I had my first visit to Eudora on Saturday.
On the way down, I also got my first glimpse of the nation’s largest oxbow lake.
It had to be centuries ago when the Mississippi River diverted along a shorter eastward route, leaving the 22-mile crescent of land-locked water that would become Lake Chicot.
Chicot County is tucked into the southeast corner of Arkansas, with the muddy waters of Old Man River lapping at its eastern boundary and the Louisiana state line bordering the south.
That geography suggests a rich soil well-suited for crops, and the county is a perennial leader in cotton production.
Eudora’s population has dwindled census by census, but it still boasts more than 2,000 souls, and its own Grand Lake is a prime fishing destination.
I was surprised at all the water in the area, though it explained the nomenclature of the county seat and Lakeport Plantation (which I highly recommend to preservationists and lay tourists alike—it not only has antebellum beauty, scale and dimension, but is also a fascinating study in historical restoration techniques).
I also got to view and traverse the 1,378-foot cable-stayed bridge linking Lake Village and Greenville, Mississippi. Its soaring pyramidal profile—four-strand steel-cable fans connecting two concrete towers—gleams in contrast to the level, leafy farmland below.
It was the fourth-largest bridge of its type in North America when opened in 2010.
The occasion for my visit wasn’t sightseeing, however. The site of the annual meeting of the Rural Community Alliance (RCA) shifts every year, and this year the host town was Eudora, and there I joined more than 110 other local advocates for Arkansas’ small communities.
The RCA session was even more inspiring than the sights and tours.
Gathered in a restored building on Eudora’s Main Street, regular people from the organization’s 65 chapters across the state shared their accomplishments and ideas in support of a collective vision of giving rural Arkansans greater access to education and economic opportunity.
The Alliance organizes its chapters among four state quadrants, and at one point the large group broke out to brainstorm local planning initiatives by district groupings.
I grabbed some unshelled peanuts (many thanks to the Eudora hosts for some great snacks) and joined members of the Delta district who pulled tables into a U-shape.
The RCA district organizer led the input discussion, and one lady wrote consensus ideas down on giant sticky-note posters.
I was struck by the same stirring essence the colonists must have felt in their town-hall meetings when the Republic was new.
Here were no high-and-mighty politicians, no lavishly funded PACs or system-savvy lobbyists. No hidden agendas, no pretense or pandering for votes. These were real people with a heart for giving their time and energy in a deliberate and determined effort to make their small slice of America a better place to raise kids and earn a living.
In focus-group fashion, the four regional groups were abuzz with ideas to create more active, involved and prosperous local communities.
It was during this breakout discussion that one man made a galvanizing remark.
“Rural life matters,” he said, nodding his head with conviction at each word. That’s a concept all too often lost in general policymaking at the state capital, and across the country.
Nationally one in five Americans lives in a rural area, but here in Arkansas the figure is more than twice that (44 percent).
Moreover, rural living is becoming a calculated choice for more and more people who assess urban pros and cons and find the balance wanting.
Independent studies have confirmed the health benefits of country life, clean air and interacting with nature. The latest is from Stanford University, which built on earlier research demonstrating that people who sauntered through trees and grass were happier afterward, and sought to examine the neurological causes behind the positive mood shifts.
In the Stanford study, researchers identified improved mental states in participants who walked down a serene nature path, as opposed to those who strolled next to traffic.
The worry set for rural residents is different from urbanites as well. One recent survey listed crime as the number one issue of concern for city-dwellers, while rural populations are most concerned with jobs.
Rural life is also realizing transformations through technology. High-speed broadband penetration is connecting rural families to opportunities in medical, mercantile and educational situations that were impossible a decade ago.
Consequently, there’s never been a better time to be a rural community seeking to revitalize.
It’s an era in which imagination needs to be unfurled to the winds of innovation. Advances we don’t even know about yet will yield solutions—as long as people like those gathered in Eudora remain committed and vibrant.
That’s the dynamic driving the Rural Community Alliance’s growth (the number of local communities represented has increased by nearly 50 percent since 2009).
It’s easy to look at struggling rural areas and see only their problems.
On Saturday, I saw genuine, grass-roots government of, by and for the people at work. It gave me goosebumps in balmy July.