Sunday, August 19, 2012

Joe Neal from Compton Gardens: Buffalo River au naturale is enough

At approximately 100,000 acres, the Buffalo National River includes 135 public land miles of Louisiana Waterthrushes. Generously sprinkled along the river, bluffs, and mountains: Scarlet Tanagers, American Redstarts, Cerulean Warblers; hundreds of rare and wonderful plant and animal species, tarantulas and timber rattlesnakes, Swainson's Warblers and cane brakes, soaring, heart-lifting landscapes. Could easily have all been lost.

Joyous eventual victory for Waterthrush & Company was celebrated at Compton Gardens in Bentonville Saturday. The Compton home place was overflowing for Neil Compton's 100th birthday, Ozark Society's 50th and 40th for the Buffalo National River.

Neil and his friends established the Ozark Society as social network and battering ram in the crusade to stop Buffalo dams (1962). Along the way they helped defeat a Democratic congressman who pushed dams (Jim Trimble) and helped elect a Republican who opposed most government, including Buffalo dams (John Paul Hammerschmidt). They gained critical backing from an Ozark native and popular Arkansas governor (Orval Faubus) now mainly remembered as a segregationist. Establishment of the Buffalo National River (1972) was natural, like paw paws and umbrella magnolias.

Neil's oldest child Ellen Compton once lived in this house midst feverish events associated with dam fighting. Not so surprising, her humorous opening comment:  "Frankly, I'm tired of the Buffalo River." Then, to appreciative laughs, she added, "Read the book." That is Neil's THE BATTLE FOR THE BUFFALO RIVER.

In Ellen's presentation we have Neil's grandfather who both taught and embraced science and Neil's father who read books in his buggy while delivering mail, guided by Billy the horse who knew the route.  As a child, his mother Ida accompanied her father on trips into the Indian Territory, where Indian women taught her about birds and flowers. We have little Neil atop a huge haystack on the family farm in Benton County, where they raised peaches, apples, and garden vegetables for market.

Neil eventually went to the UA in Fayetteville, taking degrees in geology and zoology (1935). Ellen remembers Neil, ever a man of science, opening explanations about bluff lines with, "Well, during the Jurassic . . ." It was in his college days that he made his first trips to the Buffalo. It stoked passion for what he termed a "vast natural playground."

Following Ellen was Ken Smith, best known today as author of the authoritative BUFFALO RIVER HANDBOOK (2004). They met in the early 60s in the fight to protect Lost Valley. Ken had finished an engineering degree in Fayetteville. In 1963 he was smitten during a 2-day "life changing" Ozark Society-sponsored float on the Buffalo. Ken headed off to graduate school and Neil folded Lost Valley into their shared vision of dam-stopping and park-creating.

Ken had a career as an engineer in the Park Service, but as evidence in his lyrical BUFFALO RIVER COUNTRY (1967), Lost Valley and all it signified was never far from his heart.

The finale is courtesy of Still on the Hill, Kelly Mulhollan and Donna Stjerna, fresh from camping and what Donna terms, "a window into the Buffalo." Window with music.

We know Neil the doctor, photographer, writer, and dam-stopper. Once at Angler's Inn on Beaver Lake, Neil joined Kelly and Flip Putthoff for an onstage performance! According to Kelly, Neil learned the 'ol pickin bow from Jimmy Driftwood. Today, Kelly plays pickin bow, with Donna on a cow jawbone. For the chorus, the Compton Gardens crowd coon dog howls in the simple country favorite "Stop kicking my dog around."

"People overdo," Neil once told Ken Smith. A conservative's credo: Buffalo au natural is enough.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Joe Neal's report from Arkansas River visit August 3, 2012

The Arkansas River is calm at 7:30 this morning, and with clouds, surprising cool, especially with 105 threatened by afternoon. Jacque Brown and I are launching my canoe for a loop around a sandy island south of Mulberry.

Just out of the car, an adult Bald Eagle flies low across river. Two screech-owls are singing, maybe response to our car door slams? Looking east toward the island, the mighty Arkansas is flat-glassy, with angel slides of early light pouring through clouds. And impossibly, on the island, low green willows and taller sycamores sprinkled with fairy dust!

 A short paddle resolves magic dust into thousands of fledgling egrets and herons, especially Cattle Egrets. Also, Snowy Egrets, Little Blue Herons, Great Egrets, plus a Great Blue Heron and a juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.

Up closer, calm shallows are marked by oily swirls of white dust and tiny feathers, remains of powder downs from thousands of egrets hatched on the island. On July 8 the action had all been about rearing young in nests. Now every small tree and bush and parts of the shoreline are covered with fledglings and their constant WONKA WONKA WONKA calls. 

Adults fly back and forth low over the river, in flotillas of 5 and 20, from pastures to river and back. Also along the river, Forster's Tern (largest group, 8) and a single Least Tern.

Among so many thousands of the active and living, there are also injured egrets, and dead ones too scattered along the shoreline and floating in the water. We've been hearing constant calls of Fish Crows, and see them along the shoreline, flying off with something in their bills. Then vultures (12) of both species, are perched in low trees and walking along the shoreline. A juvenile Bald Eagle flies off as we approach.

In one spot, there's a swirl of fish in the shallows around a dead Cattle Egret. It's just white feathers and a yellow beak on the surface. Suddenly there's a flop, lunge, fins, and a huge mouth momentarily out of the water. Arkansas River version of Nessie??? Could have been, but wasn't.

Catfish foraging on dead egret is unique for a bird list. I am reminded of Tennyson's "Tho' nature, red in tooth and claw" and recycling. Cattle Egrets capture grasshoppers in the valley fields, carry them to the island for the next generation, some of whom don't make it, and feed the productivity of the mighty Arkansas via famous catfish. And the catfish turn every dead thing into succulent white flesh . . . $10.95 for All-You-Can-Eat.

Then on our return paddle, back near the car, we hear waterthrush chips. Two birds bob along the riprap. We ease, ease, ease along. Jacque gets some photographs. Boat and gear loaded, we fire up the AC and study her images in the cool.
Big white wide eyeline, plain unmarked throat. Louisiana Waterthrushes in migration.