The Essayist

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The Thing With Feathers

by Wells Tower

IF YOU WERE THE LAST BIRD OF YOUR SPECIES, looking for a comfortable place to evade extinction, the view flying over northern Monroe County, Arkansas, would probably not tempt you to touch down. You’d see abandoned trailer homes with saplings growing through their windows; asbestos-shingle shacks with discarded cars and appliances sinking into their lawns; rice fields sectioned into rectangular ponds like the plastic lagoons in a TV-dinner tray; and huge, insectile central-pivot irrigators patrolling oceans of soil where thousand-year-old cypress trees once stood.

Yet Bayou de View—a spit of hardwood jungle here at the uppermost tip of Arkansas’s 550,000-acre Big Woods, smack-dab between Little Rock and Memphis—is where the world’s rarest avis, the ivory-billed woodpecker, has reemerged more than half a century after ornithological authorities pronounced it dead. Seen from above, Bayou de View looks about as primeval as a planter of ficus trees at a shopping mall. Below the treetops, though, the terrain looks less like eastern Arkansas and more like rural Mordor. The water, which is the color of beef au jus, flows in labyrinthine meanders boiling with toothy gar and cottonmouths as stout as a man’s wrist.

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