Thinking about Brinkley and the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

Stuffed ivory-billed woodpeckers at Louisiana State University.

In high school, my science teacher’s email ID was ivorybilledwoodpecker. So it’s safe to say he was a bit of a fan of the “Good God Bird.” In 2005, he led a group of students on a two-week expedition through Louisiana, around the historic location of the Singer Tract and down into the bayous. He wanted to find the ivory-billed woodpecker. They didn’t, though they did find a swamp rat with a taste for Coffeemate.

This was after a team of researchers from Cornell University had taken several frames of blurry video of a possible ivory-bill in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, but before that video was made public. My teacher talked with John Fitzpatrick, of the Cornell team, before he led the trip. They must have belonged to some sort of ivory-bill believers’ club. He told this story to my class as a way of explaining why, in 2007, we were going to stop in Brinkley, Arkansas and explore the Cache River before we continued on into Louisiana.

The way he told it, Fitzpatrick had suggested that he search for the bird closer to home, rather than going south of the Singer Tract. Of course he couldn’t tell my teacher about the bird they thought they had found at Cache River. The whole thing was being kept very hush-hush. My teacher ruefully related that he had dismissed Fitzpatrick’s cryptic suggestions. Before that video came out, any ivory-billed hunter worth his salt knew that Louisiana was the place to look.

Of course, we weren’t just hunting ivory-bills. The theme of the 2007 trip was endangered species (not extinct, my teacher was a firm believer in the ivory-bill’s persistence into the 21stcentury), so we went to Mount Magazine, in Arkansas, and looked for Magazine Shagreens, snails that only occur on one side of the mountain. We went into Louisiana and looked at the nesting holes of red-cockaded woodpeckers, and we searched vainly, cameras ready, for a glimpse of an ivory-bill.

An ivory-billed woodpecker identification guide at Cache River National Wildlife Refuge.

We also slept on the floor of a parish hall in Brinkley, Arkansas.

Scott Crocker’s documentary Ghost Bird focuses a lot on Brinkley. When I watched the movie for the first time, I felt some instinctive southern defensiveness at some of the interviews, which seemed at times selected to heighten the white redneck impression of the interviewees. However, for the most part I appreciated the stress the documentary laid on the town, because, for me, the search for that bird, and that little town in Arkansas, are intimately connected.

It was a little shocking to me to learn that most Brinkley people didn’t even know what an ivory-billed woodpecker was until the Cornell team announced that they had discovered one down in the Big Woods. When I went to Brinkley, the whole town seemed ivory-bill mad. There were gift shops, and restaurants, and signs and lawn ornaments. That experience, at least, was well captured by Ghost Bird. The sense of a dying, dusty little town, staking everything it’s got on the life of a single bird. A ghost bird, the documentary seems to conclude fairly comprehensively. A bird that almost certainly vanished when its habitat was cut down and shipped away.

Shipped, maybe, through Brinkley, on highway 70, before the interstate was built. This idea came up in class on Friday, of the culpability of Brinkley in the destruction of the environment.

It was, after all, once a thriving roadside town, a stopping place for farmers and shipping companies. Some light research reveals the town was founded around the construction of a set of railway lines between Little Rock and Memphis in 1852, and that the settlement that would later be Brinkley was first called “Lick Skillet” which is, I have to say, a fantastically Arkansan name for a place. It was incorporated in 1872, and according to the town’s official website, it has always been tied to the “transportation industry.”

So there you have it. A little town like many other little towns, built where railways and highways converge. Those same railways and highways might well have carried wood to some Singer sewing machine factory, where it would be fashioned into cabinets, wood that might have fed or nested an ivory-bill, had it remained standing in the big, swampy woods of the Singer Tract. Maybe some of the trees cut down by Chicago Mill and Lumber found their ways onto trains or trucks passing through Brinkley, or maybe tea boxes made from that wood were eventually put on cabinet shelves in ranch houses in a Brinkley neighborhood, a neighborhood now half-empty.

It’s hard to avoid culpability for the extinction of the ivory-bill. And I think it is almost impossible for the bird not to be extinct. Even if there are one or two individual birds flitting around, somehow hidden from the legions of reward-driven amateur ornithologists who search their habitats, the bird must be either extinct completely, or so close to it that it is already tumbling over the brink.

And it is hard to avoid culpability for that. I drive on highways that must have ferried products made from Singer Tract wood. In fact, I own an antique Singer sewing machine, admittedly from a time long after the Tract was felled completely, but still built by the same company that cut and then sold the birds into extinction.

I had a biology professor point out that most of us would never kill an animal with our own hands, but that we saw no problem with flicking on a light switch, even though that action (particularly in Arkansas, where most of our power comes from coal) could be connected to the deaths of hundreds, even thousands, of animals and plants, and to the continued degradation of the entire planet.

The development of railway lines and highways in Brinkley certainly cut into the surrounding territory, and all the area that is not enclosed in the Cache River Refuge shows that. Where the lines of the reserve end, the landscape gives way fairly quickly to farmland, soybean fields and strip malls.

Yet the concept of extinction can, I think, be extended beyond the extinction of flora and fauna. And, in a broader understanding of extinction, Brinkley is not just a culprit in the destruction of the natural environment of southern Arkansas, it is also a victim.

A bottomland forest in southern Arkansas.

My most vivid memory of Brinkley is walking down a street off the downtown and hearing a strange, vibrating sound. A buzz, that got louder and louder as I walked. The sidewalk crunched under my feet, a meatier, damper crunch than dead leaves. I was stepping on bees, dead bees, there must have been dozens on the sidewalk, and they were piled in drifts in the gutter. I looked up. It was a boarded-up, two-story brick building that fronted right onto the sidewalk. The second floor was thick with beehives. They grew out of the screen-less windows and up towards the eaves. The air was full of buzzing, and the concrete sidewalk was covered with dead insects, fat and yellow.

Depending on your perspective, that’s either a sad sight or a compelling one. Either nature has begun to reclaim the environment that mankind has destroyed and abandoned, or a little town can’t even keep its historic buildings from falling into such disuse that they become infested.

To me, I think I would have preferred to pull off I-40 and see green forests instead of a grungy strip mall. I’d have liked to see a Brinkley with a downtown full of open shops. I would have liked to see that building used by people, so that the land where the strip mall has been built might have stayed a wood, or a field, a place where something beside ants, cockroaches and empty Wal-Mart bags could live.

Bayou. Seemed like a good shot to end on.

6 thoughts on “Thinking about Brinkley and the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

  1. I am so intrigued, Rachel, by your descriptions of Brinkley in this post–particularly the image of those bees overtaking the old home, and the multiple different possibilities for growth and progress that it seemed to suggest to you. It actually reminds me very much of a place in the city where I grew up (Birmingham, AL)–a little corner on the southeastern side of the city called Eastwood. When my mom was a child, Eastwood is where families would gather on weekend afternoons to take a picnic and the enjoy the relative cool of the trees and the chilly water that flowed out of a spring there. When I was young, Eastwood had turned into a mall, and the spring had been caught and channeled through a “creek” that ran through the playground outside the McDonalds. Like my mom, I enjoyed many an afternoon playing next to that spring–it just so happens that our picnic consisted of Big Macs and McFlurries, and that I spent a lot of my time climbing on a statue of the HamBurglar. Now the mall is a Walmart, and the elderly mallwalkers have gone, along with all the department stores that used to signify things like “back to school” or “getting a makeover” to me. Inside the Walmart, along the entrance hall, you’ll find pictures from the 1950’s of people picnicking beside the springs. What this little digression, along with your thoughtful reading of Ghost Bird, suggests to me is that there are many different visions of community we could pursue, even from something that seems as predictable (and perhaps disheartening) as the progression from parklands to mall to Walmart. Thanks for reminding me of that.

  2. I primarily grew up in Augusta, a town not too far from Brinkley. And interestingly enough, when I googled “distance from Brinkley AR to Augusta AR” to find out exactly the mileage, “Learn more about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker” was the very first hit. (The answer is about 38 miles by the way.) But isn’t it interesting that the ghost bird was the first result? I realize that I did google something pretty “podunk,” and that eastern Arkansas doesn’t have many claims to fame, but perhaps that first result is noteworthy. Augusta, like Brinkley faced a devastating migration of people. I don’t know the details of exactly why people left (although I should call my grandfather and ask him) but I do know that they left and the town shriveled. Unlike Brinkley, a Walmart never moved in. Perhaps it’s fitting that the ghost bird has found a home in ghost towns.

  3. I was particularly compelled by this paragraph:

    “I had a biology professor point out that most of us would never kill an animal with our own hands, but that we saw no problem with flicking on a light switch, even though that action (particularly in Arkansas, where most of our power comes from coal) could be connected to the deaths of hundreds, even thousands, of animals and plants, and to the continued degradation of the entire planet.”

    While I think that this is a valid point, it’s hard to expect us to not turn on our lights because they are powered by coal. In fact, I think that in order to discover an alternative source of fuel, you would have to work late into the night hours, and what scientist is going to work by candle light?

    I think that this point in the green revolution, it’s hard not to feel guilty about everything you do. Every time it gets hot and I turn on my air conditioner, I know that I’m hurting something unknown because of my dependence on technology. I think it’s important to find as much of a balance as possible as possible, and to not be such a generic “consumer”. Perhaps if we had understood and been more accepting about this balance, the ivory bill’s home would not have been completely demolished and there would have been some remnant of a home for them to grow and re-establish themselves from, rather than being a whisper among bird lovers.

  4. This was a truly enjoyable first post! I loved how you touched on the feeling of “southern defensiveness” because that was almost exactly my initial reaction upon viewing the documentary. The one difference comes from the ironic. Most of the people in Brinkley were unaware of the ghost bird until “learned” people came down from Cornell to tell them of it’s existence and the importance of their discovery. However, when locals report sightings of this illusive bird, their words have no weight. It just seems so backwards that the people raised in the woods, where the ivory bill woodpecker could be just another bird they have grown up with, could be so easily discredited by a more “intelligent” bread of person.

    The ironic nature of this situation shines under those circumstances. It was actually the people without the fancy degrees and technology that did the most to protect the bird from extinction, but now that it has become of interest to Cornell and the like, their observations are put aside as non-credible sources. It almost hurt to watch it happen, but to experience it would play too much into the realm of the stereotypical interactions between northerners and southerners.

  5. Great post! I really enjoyed this paragraph:
    “To me, I think I would have preferred to pull off I-40 and see green forests instead of a grungy strip mall. I’d have liked to see a Brinkley with a downtown full of open shops. I would have liked to see that building used by people, so that the land where the strip mall has been built might have stayed a wood, or a field, a place where something beside ants, cockroaches and empty Wal-Mart bags could live.”

    I definitely side with you on that; if “progress” is to be made in the form of building and expanding, at least let us use that expansion for some good or use. When buildings stand empty- especially newly built ones- it makes me sad. Many are doomed from the moment they first close because no one will ever use them and they will eventually become so dilapidated it must be torn down. However, I have never seen a condemned lot returned to a natural habitat. Ever. Even if it’s in the middle of a city- why not plant a community garden!? I think “progress” needs to be re-thought in our society to not only include building buildings but also building the environment. If humans are not using a lot, why not let nature? I’m definitely not saying that by tearing down old buildings in Brinkley and starting the first succession of the Big Woods we could bring back the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (or even allow it to make a recovery if it is still alive), but at the same time, who knows what species could be saved or allowed to rebound with that act? I realize it’s not cheap or easy to return a lot to a natural state, especially when the whole thing is covered in concrete or asphalt. At some point, though, we must pay for the destruction those before our time made, as well as our own destructive ways. This might seem to be getting a little off-topic, but at the same time it seems integral to this story to me. Those bees in Brinkley seemed to be doing okay, with thousands of them buzzing around happily. I think few would argue, though, that they bees wouldn’t be happier if they had a more natural habitat with flowers nearby and plenty of trees to nest in. The endangered species in the area would also benefit as well as those that are not endangered at all- the humans. Like Muir said: “It is impossible to overestimate the value of wild mountains and mountain temples as places for people to grow in, recreation grounds for the soul and body.”

  6. Rachel, I enjoyed the inclusion of your personal connection to the ivory-billed story. I’m curious; is your high school teacher still a believer? I also know a few biologists who took part in the search efforts, though their ventures were after Cornell’s Science publication. One is a professor in Arkansas, the other a bird researcher that I met in New Hampshire, but my conversations with each about the Ivory-billed had similarities. I found it interesting that in both cases, I could hear in their voices the simultaneous passion and excitement for the woodpecker and lament at its situation. Both were believers, as most any bird enthusiast would be at the initial news; now, both are skeptics. One went further, however, to even argue that the continued emphasis on the ivory-billed may be causing harm to Big Woods conservation. Still today, nearly every trail sign in that area boasts a picture of the woodpecker with a blurb about its sighting. Though the story is emotional and definitely worth understanding, it seems like the single-mindedness of it all might, at this point, just be serving to take much-needed attention away from other species in the area. I think the refuges and reserves would do better to highlight other aspects of the Big Woods, putting money and attention into a more holistic ecosystem education rather than taking the single-species conservation approach. There are so many other beautiful species still left, which sadly get sort of downplayed and forgotten amid the ivory-billed hype.

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