National Geographic : 2012 Nov
Now it is a vast agricultural machine that has swept clean the land, that seems to hardly need people or towns. Eugene Richards falls silent. We drive on. e ashback fades, the land remains, the place of the great river and the phantom chords of American memory. in the world, but that has not been enough. Sixty million years ago the Gulf of Mexico extended all the way to Missouri. As the sea gradually with- drew, multiple rivers remained, including the Mississippi and its tributaries, which laid down deposits of deep soil, richer than dreams. Some 12,000 years ago the Ice Age ended, the glaciers melted, the rivers rose, and then came ood a er ood, blanketing the delta of the mighty Missis- sippi. Annual ooding continued to build up the region's loamy, alluvial deposits, which measure a hundred feet deep in places. American settlers arrived in the Arkansas Delta around 1800 and confronted a place of forbidding forests amid swamps, a different landscape from what you see today. A few dec- ades later, as forests were cleared and swamps drained, the delta became a promised land. e plantation system took hold, though Arkansas generally lacks the big Greek Revival mansions of the movies. ere simply wasn't enough time: e big plantation houses were just getting built here when the Civil War changed everything. This chapter of Arkansas Delta history is written on the streets of Cotton Plant, a town of 649 people. In 1846 a man named William Lynch came over from Mississippi, threw up a house and store, and tried growing something relatively new for these parts. King Cotton began its reign. By then the Arkansas Delta was experi- encing a period of dramatic growth. Steamboats on the Arkansas rivers could easily transport cotton to markets down in New Orleans. e state's estimated annual per capita income was $68---three dollars more than the national aver- age. Slavery is what made the growth possible. By the outbreak of the Civil War some delta counties had more blacks than whites. Today on Cotton Plant's main street the old Presbyterian church melts like wax in the sun. In front of the police station are two public benches, both chained. Old men sit in the shade by the dead downtown. "There used to be a veneer 1970: I photographed the Landers sisters on the steps of Mount Calver Baptist Church of Christ, the makeshi chapel built by their preacher father in a shack in Rawlinson.