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Lost Between the Lines

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June 30, 2011 by Joseph C. Neal

If you have some vacation time this summer, it’s inexpensive and not so far up to Pea Ridge National Military Park northeast of Rogers. There’s lots of pioneer and Civil War history and for me, productive birding. My first stop is along Sugar Creek, clear water flowing over attractive yellowish-red chert rubble.

An Acadian Flycatcher gives the PIZ-ZA! call. When I stop to see it, I notice a snapping turtle up on a high sandbar where it has dug a hole and appears to be laying eggs.

Union soldiers expected attack from Confederates, so they constructed protective works of log, soil, and rock on the ridge overlooking Sugar Creek. I park, and from a thicket comes the song of a Kentucky Warbler. Soldiers cut big virgin hardwoods and made them into breastworks. Today, towering white oaks re-own the place, as do Red-eyed Vireos. And the trail? Water has been busy eroding it away. Roots are pushing up through asphalt. Leaf-cup and wild hydrangea are blooming along trail sides, with patches of Christmas fern. Shady bare spots are colonized by bottlebrush grasses. A Louisiana Waterthrush walks and bobs on the once battlefield.

Along Arkansas 72, open fields stretch east and west from another section of the battlefield near the pioneer community of Leetown. Once a place of desperation, this morning’s fields are given over, not to cannon roar, but to BOB WHITE, with one announcing to others in a kind of rebel yell. Northern Bobwhites have taken these big former prairie fields as surely as the boys of 1862. My bare minimum count is a cannonade of five birds calling in rapid back-and-forth succession. This is like rural Arkansas in 1950, and probably 1862 as well.

Park headquarters is two miles further down the road. From there I walk toward seemingly endless grassy fields where the battle climaxed on March 8. Tens of thousands of scared boys and men arrayed here, north and south, in deadly earnest formation now suggested by lines of silent cannon and split rail fences.

Like some Civil War officer, I survey the scene with my binoculars and listen. There, in the distance, is a Turkey Vulture and a sky with distant lightning, darkened not by black powder, but oncoming rain. I hear, and then see, a male Blue Grosbeak calling from atop one of the rails, soon joined by an Eastern Meadowlark. Out there in grassy fields, I am lost between the lines in a kind of warp. Conflating soldiers and birders, I turn to an imaginary general and report, “Look at those meadowlarks!” And then with thunder, lightning and rain upon me, I retreat, without dignity, to my car.

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