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.

Welcome to English 395!

A young ivory-billed woodpecker perches on field guide J.J. Kuhn in the Singer Tract Swamp, Louisiana, 1938. Photograph by James T. Tanner.


This class, Literary Landscapes: Writing the Natural State, will explore historical and recent Arkansas writers who have treated some aspect of Arkansas’s natural environment or human ecology in their work. As we read, we will ask how the various literary forms we encounter (including fiction, poetry, non-fiction, journalism, and film) have helped shape public understandings of “The Natural State” and its environmental issues, inspiring everything from environmentalist action, to enduring stereotypes, to critical environmental legislation. This class will also be linked, through teleconference discussions and extensive work on a class blog, with a “sister” class at Furman University which will be pursuing its own place-based study in environmental sociology.


Place-Based Learning and Blended Learning

This course will feature this student-generated blog as well as structured interactions with our sister class—two  important elements of the teaching practice known as blended learning, which mixes the traditional classroom with the new learning environments offered by digital technology. The blog creates a space in which classmates can reflect creatively on the issues, ideas, and texts we will encounter in the class on a weekly basis. In this way, we can continue the discussions we begin in class, refining our ideas and revising our words through posting and commenting.  One of the audiences we will be addressing most directly through our blog is our sister class, Dr. Carmel Price’s Environmental Sociology class at Furman University. As we attempt to explain what we have been learning to our sister class, we will also engage deeply in their course experience through a careful reading of their blog, as well as three joint class discussions throughout the semester. Though they will be investigating their own “place”—Greenville, South Carolina—from a sociological perspective, we will discover, through these digital and personal conversations, the commonalities we share as well as value of our differing methods and perspectives on environmental issues.  In a larger sense, both our class blog and our shared experience with a sister class embody an important principle: that academic inquiry takes place in a living, evolving, and interconnected world—and that, to be meaningful, it must engage with that world.

Our class begins with an exploration of the 2005  “rediscovery” of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker–a bird known colloquially as the “Lord God Bird”– in the swamps of eastern Arkansas…


From John James Audubon’s Birds of America.