Exploring the Big Woods

From the preface to Exploring the Big Woods by Matthew Moran:

I still vividly remember my first time visiting the Big Woods. It was three days in January of 2004. I had heard about this place from nature enthusiasts, about the flocks of birds that crisscross the skies in winter, about the giant cypress that stand like sentinels in lonely swamps and bayous, and about a river that tumbles out of the Ozark hills onto an impossibly flat plain and meanders in its own lazy way down to the “Old Man,” the great Mississippi River. I had heard that this was the last of the great Mississippi bottomland forests, once covering eight million acres in Arkansas alone, now reduced by 95 percent to a few remaining remnants, the rest ditched, drained, and cleared for agriculture where rice, corn, soybeans, and cotton are grown today on what might be the richest soil on the planet. I was told that I had better see the Big Woods now, for even this tiny museum-piece survivor might not persist in the face of the insatiable human appetites for resources.

My first day in the forest was one of constant sensory input. Birds in numbers too large to count chattered through the forest canopy and on the ground in their endless search for food. Woodpeckers hammered on trees in every direction. The smell of decay, not unpleasant at all, filled the air as the detritus from last season’s growth recycled back into the ground. The White River, down because of the lack of rainfall in those far-away hills, still boiled and churned, its brown waters scratching at the land and the trees, trying to pull all things down with it on its long journey.

In my three days in the forest, I saw nature in its unencumbered exuberance. Big white-tailed deer bucks bounded off at the first sight of me. Flocks of blackbirds, some ten thousand strong, flew through the treetops, giving me a certain uncomfortable sense of nervousness. I saw more red-headed woodpeckers in one day than I had seen in my lifetime. Although all the animal sightings were exciting, what was most moving was the forest itself. Immense cypress, hickories, sweet gums, oaks, and sycamores stood guard over the forest as if they had been there for time eternal.

My second trip to the Big Woods was equally memorable. I arose at 2:00 a.m. to make the drive from Conway, Arkansas, down to the Big Woods to be there in time for sunrise. On this cold February morning, I crossed a small dry bayou into an open section of forest and sat against the trunk of a large oak, waiting for the first light to break. As it did, the forest came alive with the sounds of morning. Wood ducks swam by me in a nearby lake. Various birds flitted about the trees. A raccoon sauntered nearby and then froze when it caught my scent, quite surprised to see me sitting there motionless. An hour passed as the forest quieted down and the chill began to abate as the winter sun warmed the air. The long middle-of-the-night drive had taken its toll on me, and I drifted off to sleep. I was startled awake some time later, and at first I did not know why. As my eyes focused, I realized what had awakened me: a barred owl not twenty-five feet away on a branch, staring down at me. Our eyes met, and it silently flew off into the forest, landed about one hundred feet away, looked back once, took off again, and disappeared into the swamp. It was at that moment that I wondered how it took me so long to find this place. I knew then that I would be back often.

More people who are interested in nature need to visit the Big Woods. Perhaps in no other place in the mid South can you see wildlife at this level of abundance and experience a bottomland forest of this quality. Several endangered species along with many others in decline nationally, still thrive here. The White River and its tributaries, although partly altered, still meander relatively unimpeded through the heart of the Big Woods, periodically flooding the forest and releasing their supply of essential nutrients. There are few places in the Mississippi River Valley where this life-giving flood cycle persists. No less fascinating are the culture and people interwoven into this natural area. By exploring the Big Woods, you will learn much about the history of Arkansas, the westward expansion of this nation, and the complex relationship between humans and nature.

This guide is for those who want to visit this extraordinary place of nature. From 2011 to 2013, I spent many days exploring and scouting the locations described in this book. Over those years I came to realize how special the Big Woods is. The book is not exhaustive, but it tries to assist in your personal exploration of the Big Woods and begin your naturalist’s education about this great place. The locations detailed in this book only scratch the surface of what is available. After you have sampled some of the locations, go out and find your own special places.

For more, see Exploring the Big Woods: A Guide to the Last Great Forest of the Arkansas Delta by Matthew D. Moran. Use code YOUOFA when you order online for 25% off.