October 1999: It is an overcast morning in the Arkansas Ozarks, and the lowering clouds threaten rain, but the air is fresh, and I am going to the War Eagle Craft Fair. I have never attended this almost legendary fair, but the trip will be a return, of sorts, for when my children were young I spent many happy hours playing with them in War Eagle Creek. Those days are past, but not their recollection, and any journey backward through the shoals of memory is fraught with some measure of emotional peril.
The weather holds, and I drive through rolling hills, their contours softened by cloud-wrack, until suddenly the creek appears below me. In the bowl of the valley the evergreens stand out dramatically against the background of the hardwoods, some of which have already begun to lose their foliage. From the hilltop, the tents of the fair on the valley floor resemble a medieval bazaar, and they are oddly enchanting.
Once I have parked the car and entered the fairgrounds, I am overwhelmed by the number of booths and the variety of the wares they display. The items for sale are wonderful, awful, lovely, and bizarre. People are buying some astonishing things: golf tees whittled from oddly twisted driftwood, angels made from dried mushrooms, gnomes carved from deer antlers, wind chimes welded from cutlery. I find myself constantly thinking of Shakespeare’s line, “Oh reason not the need,” and I suddenly realize that I am seeing into the future, for many of the objects now in the hands of contented shoppers will soon be back on the market, this time at garage sales.
I take a seat beside a flagpole, and as I stare up at Old Glory, I think how appropriate it is for our nation’s flag to be flying above this most American of rituals – buying and selling. Some dazed people are obviously afflicted with Craft Fair Dementia, a disorder that deserves scholarly attention from psychologists. In fact, some especially dedicated shoppers have actually attained Craft Fair Consciousness, a Zen-like state of mind in which the sound of one hand clapping involves the exchange of money. These religious adepts even have their own mantra, which they repeat constantly: “What about this? What about this?”
I watch children skipping rocks across the creek, a timeless ceremony of American innocence. I look across the stream, and there, turning quietly, is the wheel of War Eagle Mill. Banjo music drifts across the water, and the children laugh.
I enter one of the tents and find an elderly couple who make some of the most striking furniture that I have ever seen. Their work is so exquisite, in fact, that it blurs the distinction between craft and art.
I hear the sound of the waterwheel, and decide to visit the mill; along the way I pass a booth purveying a charming sort of batik, patterned mostly with the forms of local birds and beasts. Scarves hang from lines, moving gently in the breeze like Ozark prayer flags offering wind-borne benefactions to the friendly people who inhabit the mist-shrouded hills.
While crossing War Eagle’s rustic bridge, I catch sight of some swans paddling in the middle of the creek, and I recall that in London all the swans on the Thames belong to the Queen. Here they share their beauty democratically with everyone; their reflections on the stream look like clouds. My thoughts, too, have grown cloudy. It’s time to leave the fair.
In the parking lot, I find cars bearing license plates from many different states, including New York, Florida, and California. It is a sobering appraisal of our Republic: Craft Fair Dementia, from sea to shining sea. So many pilgrims, so many journeys; we seem to move straight ahead in our lives, and yet, somehow, things go round and round, like money, like water, like love. The air is filled with exotic scents: jasmine, tangerine, smoked meat, kettle corn. Fiddle music floats through the valley from somewhere just beyond the creek. I take a last look at the fair and the mill, hold fast to the wheel of the car, then turn onto the highway and head for home.
June 1994. I am with my family at a campground in Chalk Creek, Colorado. The creek is at flood stage, and so my children, disappointed in their hopes for fishing, divert themselves by talking with other campers. One of them is a woman who is making jewelry at a small forge on the back of her pickup truck. As I approach her, she smiles and says, “You’re from Arkansas, aren’t you? I saw your car’s plate. I sell things at craft fairs all over America, and every year I return to War Eagle.”
May 2000. “Return is the function of the Way,” wrote a Chinese sage, and I am returning to War Eagle Craft Fair, this time in its spring manifestation. The morning sunlight is gorgeous, the sky is clear, and I drive through verdant fields filled with flowers. A sign greets me at the gate of the fair: “No Dogs Allowed,” but there are dogs everywhere, further evidence that Americans are the planet’s most sweet-natured anarchists. There are not as many booths as there were at the fall fair; things seem somehow diminished, despite the glorious abundance of the season. It is not what I expected. But I do discover one gentle tribute to spring’s fertile character: there are couples everywhere, pushing babies in strollers; it is such a lovely world, with so many forms of blossoming.
Among the dozens of booths selling scented candles, which are our unofficial National Craft, I discover a wood carver delivering a fascinating lecture. He tells his audience that when he finds an interesting piece of timber, he stares at it imaginatively until a figure inside reveals itself to him; then he simply pares away the unnecessary lumber. With his charming Ozark accent, he sounds like a down-home Michaelangelo.
Then I make the best discovery of the day, an elderly woman selling her cookbook, though with typical Arkansas hospitality she is giving away her recipes freely to anyone who requests them. Her name is Cleo Stiles Bryan, she has ribbons in her hair, and her book is titled Seems Like I Done It This-Away. I look into her kind face and think, “Cleo, named for history’s muse, write it down, sweet lady, write it all down. Little abides in this life: memories fade, hearts change, and words alone can arrest time’s reckless flow.” Her photograph, taken twenty years earlier, adorns the cover of her book. In her darker locks, she wears the same ribbons as the ones cascading down her now gray hair.
I head for the mill; the creek, swollen with spring rain, flows swiftly. Children throw sticks into the flood, and they are swept downstream and carried under by the dark current. The waterwheel turns so rapidly that it makes my heart turbulent to watch it. There are butterflies everywhere, but no swans. Perhaps they have returned to London to enjoy the patronage of the Queen. However, there are plenty of geese, and children chase them along the banks of the creek. Their indignant honking echoes through the valley.
I feel the enchantment of the fair waning, and so I walk back to the parking lot, distracted by foggy memories. But a young boy fishing along the creek startles me by yelling, “Dad, I’m caught in a line,” and I pause. Child, you cannot yet imagine how tightly we are bound by things in this lovely world. There are lines everywhere, and like gliding serpents, they entangle us in life’s bittersweet poetry. I look at the waterwheel, turning steadily in the same, yet ever-changing steam, and I stand there, with my thoughts going backward and forward and around.
From across the creek, I hear the graceful lilt of dulcimer music; it is as if someone were hammering gently on an angel’s heart. I start the car and drive across the lot, but I pause at the gate, turn the mirror slightly, and take a last backward glance at the fair, the creek, and the mill. Then, holding the wheel firmly in my hands, I ease onto the pavement and follow the ribbon of highway up into the hills.