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.

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