By Johnny Sain                                                                                                                                                                                                _4150015


I’ve been trying to control myself, trying to talk myself out of getting pumped for the spring season. Time is going to be at a premium this year and when it comes to turkeys I have no restraint. A little taste sends me spiraling into full-bore obsession. So I says to myself: “Self, you need to be satisfied with a couple Saturday and Sunday mornings. You need to realize you’ve got responsibilities. You’re a grownup now. You can’t be chasing big birds every day of the week.” And I had convinced myself of this until…until I saw this trio standing in a lime-green field, wattles ablaze with that wild crimson color of passion.

So if you’ll be needing anything from me you best get a hold of me before Saturday; ’cause after Saturday — for a few weeks after Saturday — I’m going to be absolutely uninterested in anything without black tipped feathers, barred wings, savage red wattles and spurred scaly legs.

You have been notified.

Grasping a sense of place

By Johnny Sain                                                                                                                                                                                                                        _5280019

I’m taking a class this semester called environment and the American mind. We read excerpts from environmental and conservation minded folks like Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry, Edward Abbey, Rachel Carlson and Henry David Thoreau among others, and we also read excerpts from early European Americans about the activities of Native Americans. It’s an interesting course.

The central theme, the thread that connects all the various readings — which run the gamut from relating to the natural world to providing your own food — is a sense of place. Reading about a sense of place is easy, grasping the nuances within the phrase…not so much.

A sense of place can come from generations-old interaction with the land. It can come from intimate connection with the land via hunting, gathering or farming. It can come from a deeply personal movement within you, the land speaking to you, as is often the case when viewing grand vistas. And then there are lots of understated ways to sense the feeling of connection.

It can be the familiarity of a whip-poor-will calling on a spring evening or it can come from knowing that redbuds should start showing a little pink right now. You may experience a sense of place in the harvest from your backyard garden this August. You may have experienced a sense of connectivity while savoring a morsel of venison steak from the deer you killed on that oak-covered ridge in October.

A personal connection to the land leads to understanding and conserving the air, water and soil. It’s what compels me to defend our wild things and wild places.

Look, listen, smell, taste and feel for a sense of place in things and activities both grand and small. It’s the tie that binds us to what sustains us, and it’s a yearning that we are all born with. Sometimes you need to dig a little deeper to find it, but it’s there.

A bittersweet transformation

By Johnny Sain

Limestone bluffs cut by centuries of water flow.

Limestone bluffs cut by centuries of water flow.

Smallmouth bass.

Smallmouth bass.

Lake bottom water discharge into North Fork River.

Lake bottom water discharge into North Fork River.

View of North Fork River from Norfork Dam.

View of North Fork River from Norfork Dam.

Rainbow trout in the White River.

Rainbow trout in the White River.

trout fingerlings in a hatchery.

trout fingerlings in a hatchery.

White River fly anglers.

White River fly anglers.

Buffalo River on a fine July day.

Buffalo River on a fine July day.

Though it’s not readily visible in every location, the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas are defined by water. Water shaped the landscape of hills and hollows. Water formed the numerous caves and sinkholes. Pure and clean waterways chock full of fish were a vital part of Ozark living for inhabitants of the region.

Every ridge drains into a rivulet. The rivulets form feeder creeks with names like Hurricane, Archey’s fork, and Richland. Those feeder creeks empty into the larger rivers of the mountains such as the Buffalo, the Little Red and the North Fork. Eventually, the water ends up in the Arkansas River or the White River, then on to the Mississippi and Gulf of Mexico.

The clear, oxygenated and relatively cool waters of the Ozarks are home to a variety of aquatic life. Plankton, tiny microscopic organisms, use photosynthesis to start the cycle of energy transfer in the ecosystem. Plankton is consumed by phytoplankton, small fish and invertebrates. These creatures feed the larger predators such as longear sunfish, channel catfish and smallmouth bass. Raccoon, water snakes, turtles and otters are common along the mountain creeks. This ecosystem had been in place for thousands of years before the first Europeans set foot in Arkansas.

Today, the best representative of what Ozark streams originally looked like is the federally protected Buffalo River. The Buffalo still runs mostly as it did when humans first saw it, unencumbered and wild. The White River and its tributaries, the Little Red and North Fork, saw a different fate

After the flood of 1927, flood control legislation led to the damming of many rivers including the White and Little Red. Providing hydroelectric power, jobs and tourism dollars, the “Great Lakes” region of Arkansas was born. The dams, however, also took some things away.

Discharged water comes from the bottom of the lake, which at the dams measures an average of 200ft. Discharged water temperature ranges between 45-55 degrees.

Native river life forms could endure cold temperatures for a few months of the year; Ozark winters normally brought water temperatures to those levels. However, year-round exposure spelled death to the fragile ecosystem. The rivers and creeks were effectively sterilized for miles downstream by the frigid lake bottom water.

Besides the loss of entire ecosystems, there was also the threat of extinction to highly specialized species. One small fish in particular, the yellow cheek darter, has been cut-off from the majority of its former range by the damming of the Little Red River. Increased siltation due to agricultural and gas exploration activities have caused further decline for the yellow cheek darter, and today it’s listed as threatened by the U.S. Wildlife Service.

The loss of the warm water fishery drew concern from residents and conservation agencies. A substitute was proposed and a new type of ecosystem, foreign to Arkansas, was manufactured. Non-native rainbow and brown trout were introduced to the rivers and thrived in the cold, highly oxygenated water. With limited spawning success for trout in Arkansas, the population is sustained by a series of hatcheries owned by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

The overall effect of the damming has been good for the mountains from an economic viewpoint. Energy production is a plus. Increased tourism dollars are a plus. The White River and it’s north Arkansas tributaries are known throughout the nation as a big trout Mecca; world records have been pulled from chilled waters that once clung to the lake bottom. The trout spawned an industry. Lodges, tackle stores and fishing guides have benefited the local economy. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission added a trout stamp permit as requirement for anglers to pursue trout with revenue going to trout and trout habitat. This was beneficial for other species as well. By most measures the dams have been a good decision.

I like to fish for trout and look forward to visiting Ozark trout water every summer. But still, the transformation is bittersweet. Smallmouth bass and channel catfish have been pushed back, beyond the reach of cold water. Turtles and water snakes are less common until miles downstream from the dams. I wonder what Ozark folks of yesteryear, people that knew these rivers with an intimacy I cannot fathom, would say about the change.

I wonder what the river and the hills would say.


Looking for adventure

By Johnny Sain                                                                                                                                                                                                                            photo (1)

My idea of the perfect getaway has less to do with where I’m going and more to do with how deep can I wade into it. Of course wild places top the list, but areas with a different culture are intriguing as well.  Wading in is a figurative way of saying I’m not into touristy places. I don’t want to sit behind glass or have a tour guide tell me about his experiences.  I want to see and feel and smell and taste the place for myself. Gated roads and signs telling me an area is off limits are my biggest turn-offs. I like Edward Abbey’s thoughts:  “A venturesome minority will always be eager to set off on their own, and no obstacles should be placed in their path; let them take risks, for godsake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches – that is the right and privilege of any free American.”

I’m a member of the venturesome minority.

White River National Wildlife Refuge has been calling to me for several years, and I plan to finally spend a few days in the swamp starting tomorrow. It’s a place I’ve always wanted to visit and hits all of my travel-worthy requirements. Even though it’s right here in Arkansas, the four-hour drive to the Mississippi River Delta ensures that I’ll be encountering a culture and a countryside quite different from  the River Valley/Ozarks I’ve grown up with.It promises to be — with apologies to Georgia O’Keeffe — a nearby faraway.

My nephew, Bradly, will be joining me on the trip and we’ll be wading in both figuratively and literally. We’ve packed fishing tackle, a canoe, camera equipment and little else. Just the basics along with very little food because I’m hoping for a stringer of panfish every day. But if we don’t catch a thing it will still be an adventure. Adventure is all we really want.

No computers, no alarm clocks and I’ll be turning the phone off, too.We’ll be back with pictures and stories for AVFTBR in a few days.

The (humming) birds and the bees…and the butterflies

By Johnny Sain                                                                                                                                                                                                             _9150007 _9170020

The garden hoe can give your arms a workout. Especially if most of your physical activity in the last month has consisted of typing. My arms aren’t sore, but they needed frequent rests as I broke ground on a new flower bed today. The bed is built around a fallen elm tree.

A September storm from two years ago snapped the tree, but tough bark has kept the top two thirds connected to the bottom third and the tree is still alive. I trimmed all the branches except for one that is now pointing straight up and loaded with mistletoe. I’m sure the neighbors can’t figure out what I’m doing, but the thought of using this odd bit of nature as the centerpiece for a wildflower bed was one of the reasons I left it. I just wish I had done the flowerbed sooner. I missed out on enjoying more flowers and pollinators in the yard last summer.

After breaking the soil, I scattered bee balm and hummingbird mint  seeds. Bee balm and hummingbird mint, as their names imply, are pollinator attractors supreme. And I can sit in the sun and watch pollinators all day long. They fascinate me. Not only are they fun to watch, but their job description means they are vital to just about everything that makes this planet run. You’re also getting a look at a fine tuned relationship in the natural world; it’s a relationship millions of years old. I remember the words from a long ago interview with Mary Ann King, owner of Pine Ridge Gardens, “People just don’t understand that the plants, the insects, the birds, they all evolved together. They need each other.”

To put a finer point on it, you really need to be planting native plants, vegetation that has evolved with area pollinators. I don’t strictly adhere to this rule because one of our most important pollinators, the European honey bee, came from, well, Europe. I’ll be planting a combination of imports and natives including sunflowers, lavender and spearmint — keeping a tight rein on the tough as nails and ever-spreading spearmint – along with trumpet vine, butterfly weed and rattlesnake master ( no, there is no cooler flower name).

Pollinators of every type bring a special aura to any yard. Watching and identifying the various forms is also a great way to introduce kids to the beauty and wonder of natural systems. If interested in growing pollinator attractors in your yard, you can contact Mary Ann at her website here, or check the web for a nursery near your home.

AVFTBR for homework: the spring semester

By Johnny Sain                                                                                                                                                                                                               photo (16)

I’ve got another class with Mr. Reeder this semester. For new AVFTBR readers, Mr. Reeder teaches a couple of journalism classes at Arkansas Tech. A hallmark of his undergrad classes is the blog/website posts, of which he requires three per week.

I enjoy writing, and three posts per week isn’t a big load when the only requirements are 100 words, an original photo and two hyperlinks per post. The problem is that I can’t do the minimum. I can’t sit down and write only 100 words. I can’t write about pointless drivel either, not on purpose anyway. Of course, many are of the opinion that all of my stuff is pointless drivel. That’s never my opinion, though. Sure, some work is good and some work is bad, but if I bother to write I’m trying to craft a masterpiece. This way of thinking can drive you crazy. It’s why author Joseph Heller said, “every writer I know has trouble writing.”

The point of my rambling is that finding inspiration for a site-worthy subject is sometimes difficult and even the relatively easy topics require research. Then there are the hurried editing reads, trying to mend and mold words and punctuation for improved clarity. I usually find the majority of mistakes right after I hit the publish button.

But enough of the whining. And to prove my point about about busting the word count, we’re sitting on 238 words right…now.

I just need to snap a pic, find some link worthy websites, then I can slap this thing on Facebook and call it done.

Meanwhile, outside, the grass is growing greener. Goldfinches and chickadees are mobbing my bird feeder. Night crawlers are tunneling under just planted spinach seeds, bass are giving serious thought to spawning  and I’m sure that somewhere within a few miles of my front porch a gobbler is strutting with his harem of hens.

The muse works in strange ways. This little rant just produced five possible story topics. I’ll jot those down in my notebook right after I  finish typing and giving thanks that my problems aren’t really problems at all.

Lord help the blessed to see their blessings.








Just in case a mammoth wanders by…

By Johnny Sain

Dr. Eric Bowne with a spear ready for launch.

Dr. Eric Bowne with a spear ready for launch.

And the spear is headed for the kill zone of a cardboard box.

And the spear is headed for the kill zone of a cardboard box.

Some things come naturally to Homo sapiens, and throwing an object ranks as one of the most natural. Babies start throwing stuff around the crib before they can sit up. Did anyone show you how to throw a rock? Sure, there are techniques involved with throwing specific objects, like split finger fastballs and the perfect spiral, but the general throwing motion is as natural as breathing. Load up power by cranking the arm back, a smooth rotation of the shoulder, arm extended and fingers release at just the right moment. Human bipedalism gives us a velocity boost as our hips swivel with the arm extension adding a zip to projectiles that other primates just can’t match. This advantage has served us well and led from chucking rocks to one of the deadliest primitive hunting weapons: the atlatl.

Atlatls are spear throwers. They were the hunting weapon of choice for over 25,000 years and thousands of years before the bow and arrow. The atlatl was a huge leap forward for primitive humans. It meant that big, hairy and dangerous animals could now be dispatched, or at least some of the fight taken out of them, from a distance. Sticking a spear in a beast from 50 yards was a lot safer than driving a spear in at five yards.

I tried my hand at spear throwing via atlatl this weekend, and while the throwing motion might be natural, flinging the atlatl takes a little practice. Not as much as you’d think, though. With five throws to my credit I was throwing with some megatherium (giant ground sloth) killing velocity and getting very close to the small box used as a target. I never hit the box, but Arkansas Tech University anthropology professor, Dr. Eric Bowne, showed us how to do it. After a few warm-ups he hit the cardboard with a dead center killing shot. Impressive to say the least.

Mammoths, sloths, deer and woolly rhinos wouldn’t wait around for practice shots, but I’m thinking human hunters from 20,000 years ago wouldn’t have needed them.

I’m wanting an atlatl now. Though deer hunting with an atlatl isn’t legal in Arkansas, you never know when a woolly mammoth might wander into the back yard. It’s best to be prepared.