Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Joe Neal essay: Eighth wonder of the World

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The 8th Wonder of the World‏

The 8th Wonder of the World

6:39 AM


FOR MANY YEARS, ONE OF MY REGULAR STOPS ON FAYETTEVILLE CBC has been at Eleanor Johnson’s, including the feeder, bushes in her backyard, and adjoining wooded lot with gnarled post oaks. We always knock on El’s door, where she has cookies, offers a welcome pit stop. Her place is just west of the University, a block or two from Razorback Stadium. They built their home in the 1950s, the first in what was one of Fayetteville’s earliest subdivisions. El traded being a vagabond artist for settled life with The Professor, traveling around collecting lichens on vacations, nurturing graduate students, raising a daughter and son. Dr Johnson – “The Professor” she called him – walked every day the few blocks to his classroom and lab.
When I met her in the late 1960s, I was a former firm-believing Southern Baptist badly disillusioned by the napalming of Vietnamese villages and the murder of Martin Luther King. She hired me to weed flowerbeds and provided a simple lunch and civil conversation. It was the 8th Wonder of the World that obvious sanity survived midst B-52s over jungles. It took me a while to re-believe. 
Enclosed by native sandstones, her flowerbeds were magnets for interesting bugs watched by robins, midst almighty Ozark weeds. Years before, she’d found arrowhead-like stone tools while planting tulip bulbs. We had plenty of time to become acquainted. She remembered when Dr William Berg, noted entomologist and Arkansas bird man in the era before Doug James, collected tarantulas in her yard.
As we became friends, I was invited insider for lunch. She showed me the little Golden Guide to Birds where she and her kids kept a list of yard birds. Cuckoo, white-throat sparrow, Baltimore Orioles in the oaks – that sort of thing. A serious yard list of over 50 species, with a pair of what amounted to opera glasses. And when my own bird books were published, she kept them in the same honored place with the Golden Guide. She gave me the Leitz binoculars her father used for bird watching.
That was 30 years ago. She passed just short of her 100th. On last Sunday’s CBC, when we went up Palmer Street west of the stadium, her house was gone. Where she parked her old VW bug “Alexander” – which she drove delivering meals to shut-ins she called “my old people” – gone. Native sandstone flowerbeds I weeded -- gone. Big spreading post oaks – gone. Both lots dozed to bare dirt.

I am reminded, not of eternity, but ephemerality. Our restless universe constantly reclaims. A kind, artistic woman once lived here. Like the stone tools of ancient ways, it remains that she saw something in me that I had not yet seen in myself.