“A man of angel’s wit and singular learning; I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness, and affability? And as time requireth, a man of marvellous mirth and pastimes: and sometimes of as sad gravity: a man for all seasons.” — Robert Whittinton, a teacher at the time of Sir Thomas More
In the art world provenance is everything. Where did the work of art come from? What were the circumstances in which it was “collected”? How can we trace the route it took to get here and why is this necessary? Above all, is this an authentic work of art?
In many ways, I often think about this issue and principle when I look closely at a particular culture in a particular destination, and wonder how it came to be. One thing is sure; without people, there is no culture.
For me, Michael McCallie is the embodiment of the culture of Arkansas, and the good life. A retired rice farmer, he is one of those people who has many “transferrable skills”; through direct experience he has become an agronomist; agritourism specialist, ethnographer, sociologist, diplomat and mediator (especially when he is the sole driver-guide for a group of idiosyncratic travel writers), political commentator, linguist, social anthropologist, humourist, sage, community leader — and good ol’ boy. During my time in Arkansas, he became for me the epitome of this state’s version of southern hospitality.
You can hear Michael and me shooting the breeze by activating the audio slider above.
The Good Ol’ Boy as archetype
If you are lucky enough to interact at a grassroots level with the people of the American South, you will discover how important character and characterization are. As my chat with Michael suggests, this kind of easy interchange is also very much part of the Arkansan local culture and historical experience.
Implicit in the social history of the region, and its human and social values, are character traits and behaviourisms that engender a collective appreciation for community and goodwill. This, I believe, is a critical survival skill in rural communities where life can be hard, but it is also part of the frontier experience. And the type (as opposed to stereotype) known as the Good Ol’ Boy is a manifestation of collective strength. But he has none of the heroic qualities (or anti-hero qualities) of, for example, a Shane (the iconic central character of Jack Schaefer’s 1949 western novel of the same name). But the Good Ol’ Boy is not an iconic figure. As a matter of fact, if Shane had had a sense of humour and was just a little bit mischievous (as opposed to having a dark past), he could have been a Good Ol’ Boy too. Sorry Shane.
And yes, the Good Ol’ Boy is mischievous; it’s part of his free spirit. However, there is nothing malevolent to him whatsoever. Moreover, despite the often erroneous use of the term, Good Ol’ Boy suggests a person to be trusted and respected. He is the kind of community member who can put anyone (especially a stranger) at ease. To some extent, he is an idealized character but is also representative of the hard-working, courteous, and self-confident person who exudes hospitality and welcome. He is, above all, capable and clever, sometimes deceptively so. He has a sense of humour that is also an indicator of his self-confidence, but it is an easy-going sense of humour that does not mock individuals (that would be disrespectful and inhospitable) but instead subtly satirizes human foibles.
And this is why we feel comfortable in his presence.
The physical and human landscape of Arkansas
As part of the rich tapestry of Americana, Arkansas is a state that is very much centred (on many levels) in the American South. Sharing its borders with six other states, and having a topography that is both diversified and wide-ranging, it is a landscape in which you encounter a quiet energy and a sense of purpose. I am not surprised that people such as Bill Clinton, Maya Angelou, General Douglas MacArthur, Johnny Cash, and Daisy Bates came from here. (Daisy was the African-American activist who led the cause to desegregate Little Rock public schools in 1957. She was well-known for her civil rights efforts on behalf of African-Americans; and as the publisher of the Arkansas State Press, a Little Rock newspaper that supported the African-American cause.)
Arkansas is also a fertile land in other ways; on its eastern border is the Mississippi and rich alluvial lands left behind over the millennia by the flooding of that great river. Its mountainous regions to the northwest, its luxuriant forests, and the broad agricultural plains also give it a resplendent perceptual dimension as well as a conceptual one. This is the essential dynamic in which landscape shapes culture.
Images and imagery of Arkansas
To view the slideshow of “Arkansas, Little Rock, and Beyond” click here.
More Arkansas voices
In 1957, there occurred in Little Rock what was called the Little Rock Crisis. Nine students who were attempting to integrate Little Rock High School were initially prevented from entering the racially segregated school by Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus and the National Guard. However, after the intervention of President Dwight Eisenhower, they achieved their goal. This event is considered one of the most important events in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Today in Little Rock there is a beautiful sculpture garden, and other testaments to the courage of these young people.
Arkansas is famed for its state parks which in many ways are venues for public education and, as Chris explains, for becoming “unplugged”.
Part of the culture of Arkansas today is a deep commitment to taking care of each other, in particular those with special needs. Jane Lucas is the Executive Director of Group Living Incorporated.
As I discovered, Arkansans speak their minds, but gently and with a sense of fun. This is southern culture with a sense of humour.
Culture is all about unique and distinct behaviourisms. In Arkansas, shelling is one of them.
Looking for some interesting river activities? Maybe (or maybe not) you could try hogging.
Other recommended travel experiences in Arkansas
As a visual arts and multipurpose venue, the Arkansas Arts Center is impressive. Located in the historic MacArthur Park area (a short walk from downtown) the museum’s architecture is especially noteworthy for its direct and indirect light sources that seem to permeate the building. Great for art!
An elegant but practical hotel, especially for conventions and conferences (it is right next door to the Convention Centre), The Peabody is a landmark in Little Rock. Don’t miss the daily march of the ducks. See “Peabody Little Rock marching ducks”.
In this library especially, one gets a real understanding of how presidential libraries can preserve and create a heightened awareness of eight years (usually) in the history of the world; thus giving a perspective on world events. (Hindsight is so easy sometimes.) The Clinton library is, of course, a tribute to his presidency but as an archive and historical showcase it is particularly objective in its presentation.
From my perspective, I found a strong sense of humanitarianism throughout Arkansas, on both an individual and community level. As an organization, the Heifer International Center is a leader in this regard and an interesting case study in itself.
Calling itself an “Environmental Resources Trust,” Winrock is a non-profit NGO with many projects in developing nations worldwide. Contact them to ascertain if public visits are available.
In terms of African-American heritage travel, in Arkansas especially, EMOBA is an important resource.
I must admit to being rather surprised at my own “engaged” reaction to visiting the house where “Billy” grew up. Given the nature of power, especially that of the President of the United States, getting a first-hand look at where the individual came from, literally and culturally, does add a significant perspective to the political legacy.
As Chris Snodgrass and I discuss in our audio chat, Degray Lake Resort State Park is a quiet showcase for alternative travel and alternative thinking.
Despite my attempts to always be as neutral and non-judgmental as possible, I will admit to a slight cynicism at the sight of hundreds of families spending days in the mud looking for diamonds. Hmmm … but shortly after my visit, a Wisconsin man and his fiancée found a 3.92 carat white diamond.
The university town of Arkadelphia could, in many ways, be a version of Thorton Wilder’s Our Town.
We tend to think of spas as a European phenomenon, however Hot Springs, Arkansas and its natural thermal hot springs was the United States’ first resort in the original and genuine spa tradition. The art deco bath houses and other unique architecture in the town are worth a visit in themselves.
The whole state of Arkansas is an excellent example of the relatively new travel specialty known as agritourism, and this is a good place to start.
To discover the true “natural resources” of Arkansas, this is a good place to begin.