National Geographic : 2012 Nov
• By Charles Bowden Photographs and Captions by Eugene Richards A ashback strikes, and the photographer is once again walking across the eld as our car drives down the two-lane road in the Arkansas Delta. "It had to have happened close to here," he says, and looks out the car win- dow with sad eyes. Beyond the plowed ground are the remains of a sharecropper's shack that has been made irrelevant by the mechanical revolution of the past 70 years. "I'm walking with Dorothea across a plowed eld to visit some people who lived in that shack," he says in his so voice. "And then a crop duster sees me, sweeps down, and empties his tank of chemicals on us. She really gets drenched." He stops. e woman who was with him at that moment became his wife. She later got breast cancer, and he always wondered if that shower of chemicals had something to do with it. e sun is bright, wisteria gone wild is climbing roadside trees, its lavender owers hanging 40 feet in the air. e air is fresh with April, a hint of rain, and the stands of forest roar with spring. At dawn low clouds scud over the land, then the sun comes on, and the world begins again. " at's it. at's all I can remember about that day." e photographer is a white man who had come from Boston to the small town of Augus- ta during the civil rights era of the late sixties, and he now believes it was the most important time of his life. He was with VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), working in a day-care center for black and white kids, and it wasn't long before his presence seemed to unsettle the white population of the town. His name is Eu- gene Richards, and because of an incident one night all those years ago, much about those days and nights is beyond his reach. Memory comes and goes here on the delta, mainly goes. basins that empty into the Mississippi from the west: the St. Francis, the White, and the Ar- kansas. Various agricultural systems have been tried here---slavery, sharecropping, industrial farming---all producing wealth for a handful amid widespread poverty. e ancient forests have been cut, many towns have dwindled into ghosts, and yet there is this one thing: e place still beckons, captures the heart, and persists like the blues songs that grew out of the pain and the rough-edged Saturday nights. ere are so reasons for hope on the delta: the sentimental tug of the light at dawn, the scent of violent growth in the remaining woods, the lazy movement of the rivers across the pan of dirt. But none of this makes up for a hard history of poverty, lynchings, and an out-migration into cities because of a rejection by the delta itself. The delta is the soul of the South, a place always becoming a New South and yet always shrouded in its past, a place that gave the nation the blues and harbored the Ku Klux Klan and in the sixties was a cauldron of social change that boiled up in young black people and spilled over to young white people all across the country.