Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
Fall fell recently and I missed it. I was thinking about something else. Probably some political foolishness that in the end won't amount to a hill of beans, as none of it ever amounts to a hill of beans. A hill of beans amounts to more of a hill of beans than anything that ever sprouts up in the mind of Antonin Scalia. But when fall falls something of giant consequence has occurred. Or recurred.
One of fall's best intrigues is the great migrations, older in the blood and chemistry of individual beasts than creationists credit the whole shebang for. The waterfowl get the ink, the v-strings of geese winging halfway down the world, knowing exactly where to stop, and when to stop so they can rest up sufficiently to turn around and go back at the appointed time.
Spring upward and fall back down. Endlessly on the move. The eternal infernal rootlessness of it maybe nothing more than a way for the animals to differentiate themselves from the plants. Our only roots are metaphorical.
The birds get the attention but the falling of fall always puts me in mind of the great seasonal Arkansas crawdad migration. I mean the wild crawdads rather than the farm-raised ones that are common fare now in restaurants and at your good bud's big backyard crawdad boil. The wild ones that live in the mud flats, in cricks and ponds and barpits and roadside ditches where the runoff puddles. The ones that push up the little Whopper castles in the damp corners of your yard.
They migrate seasonally just as the wild birds do, only their migration route is a strange one pioneered by the Arkansas river eels. They make their way into the smaller streams and bayous, and on into the larger rivers, notably the Arkansas, then on down the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico. There they turn east and skirt the Redneck Riviera to Florida, then south down the great peninsula, crossing at the Keys over into the South Atlantic and gathering somewhere in the Gulfstream south of Bermuda for the big annual crawfish homecoming get-together and jamboree. It's not far — not far at all — from where the midcontinent eels congregate.
An exhausting trek, not a single stopover for snacks or naps, takes two months or more just to get there from here, and crawfishologists have no clue what the objective is. They think forces might be at work — sunlight angles and magnetic shifts — similar to those that inspire the spring-break migration of American human college students, or the summer migration to Disney World of American human families with small children, or the winter migration to lower Florida of American urban ethnic oldtimers from the East Coast or the Great Lakes metropoli. But that's just a guess.
Crawfish swim backwards, pulling themselves along with their tails, so they make this monumental journey every year backwards. They can't see where they're going, and have to keep their bearings by seeing where they've been. It'd be like you driving two thousand miles nonstop in your Silverado, in reverse gear, and with no rear-view mirror and no neck to crane.
Vicksburg doesn't loom ever larger as migrating crawfish approach it. It rather pops suddenly into full view as they tail-paddle past under the big I-20 bridge, and then diminishes slowly until its markered hilltops disappear behind the northern horizon. Same thing on the way back, except the opposite.
And always the great question of why. Some kind of mating ritual? A survival tactic developed during the Ice Age and not yet bled out of the crawfish DNA? Our only clue is from an old seafarer tale that large groups of the wild crawfish assembled there in mid-ocean have been heard to emit rhythmic though not harmonic vibrations that possibly amount to the crawfish equivalent of a hoedown. This raises the prospect of a Crawdad Branson or a crawdad hadj, but that is so farfetched in my opinion as to strain credulity.
You know we used to migrate ourselves, when we were hunter-gatherers, following the great migrating herds of meat animals, the buffalo and mastodons and possums the size of a Hummer. But the impulse to hit the road when fall falls has almost been bred out of us. There's still a brief tug of over the river and through the wood to Grandmother's house at Thanksgiving, but it's quickly satisfied and it's usually home again the same day you left.
And the beckoning of old home, home home, at Christmas — you could count on that, according to the song — but the War on Christmas is now officially lost, according to Fox News, and the migratory Christmas home pull has largely been lost along with it.
Season's Greetings is not something that would impel anybody anywhere.
For your consideration, as they used to say on "The Twilight Zone," one further thought on the mysteriousness of the fall-falling grand migration. It's said that those on the trek who finally come to the fork always bolt. But it's a bolting inward. No outside indication of it. All seems the same out there — an immense slow-wheeling of the firmament. Traveling on. But a skittering inside, like blown leaves, or lizards or cottontails darting on the periphery.
I don't know yet.
Soon enough, though, I reckon. Soon enough.
Bob Lancaster, one of the Arkansas Times longest and most valued contributors, retired from writing his column last week. We’ll miss his his contributions mightily. Look out, in the weeks to come, for a look back at some of his greatest hits. In the meantime, here's a good place to start.