Monday, October 28, 2013

Walking the Walk

Highway 195, or Franklin Street, that runs in front of our house used to be known as the Southwest Trail and it was apparently well-travelled. Historical figures such as Austin, Houston, Crockett and Pike rode through here more than once. The writer Claud Garner who published a fine biography of Sam Houston actually lived in the house we now call home. In fact, many say he built it back in 1918. When I read his pulp novel, Cornbread Aristocrat, I recognized quite a few familiar landmarks and other fictionalized features of Washington, Ark.

My wife and I walk parts of the Southwest Trail almost every day and so we understand it when history books refer to Washington as being situated atop a sandy hill. If we walk north of town, we descend about a half-mile down to the railroad tracks. We pass two courthouses, the 1874 and the 1836, as we go down. Washington quit being the county seat when railroads made Hope the center of commerce. There are not many pedestrians on the north part of the trail because of the daunting climb back up to town, but we feel the need for vigorous breathing for senior aerobic fitness. Folks like us need to get some sustained heart rate elevation at least once a day.

If we walk south, we do so one block off the paved Ark. 195, a dirt road that may have been the original trail. Anyway, it is a pretty good descent as well as it meanders through some historic buildings, a little forested area and across a plank bridge to the Southwest Arkansas Archives building. This part of the walk is very beautiful in late October because the leaves have started to change. Sassafras leaves have more variety than the others, fading from orange to yellow to red, sometimes on the same tree. Of course, sweet gum trees have variety as well, but on our trail, it seems that dark purple is the favored color for these star-shaped leaves. Also, there are plenty of wild flowers still in evidence in the ditches, along with abundant goldenrod.

There are horses to visit on both ends of our walk. Sonny Boy, a young gelding, lives in a pasture that starts at the back corner of our property. He is a rescued horse that the park historian discovered wandering about with a halter grown into his nose. The historian’s family takes really good care of him and he now looks and behaves as if he has always had the great life he now enjoys. Sara and Stella, the big black Percherons that pull tourists around town in the surrey, live on this part of the walk as well. They are exceedingly calm and self-contained animals. These girls do not get excited about anything. The park’s animal manager calls them bomb-proof. They may or may not come over to the fence for a nose rub, depending on their mood.

This historic roadway is a good trail to walk because of healthy hills, beautiful leaves, wild flowers and, of course, nice horses.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Cumquat Ramble

I keep reading in various places that walking is one of the best exercises, especially for seniors. Our afternoon walk here in Washington, Ark. today was great. When those magnolia pods turn red the trees have their own brilliant ornaments. There is a huge and famous magnolia tree a couple of blocks from our house that was planted a hundred years before I was born. It is said to be the largest in the world. It keeps on putting on sprouts from its own root system and it has spread out so much that the state park has closed the road in front of it to keep cars off the system.

Nearby, there are several cumquat trees. No one around here is gathering this pithy fruit. Mowers are running over these little globes that resemble miniature oranges. I guess because they have so many seeds, people don’t want to fool with them. My wife, however, thinks they are beautiful. She has picked several up off the ground to place in glass vases to enhance the fall d├ęcor of our house and dining room. I cut one open and tasted it. They are orange-flavored, but very seedy, too. The limbs are quite thorny. In fact, one could make a credible crown of thorns from them.

Down the road towards the blacksmith shop is a small but quite prolific persimmon tree. I picked up a couple of them from the ground today and ate them on the spot. I was surprised at how ripe and tender they were. Unlike the cumquats, they only have one or two seeds each. We are not supposed to pick anything in a state park, but if fruit has fallen to the ground, it is fine. With the exception, that is, of pecans. People at the park will fuss at you if you pick up pecans. Fortunately, we have several giant pecan trees in our yard. We run a contest with the squirrels to gather them. We have too many squirrels around here. Fussing at them does not help at all.

The back road walk to the Southwest Arkansas Archives is the most beautiful in the park. It is a two-rutted dirt road that meanders in front of historic houses, farms and pastures, culminating in a forest walk across a wooden bridge. If you come over to the tavern restaurant for lunch one day, you should walk west down the road in front of the tavern. That is the one I am talking about. Once you pass the 1874 courthouse, you will see what I mean. Down to the archives from the restaurant is about a half mile. So from your car in the parking lot to the end of the end of the trail and back would be a good mile, some uphill and some downhill. The best things in life are free.

Walking is healthy for the body. If you have a beautiful place to walk in nature, it is healthy for your mind and spirit as well.

Monday, October 14, 2013

To Kill a Weekend

I guess you might say that I have retired, though, like most “retired” people I talk with, I have become busier instead of more leisurely in that much sought-after state of existence. Be that as it may, I am having a lot more fun in my activities than I was working an academic schedule.  

We had quite a weekend. A while back I somehow got to be head of the Dear Old Town Club, an organization in Washington, Ark. that promotes local history and, generally, southern humanities. One of the ladies in our club had a brainstorm about a year ago that we should perform a reader’s theater rendition of Harper Lee’s famous story, To Kill a Mockingbird. She and some of the other members redacted it down to about an hour and a half, we practiced the reading, made arrangements for the use of the courtroom in the 1874 courthouse and performed it Saturday night.

Before the show, the park historian lectured about the analogies between the deep south of the novel and Washington. The main difference is that Washington was more of a pioneer type of south than the large plantation south of places like Georgia. Antebellum race relations in the two regions were apparently somewhat different, too. The historian said that accused African-Americans wanted their trials to take place in Hempstead County because there was a tradition that such people would get better treatment and a fair trial. Further, black and white lived close to each other in Washington—everyone knew everyone else—and each enjoyed the other’s activities, such as barbecues and parades.

So, To Kill a Mockingbird may have presented a somewhat harsher view of race relations than existed in this region, though I do not wish to suggest that we were without such problems here. There was plenty of prejudice and injustice in Washington as well as in the south of Lee’s book. Nonetheless, the reading we performed was well-received and the score of attendees were very warm in their reception of our efforts. The outstanding feature of the novel as we told it was that the plot  covered a very wide range in portraying the human condition, from cowardice to bravery, depravity to integrity, ignorance to brilliance, blatant injustice to convictions of absolute fairness. Even though justice does not prevail in the novel, integrity does and Atticus Finch stands as an example of integrity, not only for the legal profession, but for all of us, especially southerners.

Because of our success in presenting the reader’s theater, I think the club will probably do more. For our next production, I would like to depart from the reader’s theater format and do some actual drama. We have several places at Historic Washington State Park that would be appropriate for doing plays. One problem, though, is that, for some reason, we have more women than men in our club. Maybe if I can come up with a play with some interesting male roles, we can attract some more fellows to the organization.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Unity in Government

Thoreau said the best kind of government is that which governs least. He was, you see, a big advocate of individual liberty, not in an anarchistic sense, but in our ability to govern ourselves. Apparently, Thoreau thought the government existed to serve the citizens, not the other way around. His convictions led him to civil disobedience, that is, not obeying any law that he disagreed with. I guess that is fine for a reasonable man, which he was, but the unreasonable person picking and choosing which laws to obey would certainly lead to anarchy at best and chaos at worst. When a representative government such as ours has such diversity to represent, is there any way to bring unity? Perhaps love is the answer. But before we can have an answer, we must have a question.

I like independence, don’t you? I don’t like being told what I must do. “You have to,” is a phrase none of us likes to hear. Remember the old saying that death and taxes are inevitable? I have heard people say that death they can accept, but they hate being taxed to support policies or activities they disagree with. My response to this is to remind myself and others that our government is supposed to be a representative government. We can and should communicate with those who represent us, from the president on down. And, communication is much easier and more convenient now than it ever has been. We must speak up: if we like a policy, we should say so; if we don’t, likewise.

I have “governed” in my family and, to some degree, in my work. As a daddy, I would always try to reason with my children, making sure they knew their own responsibilities in situations, and certainly making sure they knew I loved them. As a dean, I would most often try to reason with faculty, which is much more difficult than many imagine. There is diversity at the university, diversity of conviction, thought process, and method of operation. It is a blessed thing when people dwell together in unity but unity of conviction is very rare in academic settings. I suppose that is where the phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number” came from. But then we have the argument about where our concept of good comes from.

The great author William Faulkner has one of his characters say that what the heart holds to becomes the truth as far as we can know it. And he lists some of these truths: love, honor, pride, compassion, sacrifice. All of these qualities stem from love and, I dare say, every creature born loves, some more than others. So, Walt Whitman was onto something when he wrote that love is the keelson of creation. It is the one thing that keeps us on track, even in the midst of great diversity of thought and opinion.

So, when we think of the intense polarization in government now, we wonder if love might be the answer, for it alone sums up the law.