Finding What Endures

This story appears in the November 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Nobody needs to tell me that nothing stays the same. Still, what did I do when I returned to the Arkansas Delta after 40 years? What everybody does who tries to return to what was once home: search for what they knew. The first couple of days I drove maybe 500 miles looking for sharecropper shacks. There used to be hundreds of them, painted white and raised up on concrete blocks. Now there’s not so much as a floorboard or a nail to mark where they were. It’s as if the Mississippi had overflowed and swept them all away.

It’s hard to document the disappearance of a way of life, to capture the delta that once was and isn’t today. I took pictures of church services, improbably small towns, monster tractors in the fields. Early one morning I was driving past a row of abandoned workers’ houses north of Lehi when I spotted a pair of women’s shoes on a porch. In a Lucite box, covered in ruby red glitter, they glowed like broken glass. After taking some pictures, I hid them behind an old couch. A month later I returned with my wife, Janine. Approaching the houses, we saw six or seven men step out of a white van, each wearing fragments of military uniforms. A man who was all muscles and tattoos told us they were U.S. Special Forces and that they’d taken over the houses for military exercises. Janine asked if he’d seen the red shoes. “You mean Dorothy’s shoes,” he answered, clearly knowing what she was talking about. We were then told to leave.

I ask myself now what the picture of the red shoes has to do with the story of the delta, then remind myself it’s only when you stop trying to make sense of things that you start seeing.