March 15, 2012 by Joseph C. Neal
Great Blue Herons are standing on nests in the Illinois River bottomlands rookery west of Tontitown, on the road to Siloam Springs. Number of nests, about 35. Number of adults perched improbably atop mature trees, about 39. Nests are in tall white sycamores, forming picturesque contrast with winter grays of Wedington Ridge in the Ozark National Forest.
I call the place Heronton. It’s one of the oldest “towns” in Northwest Arkansas. It’s the place where Great Blue Herons come to nest.
You narrowly catch the festivities even at 65mph on Highway 412 as you cross the Illinois. Narrowly, because we’re dashing across that efficient bridge — with one eye on busy herons, another on that thunderous onrush of our times — 18-wheelers, pick-ups, my Toyota — and with that active third eye, the mind, simultaneously sorting affairs of family and business — and probably on the phone — our destiny . There seems no place to stop and take in the whole, including Heronton. I am reminded of how fast we travel, how restricted our space, like we’re astronauts in a capsule, cowboys and cowgirls blasting through 14 billion years of matter.
A Great Blue flies toward the sycamores, providing us quick glance at the extraordinary. The flying bird isn’t the pterodactyl, but it’s not Johnny-come-lately, either. There are a fair number of heron fossils from at least 14 million years ago. In Montana, Great Blue fossils date from about 1.8 million years ago. Old stuff, yes, and maybe worth keeping in mind on our dash up and down 412.
Wedington Sandstones forming a long forested ridge above Heronton were deposits of sand and mud from millions of years ago. Since then, wind, rain, ice, snow, plus the Illinois River and unnamed forebears, have all been busy cutting away. And well within our lifetimes, thunderous 4- and 5-laned 412 was pokey Highway 68, and before that, a mere rough trace of pioneers and Native Americans, all bouncing through rocky hollers, somewhat straight across former prairie, muddy, frequently flooded, best known by Great Blue Herons, crawfish, and spring wildflowers.
We’re just recently here, our county, our state, our culture, old Highway 71, too, and new Highway 540. We are the Johnny-come-latelys.
A leisurely view of Heronton is available and from old Robinson, off 412, on a gravel road so far escaping being straightened and efficient-ized. It’s a glorious view. I stop in front of a gate, once to an old home place with daffodils now in full bloom. Beyond: big pasture, a valley of what’s left after all those millions of years. You don’t need a ticket, but binoculars will help. Old Heronton is down there atop the big sycamores.
What a view: ancient birds across to the west, in big trees along the river. Wedington Ridge rising above, far away in time and space.