Time does not stand still along the Buffalo, but anyone who has spent some of it there might beg to differ. The river gives many hints of a chronological nature – watch beers-in-cozies canoeists lined up at the Ponca low water bridge, then walk a hundred meters into the woods in any direction and trip over the remains of pre-civil war cabins, or the chert flakes along the paths that take us back even further. Most of we visitors require assistance in deciphering the clues, and the mandatory textbooks were both written by Kenneth L. (Ken) Smith: The Buffalo River Country (1967) and The Buffalo River Handbook (2004).
Ken eloquently tells us exactly who these chert-knappers and cabin builders were, what life was like on the banks and benches of the river valley, and he does us a favor by not allowing us to fall into that trap of believing that time of any consequence began with the arrival of white Europeans, or even of the arrival some 12,000 years before them, of the first humans to inhabit the continent. Ken reminds us of geologic time and how it has shaped the nation’s National River. Is it any surprise that when Sabine Schmidt and I heard that documentary filmmaker Chris Engholm (see links below) was working on a project to highlight Ken’s river trail building legacy as well, that we begged to attend, cameras in hand?
So we threw a couple of sleeping bags, extra sweaters, apples, almonds, olives and a few canteens of water into the truck and headed toward Tyler Bend and the base camp of a few of the crew of volunteers that have dedicated years to helping Ken. It didn’t take long to realize that while they came from many parts of the country, and represented a host of professions and careers, what they and we had in common was a love and respect for Ken Smith, and a gratitude for what he is doing and has done.
I felt like a fraud as we walked the benches – I was the only one who wasn’t actually digging or raking or cutting or moving debris. I just hiked and kept my eyes on Ken, watched his movements as he led the party, kicking sticks and rocks to the side, flipping dead branches off the trail with a walking stick, giving orders, telling stories. And I was doing my own time-travel, thinking about walking behind him thirty years ago, noting his rhythm for the first time, and about sitting then on a gravel bar with my young children, reading aloud the Buffalo River Country, and just last year sitting on the same bar with the children of my children and reading the Handbook.
I also watched Chris Engholm working, moving in and out with his video equipment, recording sounds, conversations, asking leading questions, trying to be in the right place at the right time with the right light. I didn’t envy his task. How in the hell could Ken Smith be summarized?
Documentary filmmaker Chris Engholm somewhere on the Buffalo National River
This morning, as the crew prepared to go out again, Chris asked Sabine for some assistance in translating a letter he had found in relation to another of his projects – an exhibition of photographs and historical texts relating to Hugo and Gayne Preller – photographers working along the White River near Augusta, Arkansas, at the turn of the last century. Hugo was a German immigrant and had received a letter from his sister in 1938, from Berlin. Chris hoped that it might contain information about the Preller family and Hugo’s decision to cross the Atlantic and wind up in Arkansas.
Sabine carefully unfolded the thin paper to reveal an exquisite older style cursive handwriting and began to slowly translate the lines, one by one, her voice a direct channel to the past. I reached for my camera to record that moment: A recent German
Photographer Sabine Schmidt and filmmaker Chris Engholm.
immigrant photographer is sitting on the banks of the Buffalo National River in 2016. In her hands is a letter from 1938 written to another German photographer who had immigrated to Arkansas in the late 1800s. And only a few meters away, Ken Smith, who has been instrumental in the battle to save the Buffalo River, a tributary of the White, and who has dedicated much of his working life to protecting it, studying it, recording the stories of the people who lived along it, and making it more accessible and meaningful to even more people, is gathering his tools for another day’s work. Time stood still.
© Don House
March 30, 2016
For more information on the work of Chris Engholm:
To purchase copies of Ken Smith’s books: