Still drifting forward, they stared out through dark glasses, their canoe crammed with gear and tied down with straps to ward against spills.
For the past several days, they had been on the Buffalo. Their route had started at Mount Hersey, a quiet spot between two creeks that flow into the river, and would end at Grinder’s Ferry just below the U.S. Highway 65 bridge. All told, it would be 25 miles. They could have done it faster, of course, or they could have taken a different leg of the roughly 150-mile stretch, but that wasn’t the point. In this case, the point was to experience the river as someone else had many years before, someone whose life had been inextricably wound with the river itself, who had left a lasting impression, even though there was no mark to see: Thomas Hart Benton.
Although his name is far from a household one nowadays, the Missouri-born regionalist was a force to be reckoned with for much of the early and mid 20th century. As recounted in his 1937 autobiography, An Artist in America, he’d traveled the country, seeking to capture the often overlooked forces of ordinary American life that he found in fields, steel mills and the mad rush toward industrialization. For his efforts, he was richly rewarded, securing no small amount of fame and fortune, including an appearance on the cover of Time magazine in 1934. While squabbles with the art establishment and the rise of post-war artists diminished the artist’s star in his later years, Benton’s efforts to save what he saw as the country’s great treasures can’t be overstated enough: He knew of the efforts of Dr. Neil Compton, Ken Smith and the Ozark Society, to save the Buffalo from damming, but his own love of the river—so beautifully expressed in his paintings—and his tireless efforts to involve journalists, filmmakers, and influential friends like John Callison, Fred McGraw, Bernie Hoffman and others in his Arkansas adventures, helped immensely in the successful campaign to have the Buffalo proclaimed the first National River in 1972.
And in no small part, it’s the reason Don and Sabine were able to embark on their own float this past May.
When the Northwest Arkansas-based photographers and writers first pitched us the story, it was with the aim of seeing the place as Benton had experienced it—and to see what, if anything, had changed since Benton’s time. They explained that their photography would not “mimic his work, but the things that made him take out a pencil are the same things that make us take out cameras, and it will show in the images.”
In revisiting the photos and the journal entries from those four days on the river, it becomes clear that this was indeed the case. To be sure, there are instances when the duo recalls Benton in both their imagery and their writing, but more often, it’s about their own experience: to see fireflies dancing up and down the bluff face as sleep overtakes you beneath the stars; to wake to the sound of a beaver slapping its tail on the mirror surface of the water, its head slicing the mirror in two; to see so many others enjoying the river in their own way, all on the river for the same reason. In that sense, this trip and the photos that resulted are as much about the landscape that passed them by as it is about connections—to the place, to the many who’ve maneuvered its shoots and banks, shallow beneath the waves, to everything. —jph
THERE IS A state of mind associated with the river, a mental river time, a river attitude, a river rhythm, and for me it starts to develop as soon as I leave my home in Hazel Valley and turn east on Highway 16. It has something to do with small communities and no traffic and dense vegetation and foggy hollows and slow driving. Before I make Kingston, I will have driven through a dozen towns, a litany of wonderful names: Durham, Crosses, Delaney, Patrick Combs, Brashears, St. Paul, Witter, Aurora, Wharton and Loy. I am already on the river. —dh
WHEN I DISCOVERED the Buffalo River in 1986, it felt like the fight was over, the river had been saved from the Corps of Engineers’ dam-building hysteria. People like Dr. Neil Compton and Ken Smith and the Ozark Society had fought the good fight and won, so that I, coming a decade later, could float and camp and rest assured that it would be protected forever. Those early warriors would laugh at my naiveté. If we have learned anything about the sacred and beautiful, the magical and spiritual places of this country, it’s that they are in constant peril.
Thomas Hart Benton knew it, and a friend of his told me that the Sports Illustrated article “The Old Man and the River,” and a short film by the same name, and several articles that Benton wrote were all designed to help with the efforts to save the river. They knew that the Buffalo was on the cusp of development—they had seen it first hand in Missouri. In his handbook, Ken Smith reproduces part of Benton’s impassioned letter to the Corps begging them not to destroy the river, ending with: “I say, and I intend it emphatically, let the river be.” —dh
“THERE IS something about flowing water that makes for easy views,” Thomas Hart Benton famously said. “Down the river is freedom from consequence. All one has to do is jump in a skiff at night and by the morrow be beyond the reach of trouble. In the past this was a sure method of ridding oneself of difficulty, and fellows who had been too handy with the knife or gun or who found their children too many or their wives too troublesome could float off into a new world and begin again.” Usually when that paragraph is quoted, the writer only puts in the first two sentences and leaves out the rest, perhaps in an effort to highlight the romantic and downplay the crudely practical.
I have no intention of skipping out on my family or social obligations, and have committed no felonies, but this river time that I refer to, that I seek as often as I can, involves an unburdening, or in river freight terms, an unladening. Priorities shift, thoughts refocus, and all of the things that are part of our lives: bosses, work, friends, family, neighbors, art critics, gallery owners, teachers, social obligations, national news, deadlines, chores, traffic, email, Facebook, Twitter, are dropped overboard, and we watch them float ahead of us, move out of sight and continue downstream, eventually to the White River, then to the Mississippi, down to New Orleans and out into the Gulf of Mexico, never to be seen again.
And back in the canoe, we are free to notice the greens of spring, the incredible variety of hue that will in summer months blend into homogeneity, and the mudslides along the banks that indicate beaver and otter, the clumps of bluestar, rock geranium, bergamot and ninebark in flower, the Northern water snake swimming a meter off the starboard bow and the clouds moving in low and dark that might portend a surprise or two. I have good reason to believe that Benton had the same things in mind. —dh
ON THIS TRIP, I am reminded that it is the waking up that makes all the difference, the first light on the gravel bar, Jupiter still visible in the western sky, the warmth you can see before you can feel it, glancing off the top of the bluff across the water, the sight and sounds of a free flowing river. Then stumbling out of your sleeping bag, walking barefoot down to the edge and dipping a pot into the cold water to fill for coffee, the collecting of driftwood for a quick fire—just enough to boil water—the dawn chorus of birds too numerous to identify, each acting as a nail in the coffin of misplaced priorities and self-inflicted burdens, then the reaching for camera and tripod. —dh
STUDYING PHOTOS and reading accounts of Benton’s river trips between 1938 and 1974, I marvel at his and his companions’ blithe insistence on maintaining their regular levels of grooming and creature comforts. Money spent on a canoe outing went to purchasing steaks, wine, perhaps a tablecloth, not high-priced moisture-wicking outfits, sandals and name-brand coolers. The pictures show canoeists—both local and from outside the region—in slacks and dress shirts, skirts, cardigans and suede Clarks. The more casual ones wear polo shirts and tennis shoes. Dinner is served on upturned canoes using china and silverware. Wine, 7up and bourbon come in glass bottles. During Benton’s 1940 visit with several of his students from the Kansas City Art Institute, a wild boar got into the trunk of his parked car and ate the dozen raw steaks Benton had stored there for a celebratory dinner. —ss
AS I SET UP the camera to photograph the bluff that makes up the Narrows, a thin ribbon of solid rock that once separated the Buffalo from Richland Creek before the creek decided to move across the valley, I also envy a painter’s luxury of being able to paint to vision, regardless of reality, to eliminate vegetation that obscures details, to modify the way light is glancing off limestone. Ken Smith describes Benton’s painting of Welsh Bluff: “… The overall scale and proportions of the bluff are true to reality while smaller elements are expressed as curvilinear forms. Such curvilinear lines are a recognizable feature of Benton’s landscapes.” On a trip to Joplin, Benton once said: “Composition was my long suit. Hundreds can paint better than I can, but damn few can see better.” All I can do is swear at uncooperative cloud cover, and promise to come back at another time, another season. —dh