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I look down as I ride through Clarendon with Jeremiah Moore and immediately notice the duck call. I'm not surprised. This is east Arkansas, after all. Having a duck call in the truck isn't unusual, even long after the season has ended.

Moore graduated from John Brown University at Siloam Springs in 2016 with a marketing degree. At JBU, he played rugby, was in the band and was active in the College Republicans. He then did something that's unusual for a smart young man with a college degree. Rather than remaining in booming Northwest Arkansas or moving to Little Rock, he returned home to Monroe County, which lost a higher percentage of its population than any other Arkansas county between the 2000 and 2010 census.

Moore's ancestors began farming in this area in the 1850s. Moore, a member of the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission who has been active in efforts to save the old bridge over the White River at Clarendon for hiking and biking, is determined to make a difference back home.

"Living in a small town isn't for everybody, but it has its finer points," he tells me.

It's then that I notice that, in addition to the duck call, he has a copy of the collected poems of Wendell Berry in his vehicle. Suddenly, I understand Moore a lot better.

Berry, 84, is a Kentucky native. In addition to being a well-known poet, he's a novelist, farmer and cultural critic. In 2015, Berry became the first living writer to be inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. Berry's father was a lawyer and tobacco farmer.

Berry received his bachelor's degree in 1956 and his master's degree a year later from the University of Kentucky. He then received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship to study creative writing at Stanford University alongside the likes of Larry McMurtry. Berry's first novel was published in April 1960.

In July 1965, Berry and his wife purchased a small farm known as Lane's Landing. They began growing corn and later raised sheep. The farm is on the west bank of the Kentucky River near where it empties into the Ohio River. Lane's Landing is sometimes the subject of Berry's writing, which often focuses on the fact that a person's work should be rooted in place. He has long been an advocate of sustainable agriculture, frugality and healthy rural communities. I attended a Southern Foodways Alliance event in Louisville, Ky., several years ago. Berry made a surprise appearance and was treated like a rock star.

I don't know if Wendell Berry has ever been to the Arkansas Delta, but his philosophy of rural life is exemplified by the work of Moore, a man for whom a sense of history, continuity and place mean everything. The house in which Moore lives was built in 1932 at a time when Clarendon was larger than it is now. On the dining room table is a 1903 map of Monroe County. On the shelves are leather-bound books that belonged to his great-grandfather. His parents live next door in a house built in the 1870s. The front yard is shaded by one of the largest magnolia trees in the state.

We make our way to lunch at Tina's Place. It's the kind of spot I love to find in rural Arkansas. It's mainly a thrift shop. Scattered among the piles of used clothes are three tables, and behind the counter is the lady everyone refers to simply as Miss Tina. She turns out one of the best burgers I've ever had.

"Everybody from the bankers to the farmers eats in here," Moore tells me.

He knows them all. While eating lunch on this sunny Monday morning, we talk about the rains that have kept farmers from planting their crops. We also talk about the efforts to save the bridge and the potential it has to bring visitors to a place that's desperate for an economic boost.

"One thing I've learned is that the word 'impossible' can't be in your vocabulary," Moore says. "Most people thought the old bridge would be gone by now, but we're still here after five years of fighting the government."

We discuss the rural diaspora that's occurring across Arkansas. Two-thirds of the state's counties are losing population. In the Delta, the bleeding is particularly acute. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, Monroe County has lost an additional 15.3 percent of its population since the 2010 census. The population is about 6,900, down from the 21,601 residents recorded a century ago in the 1920 census.

Monroe County isn't alone. From 2010-18, Phillips County lost 17.1 percent of its population and Lee County lost 13.8 percent. They're followed by losses of 12 percent in Jefferson County, 11.5 percent in Chicot and Desha counties, 11.3 percent in Mississippi County and 10.6 percent in Woodruff County.

Moore isn't giving up hope. He notes that "change can occur with just a few properly motivated people. Still, I look around sometimes and get depressed that the things I try aren't having an impact."

But then he notices the screensaver on his computer. It's a photo of the Great Flood of 1927, which devastated Clarendon and much of the rest of east Arkansas.

Moore says: "I stare at that photo and tell myself, 'Well, at least it's not that bad.'"

The 1927 flood was followed by the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, and then the Great Drought of 1930-31. The Delta now faces the rapid urbanization of Arkansas. In 20 years, many of our historic Delta communities will be ghost towns. Those that survive will have people like Jeremiah Moore: people who read the poems of Wendell Berry on quiet Delta evenings and understand the essential goodness of the rural lifestyle.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 05/29/2019

Print Headline: REX NELSON: Wendell Berry's Delta

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