be on the river at daybreak, as peak smallmouth activity is usually during the day’s first couple of hours.”

Another quality southwest Arkansas stream is the Little Missouri River before it empties into Lake Greeson. Sutton calls it a “strikingly beautiful smallmouth stream” that “harbors plenty of feisty smallmouths within its rock gardens and deep pools. The bronzebacks are suckers for live crawfish, and if you take time to turn over a few rocks and leaves in small feeder creeks you pass, you can often gather a dozen or more in just a few minutes. … Most smallmouths will be holding on the downstream side of boulders, treetops and other current breaks, so cast upstream and allow the bait to drift by this cover naturally.”

My dad grew up in Benton fishing the Saline River and its forks that flow out of the Ouachita Mountains — the North Fork, the Middle Fork, the Alum Fork. All of those forks can still offer excellent smallmouth fishing if you catch the water just right.

The upper Ouachita River also can provide opportunities to catch smallmouth bass. Sutton likes the stretch from Oden to the Rocky Shoals Campground.

“Smallmouth fishing on this stretch of the Ouachita is exhilarating with fast-paced action for bronzebacks up to three and four pounds,” he writes. “Put in early and take out late to get the most from this scenic 10-mile float. The put-in point is the Arkansas Highway 379 bridge just south of Oden. The campground takeout is at the U.S. Highway 270 crossing.

“The water here is clear, cool and fast flowing, and there’s a good mix of long, deep pools and rapids. There are lots of big rocks, deep runs under steep banks and downed timber offering shade, food and protection from the current. That’s where you find smallmouths.

“Most local smallmouth anglers prefer to use live baits, particularly live crayfish and minnows. However, any artificial designed to imitate the smallmouth’s natural prey will usually prove productive.”

The Ozark streams, of course, are the state’s best-known places for smallmouth bass. Jerry McKinnis made Crooked Creek nationally famous with his many visits there for his television show. The most popular stretch runs from Kelly’s Slab to Yellville and takes about half a day.

The Kings River is my favorite Ozark stream (I’ll write more about it in a later post). Sutton calls it a “dream stream beyond compare, beautiful and pristine. It transports the float fisherman back in time to a simpler, less complicated era. … If you want to catch the real Kings River lunkers, take along heavy tackle. Some people expect bass from this smallish river to be smallish too, and that can cost you some trophy fish. A baitcasting reel, medium-action rod and 10- to 20-pound-test line are appropriate. Big smallmouths hit large crankbaits and large tandem spinners with trailing pork rind.”

The Buffalo National River is by far the state’s most popular river for floating. The smallmouth fishing can also be good. I prefer solitude when fishing, though, and the Buffalo can become awfully crowded (and those kids in canoes can be awfully loud) when the weather warms, especially on weekends. The same is true of the Spring River, which has become known as a “party stream” if you can imagine such a thing.

This time of year, when the spring rains come and the water levels rise quickly, the Mulberry River and the Big Piney Creek are best known as whitewater streams. But the smallmouth fishing can be worth the float when water levels are down. If the water is right, Sutton suggests floats on the Big Piney from Arkansas Highway 123 to Treat and on the Mulberry from Arkansas Highway 23 to Milton’s Ford.

The Eleven Point River also can provide fine smallmouth fishing, though the best fishing on the river seems to be on the Missouri side of the state line.

“The Eleven Point enters northeast Arkansas from Missouri near the town of Elm Store and courses southward to merge with the Spring River near Old Davidsonville State Park, a distance of about 40 miles,” Sutton writes. “Floating can be tough thanks to stream obstructions, but it’s worth trying. Smallmouths from one pound to two pounds are abundant with bigger specimens possible.

“The nine-mile run from the state Highway 93 bridge at Dalton to the Arkansas Highway 90 access has vertical banks that rise more than 10 feet. The banks often are undercut and cave in, taking trees and undergrowth that clog the stream. But the cover provides a haven for outsized brownies. An old stone dam must be negotiated about eight miles downstream, shortly after an island and its accompanying brush-filled channel. Walk your craft through to the right.”

I’ve also had good luck with Dennis fishing the South Fork of the Spring River.

The water quality, cool water temperatures, quality habitat and long growing season make the above streams good bets for smallmouth fishing. Smallmouth bass can reach up to six pounds in these streams.

Floating the streams can be work due to fluctuating water levels and debris blocking your path. But the work is worth it for what is pound for pound the hardest-fighting fish in Arkansas.

Smallmouth spawning usually begins in April and can continue until late May. If you like to fish and like the Arkansas outdoors, you should make plans to get out on one of the state’s smallmouth streams during April and May.

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A Civil War excursion to south Arkansas

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

It’s getting warmer outside and the wild plum trees are blooming. In other words, it’s time for a road trip through the pine woods of south Arkansas.

I happen to love both Civil War history and driving through rural Arkansas.

If you’re like me, this will make for a fun day: Drive to the site of three battles in the Red River Campaign — Poison Spring near Camden, Marks’ Mills near Fordyce and Jenkins’ Ferry near Sheridan.

You’ll need to make this excursion on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday since the eating is an important part of the overall experience.

The three battlefields are maintained by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism. All three of these small parks are quiet spots with few visitors. That means they’re nice places to reflect on the past as we begin the Civil War sesquicentennial commemoration. There are interpretive panels at each battlefield.

Start your day by driving to Camden. Poison Spring is about 10 miles west of the city on Arkansas Highway 76.

Here’s how the state parks website at www.arkansasstateparks.com explains what happened here: “In the spring of 1864, three Civil War battles took place in south-central Arkansas that were part of the Union Army’s Red River Campaign. … The first battle occurred near Camden at Poison Spring on April 18 when Confederate troops captured a supply train and scattered Union forces.

“Arkansas was split in half with Union troops occupying Little Rock, Fort Smith and every town north of the Arkansas River. Confederates were encamped from Monticello to Camden, Washington and beyond. Plans for an elaborate Union offensive were hatched during the winter in Washington, D.C., in order to capture the last Rebel stronghold of the west — Texas. Standing in their way was Shreveport, believed to be the front door to Texas. Thus began what would become known as the Red River Campaign.”

Almost 12,000 men, 800 wagons, 30 pieces of artillery and about 12,000 horses left Little Rock and headed to Camden. Under the command of Gen. Frederick Steele, the Union forces moved slowly due to heavy spring rains and mud. Supplies became dangerously low.

The Union troops arrived in Camden on April 15. There was no fighting since Confederate troops had withdrawn from the city on the banks of the Ouachita River.

On April 17, Steele received bad news. The Union troops that were supposed to bring him supplies from Louisiana had retreated. Meanwhile, Confederate forces had moved or destroyed a nearby stockpile of corn Steele had heard about.

Steele sent a force of 500 black infantrymen, 195 cavalry troops and an artillery detachment to obtain supplies. A scout for Confederate Gen. John Marmaduke noticed the wagon train. Marmaduke suggested to Confederate Gen. Sterling Price that an ambush was in order.

This is how the state parks website describes the action: “During the night, the Union wagon train was reinforced by 400 soldiers Steele sent from Camden, as approximately 1,500 Confederates prepared to attack the Union troops from both sides of the blocked road. The attack on April 18 began near a place the locals called Poison Spring. When the battle ended, the Union force of more than 1,100 had been reduced to 800. Another 80 Union troops were killed as they clawed their way back to Camden through the bottomlands. Fewer than 20 Confederates were killed in the victory that kept much-needed supplies from enemy hands.”

After you’ve finished your visit to Poison Spring, drive east to Fordyce. Arrive in time for lunch at Klappenbach Bakery (closed on Sundays and Mondays). Norman and Lee Klappenbach moved their now-famous bakery to Fordyce from Walla Walla, Wash., in 1975. They expanded the operation in 1988 to open a sandwich shop.

There are sandwiches, salads and a variety of soups and quiches on the lunch menu. I usually go for the turkey club sandwich with a cup of soup. Save room for homemade pie. After lunch, load up on breads and pastries from the bakery to take home with you.

Next, head to Marks’ Mills. The site is southeast of Fordyce at the junction of Arkansas Highways 8 and 97.

John Marks had established a sawmill and a gristmill at this location in 1834. The battle on the old Camden-Pine Bluff road took place on April 25, 1864.

A group of 150 wagons loaded with supplies had made it to Camden from Pine Bluff on April 20. Steele then sent those wagons, along with 60 more, back north toward Pine Bluff for additional supplies. He included an escort force of 1,200 men and six artillery pieces.

The state parks website picks it up from here: “As the Union wagon train slowly made its way to Pine Bluff through virtually impassable mud on April 25, Confederate Gen. Kirby Smith assembled an attack force of several thousand men, who intercepted the train at Marks’ Mills. The overwhelmed Northerners were once again surrounded on all sides but managed to fight back for several hours. This time, there was no escape. Nearly all Union survivors were captured.

“After this devastating blow, Gen. Steele abandoned all intentions of marching to Shreveport on his way to capture Texas. He began to plan his retreat from Camden back to Little Rock. The only escape route he knew was the Military Road that ran north through Princeton and Jenkins’ Ferry, the final section of the Red River Campaign.”

Once you’ve finished visiting Marks’ Mills, you should head north. The next stop is at Jenkins’ Ferry, which is 13 miles south of Sheridan on Arkansas Highway 46.

Derek Allen Clements describes what happened here for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture (www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net): “Steele slipped out of Camden the night of April 26, marching toward Little Rock. Arriving at Jenkins’ Ferry in the Saline River bottoms on April 29, Steele began building a pontoon bridge. Confederate cavalry engaged the rear guard, halting as darkness fell and re-engaging at dawn. The Confederate divisions from Louisiana began arriving April 30 to join Price’s command. The federal rear guard took a strong position, anchoring its flanks between a flooded creek and swampy woodland. The Confederates assaulted the federal line piecemeal, failing to break it. By 12:30 p.m., Smith ended the assault, and Steele slipped across the river. He arrived May 2 in Little Rock, and his part of the campaign, also known as the Camden Expedition, was over.”

After leaving Jenkins’ Ferry, you must end your day by partaking of the all-you-can-eat catfish buffet at Dorey’s near Leola on Grant County Road 5. You can obtain directions by going to the website at www.doreycatering.com.

Dorey’s raises its own fish, so it doesn’t come any fresher. The buffet operates from 4 p.m. until 8 p.m. each Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

In one long day, you will have:

– Made a peaceful drive on numerous highways in the Gulf Coastal Plain region of Arkansas.

– Visited the sites of three Civil War battles.

– Had a great lunch.

– Loaded up on bakery items to take home.

– Filled up at supper on some of the best catfish in Arkansas.

It’s a fine way to spend a spring day.

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Robert L. “Red” Nelson, 1924-2011

Friday, March 4th, 2011

I find myself saying it often, and I will say it again on this first Friday in March: They really were the Greatest Generation, weren’t they?

They were men who were raised poor, served their country during World War II and then worked hard to care for their families, build businesses and improve their communities.

I realize I’m not unique. There were other men like my father out there. It took a lot of them to make our country great.

That doesn’t mean I wasn’t fortunate.

The older I get, the more I realize how lucky this Arkansas boy was to have Robert L. “Red” Nelson as his father.

Dad had been in declining health for a number of years and finally gave up the fight at 6:10 p.m. Thursday at age 86.

I wish all of you could have known him in his prime. He was a larger-than-life character. He talked loudly (I come by it honestly), laughed loudly and loved to gig the many college students who held part-time jobs in his business through the years.

One thing he never did was brag. In that sense, he was like others in his generation.

I knew he loved sports (and found a way to make a living through sports), but it wasn’t until much later in life that I began to do research and discover what a talented athlete he had been.

He was born into a poor family in 1924, the youngest of three children. They lived in a shotgun house across the street from Benton High School. My grandfather was the city street superintendent, a man who would get his three children out of bed at 5 a.m. each Sunday to go downtown and clean the streets.

Those were the days when stores would stay open until 10 p.m. or later on Saturday nights. People would flock to town from the country, leaving plenty of trash on the streets. My grandfather, who had the great name of Ernest Ezra Nelson, wanted to be sure the streets were clean before people began arriving for church.

Talk about learning a work ethic early in life.

My dad starred in football and basketball at Benton High School. During the summers, he played independent league baseball and fast-pitch softball. He never told me about the time he scored 44 points in a basketball game against Hope. At the time, it was a Benton High School record. He never told me he was considered the state’s best fast-pitch softball pitcher. Others had to tell me that.

Like I said, my dad never bragged.

The great coach Bill Walton convinced my dad to play football at what’s now Ouachita Baptist University. Or maybe I should say he kidnapped my dad in the friendliest of ways.

Dad had earned union wages the previous summer for the Chicago Bridge & Iron Co., which was helping build the Alcoa plant in Saline County. He thought he might stay on with the company and make money rather than going to college. My grandmother thought otherwise, convincing Walton not to let my dad return to Benton from Arkadelphia.

During that freshman season in 1942, the Ouachita football team lost only one game.

Dad joined the U.S. Army Air Forces following his freshman year of college and served for two years. He was trained as a bombardier on a B-17. I’ve written before how he was named the “most athletic” for his group of cadets and that one of the people he beat out for that title while stationed at St. John’s University in Minnesota was Bobby Thomson.

Yes, that Bobby Thomson, the guy who hit the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” on Oct. 3, 1951, to cap the New York Giants’ historic comeback against the Brooklyn Dodgers to win the National League pennant.

In typical Red Nelson fashion, he later told me he never realized it was the same Bobby Thomson.

Dad returned to Ouachita, where he met my mom. They celebrated their 64th anniversary on Aug. 11. He loved telling people how he had married the prettiest girl on campus.

Just as he had done in high school, my dad set what was then a school record at Ouachita for most points in a basketball game, scoring 38 points one night. That was at a time when high-scoring games were rare.

You guessed it: I knew nothing about that 38-point performance until years later. He just didn’t talk about it.

Dad was inducted into the Ouachita Sports Hall of Fame in 2007 and received the distinguished service award from the Benton Athletic Memorial Museum in 2008. It was nice to see him receive that recognition just before the dementia really set in.

Dad was hired as a coach at Newport High School after graduating from Ouachita in 1948. He spent three years there. He coached all sports at Newport and was known as one of the state’s up-and-coming coaches. But my older sister, Lynda, had been born by then, and my dad decided he could better provide for his family as a businessman. So he joined his older brother, Lowell, at Southwest Sporting Goods Co. in Arkadelphia. The Nelson brothers built that company into one of the largest retailers of team athletic supplies in the South.

Dad spent long days on the road calling on high school and college coaches. As a boy, there was nothing I loved better than being on the road with him. He was truly my hero. He knew virtually every coach in the state on a first-name basis. He could drive to any school in Arkansas without having to ask for directions, he knew every mascot and he probably knew the records at each school for whatever sport was in season.

When he was not selling team supplies, he was officiating football and basketball games. He also was a baseball umpire and for many years was the state’s premier track starter. I suspect that shooting that starting pistol next to his right ear for so many springs was one reason he was hard of hearing.

My mom and dad lost their oldest son when that son was 9 years old. I was 4. From then on, they showered my sister and me with the love they had previously spread among three children.

While other men went to sports events, fishing and hunting with “the boys,” I was my dad’s partner.

I remember the late nights in his big Oldsmobile as we returned from watching Arkadelphia Badger and Ouachita Tiger games.

I remember the early Saturday mornings when he would roust me from bed before daylight in order to go quail hunting or duck hunting.

He taught me how to put a worm on a hook and later taught me how to tie on artificial lures.

He taught me how to clean bream, catfish, crappie and bass.

He taught me how to swing a baseball bat and catch a fly ball.

I became proficient under his tutelage at breasting out a limit of doves and cleaning a mess of quail, though I remain a terrible shot while he was the best wingshot I’ve ever known.

I had a love of history from an early age. It would take us forever to drive through Texas since that state would advertise on signs: “Historic Marker In One Mile.”

I wanted to stop and read them all. Dad never failed to pull the big Oldsmobile over to the side of the road to see what the marker said. He was patient.

I remember coming home from a particularly harsh football loss one Friday night when I was the starting center at Arkadelphia High School.

Dad, who almost never criticized me, said as I walked through the den: “That noseguard whipped you tonight.”

He was right, of course. It hadn’t been one of my better games. But I was crushed by the comment.

I went to my room, shut the door and crawled into bed.

In the hall outside, I could hear my mom gently chastise him.

The door opened.

Dad kneeled beside my bed and said: “I’m sorry I said that. I didn’t mean it. Get some sleep. We’ll go duck hunting in the morning and have our limit before 8 a.m.”

I slept well after that.

Dad’s health deteriorated to the point that we had to move him in September 2008 from the home where he had lived for almost 50 years in his beloved Arkadelphia to a nursing home here in Little Rock.

His most common question as the dementia worsened these past two years was this: “When am I going to go home?”

On Thursday night, Red Nelson went home.

While my sister took my mother back to mom’s apartment last night, I spent more than an hour alone in his room, waiting for the funeral home personnel to make the drive from Arkadelphia to Little Rock.

I thought back on all the fun we had.

Lord how I wish that I could turn back the clock for one last quail hunt at Manning, one last duck hunt at Open Banks, one last fishing trip on the Caddo River, one last late-night drive through the pine woods between Monticello and Arkadelphia following a Ouachita game against the Boll Weevils.

But we’re not allowed to turn back that clock, are we?

At least I have the memories and no regrets. I’m the luckiest man in Arkansas today.

I watched the hearse as it slowly pulled out of the front gates of Parkway Village late Thursday night.

My hunting companion, my fishing companion, my adviser, my confidant, my best friend, my hero — my dad — was headed toward the southwest, home to Arkadelphia where the jonquils, the wild plum trees, the tulip magnolias and the Bradford pears are in full bloom.

Our long, cold winter has ended.

Spring has arrived.

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Teaching Arkansas history

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

A bill to put teeth into the law requiring public schools to teach our children Arkansas history failed to clear the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday at the state Capitol.

It’s not a surprise.

But it’s a crying shame.

As you might expect, the usual cast had problems with the bill, which is sponsored by one of my favorite legislators, Sen. Mary Anne Salmon of North Little Rock.

The Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators opposed the bill.

The Arkansas School Boards Association opposed the bill.

Even Tom Kimbrell, who heads the Arkansas Department of Education, stepped up to express concerns.

It’s always easy to find reasons not to do something.

“There are too many requirements already.”

“We’re too busy.”

Etc. Etc.

If you’ve spent much time in either the House Education Committee or the Senate Education Committee through the years, you know the drill.

I listened to the testimony on this bill on the same day two other things occurred — I learned that Chef Lee Richardson of Little Rock’s Capital Hotel had indeed won the Food & Wine magazine competition for best chef in the Midwest (even though Arkansas isn’t a Midwestern state; blame the magazine’s New York editors for not knowing), and I was handed the inaugural issue of Arkansauce, the state’s new food journal that’s published by the Special Collections Department of the University of Arkansas Libraries in Fayetteville.

Go back and read the post I did last week that was titled “Learning To Love Ourselves.” In it, I noted that while his cooking is indeed world class, Chef Lee’s real gift to our state is that he began to make us appreciate the things we already had due to his intense focus on local foods and local producers.

Meanwhile, in the introduction I wrote as the guest editor of Arkansauce, I said: “Unlike our boastful Texas neighbors, we quietly prepare great barbecue and other foods, enjoy eating it and then move on with our lives. Because the natives don’t brag, Arkansas food has never received the national recognition it deserves. In addition to the modesty of the natives, a reason for the lack of national recognition might be that people from outside the state have a hard time figuring Arkansas out. … The thing all parts of Arkansas have in common is that her people, while never boastful, are proud.”

Proud, yes.

Yet too many of us still carry the burden of that infamous Arkansas inferiority complex.

I feel strongly that teaching this state’s story (warts and all) to the children in our public schools — most of whom will remain in Arkansas and raise their families here — is among the most important things we can do.

Other states — think Texas — do a far better job of it than we do.

During the 2009 legislative session, Sen. Salmon sponsored a bill creating the Legislative Task Force On Arkansas History. She was the co-chairman of that task force along with Rep. Rick Saunders of Hot Springs.

There are some schools that do a good job of teaching Arkansas history. A lot of them do a poor job. The irony is that we now have more quality materials on Arkansas history than ever before.

The task force, which worked for more than a year, included representatives of state agencies, teachers and parents.

A 1997 law calls for 15 hours of annual instruction in state history for kindergarten through the fourth grade, 30 hours in the fifth and sixth grades and a one-semester history class for high school students.

The problem is that the law doesn’t have teeth and is too often ignored.

The bill that failed Wednesday would have required schools to document the time teachers spend on Arkansas history instruction and would have required high school seniors to pass an Arkansas history competency exam.

Ron Harder of the Arkansas School Boards Association said schools should focus on things such as math, literacy and science because “pride in the state will be derived by job opportunities and economic opportunities.”

I must beg to differ with his overall premise.

Are our schools in the business of simply teaching children to obtain jobs?

Or should our schools instead try to teach children — hopefully supplementing what’s learned at home, in church and in extracurricular activities — how to live a well-rounded, satisfying life?

I admit to an inherent bias. I come from a liberal arts background. I went to a liberal arts college. I majored in communications and minored in political science and history. I now work for our state’s 11 private colleges and universities.

Still, I believe all of us should be concerned by movements in our education system to get away from preparing the whole person.

Are we really educating or are we simply doing job training?

Bill Gates spoke Monday afternoon in Washington to the annual winter meeting of the National Governors Association. His comments troubled me. Inside Higher Ed reported the speech this way: “During a sprawling talk in which he emphasized the importance of using data-based metrics to figure out how to increase educational attainment while bringing down costs in both K-12 and higher ed, Gates said that when the governors are deciding how to allocate precious tax dollars, they might consider the disparity between how much the state subsidizes certain programs and how much those programs contribute to job creation in the state.”

Here’s how Gates put it: “In the college area, everybody should have a sense of which of the colleges — both community and four-year institutions — are doing very well. You can even break that down by the departments. It’s actually very interesting when you take higher ed and think of it in that way. The amount of subsidization is not that well-correlated to the areas that actually create jobs in the state, that create income for the state.

“Now, in the past it felt fine to just say, ‘OK, we’re going to be generous with this sector.’ But in this era, to break down and really say, ‘What are the categories that help fill jobs and drive that state economy in the future?’ — you’ll find that it’s not across the board in terms of everything that the state subsidizes.”

So is Gates striking out at the humanities?

Inside Higher Ed said in its story: “Defenders of the liberal arts, especially at public universities, have struggled to come up with a way to prove definitively what many of them believe: that liberal education is crucial to job creation. Vocational programs, whose curriculums are oriented toward teaching specific skills to feed demand in specific industries, are generally able to show their value in more tangible ways than are liberal arts programs, which tend to rely on the faith that their curriculums confer the sort of critical thinking skills that are transferable across different industries and might even give birth to new ones.

“Unfortunately, that kind of value is harder to quantify — and harder to commodify politically. Gates was, after all, talking to a roomful of politicians whose chances at re-election might turn on their ability to show job growth in the short term.”

I’ll conclude with the comments of Carol Geary Schneider, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities: “It’s my understanding that the Gates Foundation wants to prepare students for work, life and citizenship. But Gates’ remarks seem to shave off two-thirds of that vision while emphasizing a view of work-related learning that is much too narrow and unsettlingly dated. His call to focus on specific fields and departments, rather than the whole institutions, implies a sharp dividing line between general education and specific majors that is, in fact, a relic from before the Cold War.”

I fully realize that I’ve wandered from discussing K-12 education in Arkansas to talking about higher ed. I hope you get my point.

In an era when technology changes so rapidly, those who are simply learning specific job skills will find they constantly need retraining.

Those who have learned to think critically, however, will be able to make transitions more smoothly. And understanding our past is a key part of being able to think critically.

Yesterday’s defeat of Sen. Salmon’s bill was a victory for those who want to simply prepare children to obtain jobs rather than attempting to prepare them to live rich lives.

I’m sad to say that the vote didn’t surprise me in the least. Maybe it wasn’t intended, but here’s the message that was sent to our children: “Arkansas’ fascinating history and culture aren’t important. We have a standardized math test coming up.”

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