State of Nature

Sudden the thunder was drowned—quenched was the levin light—

And the angel spirit of rain laughed out loud in the night.

Loud as the maddened river raves in the cloven glen,

Angel of rain! You laughed and leaped on the roofs of men[.]

–Robert Louis Stevenson

The news and numbers surrounding the torrential flooding concentrated in a few northeast counties in Arkansas are sobering.

Record-setting rains led to record river levels that topped century-old levees, resulting in nine breaches (at least). The swollen Black River gushing forth at flow levels approaching that of Niagara Falls—more than 80,000 cubic feet per second. Water rising near the Lawrence County town of Portia on Wednesday at one foot per hour.

Local commutes that normally take 30 minutes re-routed around closed highways and bridges to create four-hour detours. Mandated and voluntary evacuations by the hundreds in that eerie calm following the storm but preceding the predicted and dreaded deluge.

More than 50 homes destroyed in river-ravaged Randolph County, another 150 damaged, with some 50 rescues by authorities (so far). More than 100,000 of mostly planted acres submerged (for now). More than 16 million bushels of rice imperiled. Yield and production setbacks to levels of three decades ago (or worse).

Yet as blunt as the blow of Mother Nature has been on these rural communities linked by fertile fields and far-flung roadways, it served to showcase human nature at its most neighborly.

Volunteers have poured forth like a counter-flood. Rising donations have surged to stave off the destitution of destruction. Multitudes of prayers have been launched heavenward to meet and transcend the moisture-laden clouds.

Whether manning shelters, ferrying supplies or filling sandbags, salt-of-the-earth Arkansans have mobilized in myriad ways against the disastrous muddy tide.

Local feeds on Facebook are full of stories of indomitable human determination and adaptation. Photos of a father and his son fishing from their front porch. Information and instructions about how to help, where to help. Images depicting the disparaging state of emergency, and others portraying the uplifting power of support. Shares and likes galore to rescue workers and responders, national guard troops, police and firefighters.

This catastrophe has put Northeast Arkansas on the national stage, and our people are making the state proud.

Amid a time of great despair, it’s insightful and inspiring to see residents pulling together and pitching in. There’s been no griping about the dusk-to-dawn curfew, no mass looting or other criminal opportunism while the men and women in blue and khaki are preoccupied.

Mayors, sheriffs and other officials have not only taken notice but also taken the chance to praise. “We’ll get through this” is the attitude displayed on every brow, the sentiment shouldered with every act; it’s a collective and collaborative understanding.

The stanza above was taken from a Stevenson poem written in the last year of his life while he was living in Samoa. Titled “Tropic Rain,” it starts out much like a mere narrative of a wild cloudburst. But Stevenson’s poem progressed beyond observation and into a deeper introspection.

After telling how the sleepers sprang from beds and the roofs roared beneath the rain, and the mountain shouted and shook with brooks in response, and the rain finally ceased so the day returned “rosy, with virgin looks,” he reflected on the entire event.

And methought that beauty and terror are only one, not two;

And the world has room for love, and death, and thunder, and dew;

And all the sinews of hell slumber in summer air;

And the face of God is a rock, but the face of the rock is fair.

The world is vast in all its dimensions. This flooding is nowhere near over yet, and nobody knows for sure what hazards and menaces still lurk in its murky wake.

But this much is clear: In the face of a first-magnitude calamity, the residents of Northeast Arkansas mounted a first-class response.

Revelatory trend

Technology has an amazing way of sparking social and cultural innovation. For most of mankind’s millennia, the birth of a child brought forth not only joy and awe of creation, but also surprise. It was simply impossible to predict the gender of an unborn child. There were superstitious rituals and customs, but that’s all there was.

Advanced sonography changed everything—and created a whole new tradition: gender-reveal parties.

I attended my first such party last week. The idea is to dramatically announce to family and friends whether the unborn child is a boy or a girl, with the decor highlighting the choices in equal pink and blue measure.

The moment of truth came when the father tossed a basketball through a hoop, and out popped a pink balloon and streamers.

I had previously watched instances on social-media video where an ag plane dropped a load of colored dust in a field flyover, and where a father used a rifle to shoot a target that exploded with properly tinted powder. It’s a small but satisfying nod to our federalist roots that the novel means employed tend to reflect regional identities.

What’ll they think of next?