The road on which Brenda grew up in south Lonoke County, Arkansas once had about 12 families living on it. Today, there are two. It was a gravel road serving small farms on either side, each supporting a family. As the children moved away and their parents grew old, some of the homes transitioned to house farm workers. Other sit vacant. All are deteriorating rapidly.
When we were younger and first married, the community would hold Christmas parties attended by 50 or so—young and old, rich and poor. Each Christmas the number of those attending dropped. A few years ago, only four or five widows attended and they decided to end the annual affair.
The land is now farmed by corporations or rented by farmers who live elsewhere. It is a much more efficient method of farming but a much more forlorn one.
The land still produces plenty. Modern techniques, massive equipment and chemicals tease even more rice, corn, soybeans, and cotton from the soil than ever. I can imagine that the land still contains the sweat of long-dead mules, horses, and men who once plowed it. Time changes and carries us along with it.
Losing families in the Delta also means losing the cities. No longer needed for providing goods and services to a large rural population, communities that aren’t within easy commuting distance of employment centers, or located on the Interstate are withering. Small towns that once rang with excitement of a Saturday afternoon sit quietly now like aged parents waiting for their children to visit.
One insensitive demographic expert remarked recently that, “The only people left in the delta are those who are waiting to die or who can’t afford to leave.” That is a sad but cynical view that contains, as is often the case, a small grain of truth.
From time to time, some effort emerges to “do something about the Delta,” but our attention is really elsewhere. Like the “cargo cults” that sprang up on Pacific islands after World War Two, dying towns build industrial parks where the folks perhaps gather each night to pray for a miracle.
It never comes.