I caught my first-ever glimpse of Arkansas this week—a quick trip to attend a wedding in Calico Rock, in the Arkansas Ozarks at the far north of the state. Beautiful country! We stayed in a cabin peeking between trees, perched on the Calico Rock itself, the variegated bluff that caught early settlers’ attention because, as an old history book in the cabin said, the Europeans had never seen anything like this along the Rhine:
The bluff sits next to the beautiful White River, named “white” because it was so clear you could see right down to the riverbed. Here it is near sunset during our visit:
What a birders’ paradise the area is! The first surprise was cardinals. I’d grown up with them near Lake Erie but didn’t become a birder until I lived on the West Coast, so I’d never peered at them through binoculars. The males’ bright orange-red plumage is an antidote to winter! One of these days I’ll get the camera to begin photographing birds. For now, in the spirit of the Great Backyard Bird Count, which was taking place while I visited Arkansas, here are the birds I saw in a few minutes of watching through the cabin window:
- 4 cardinals (3 male, 1 female)
- 5 juncos (Oregon)
- 3 yellow-rumped warblers
- 1 Carolina wren (my first ever!—such a vivid rust-brown on top, with a buffy breast and bright eye stripe)
And finally, the final morning we were there, the bird I’d been expecting, the fish-eating, riverside-nesting prize of them all—a bald eagle! As we watched from the cabin deck it circled over the river, perched near the tip of a pine tree for some minutes, then lifted off and soared away again over the river.
The foggy, chilly weather didn’t invite much outdoor exploring, but one morning I hiked along the road and was intrigued by the land. First, a minibluff next to the road, with icicles:
Some native grapevines, twirling through pine branches:
The mixture of conifers and deciduous trees and the gently rolling land reminded me a lot of the foothills of the Sierras near Grass Valley, California, where I lived a few years ago. Here were grasses, rocks and trees beside the Arkansas road:
I’m always surprised how lovely the slumbering winter land looks when you get to know it up close.
Finally, lichen-covered rocks, a mainstay of the region. Much of the area is covered by these surface rocks, complete with a few of what, if I were on a coast, I’d call tide pools. But these are filled of course with freshwater trickling its way down to the White River and then to the Mississippi and the gulf. I suspect these rock pools harbor some wonderful critter life in spring and summer:
A surprise horticulture lesson awaited us at the home of one of the family members. An avid gardener, our host began tossing out homegrown loofah sponges as gifts to the guests. Where do loofah sponges come from? The loofah gourd of course! I had no idea. He plants them in the spring in fresh soil, and over the summer they climb up the fence. Through the fall and winter they dry on the vine, and he picks them in midwinter.
Here is a gourd picked a couple of weeks ago:
Once the gourd is picked, he strips off the leathery skin. What is left is the recognizable loofah filled with its black, squashlike seeds in three chambers. Some shaking of the loofah and digging around with an old toothbrush loosens the seeds, after which he bleaches the sponge for fifteen minutes.
Then, it’s ready for the shower or the kitchen sink. Soft and pleasantly scratchy, it feels good on the skin or gently scrubs vegetables or pots and pans.
Note on the northern Arkansas growing season: Last chance of frost is April 15, and the loofah gourd seedlings hit the outdoors at that point. The plant likes tropical and subtropical climates. And the fruit, when small, is good to eat and is often used in Asian cuisine.