A tribute: Recalling the Atkins Bottoms tree

Linda Henderson
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A giant of the 501 has fallen, the famous Atkins Bottoms tree.  

The old tree was one of the most photographed trees in Central Arkansas. It fell during a thunderstorm in the early spring. Many professional and amateur landscape photographers in Arkansas have made that old craggy tree the focus of their photos and those that didn’t photograph the old tree are sorry they missed the opportunity.

It was an old, majestic tree standing all by itself beside the road in the middle of a field of soybeans. It likely has stood proud and tall in the Arkansas River bottoms northwest of Morrilton for well over 100 years. The old cottonwood tree stood at the outer borders of Conway County, so just on the very edge of the 501.  

The tree was the perfect photo muse. It was a single, mature tree, next to the road, with a clear view of the western horizon. In the distant background was Petit Jean Mountain as well as Mount Nebo.  

The tree had everything that makes the best tree photos. It had twisted limbs, and the bark had lots of texture and vines that entwined the trunk. The size of the tree made it even more photogenic. It was massive enough to anchor a wide composition but not so large that it took over a photo if it was chosen to include in a single tree composition. If you stared at the tree too long, you could almost see a human-like appearance. It had a massive single trunk, but at the end of its life, it had only two remaining large forks that looked kind of like two arms stretching toward heaven.  

The form of the tree had much to offer the photographer during every season of the year. In the spring before the farm fields had been plowed and planted, the old tree was surrounded by tiny, yellow wildflowers. If you were lucky enough to photograph the tree before a spring thunderstorm, you might catch massive cloud structures as a storm moved into Conway County from the west. During the summertime, leaf coverage was just enough to portray the feel of the season.  

Since the tree was in a treeless field, it was an awesome place to catch a sunset or sunrise. At different times of the year, if you planned just right and studied the position of the setting sun, you could photograph the sun setting into the deep crevices of the two “arms” of the tree.   

Summer was also a great time to photograph the tree under a star-filled sky. Fall could be a wonderful time to photograph it with the changing fall colors of Petit Jean in the background and the farm fields filled with ripening soybeans. During winter, the old tree offered the photographer bare limbs void of leaves that looked like a bare bone skeleton.  

If you spend much time wandering around farmland and river bottom land, you will frequently find large trees standing amid crops. You might wonder why the farmer left one lone tree in the field. Most likely the tree provided shade for a farmer. Before the days of tractors with cabs or back when a team of mules pulled the plow, a tree offered a spot to have lunch, supper or a spot to rest. Its canopy of leaves could provide shade and a spot to cool off from the hot sun.

The last time I photographed the Atkins Bottom tree was the evening of the first “Super Moon” of 2020. The moon’s rising was in the perfect position to catch both the moon and the tree in a pleasing composition. On that beautiful winter evening, as the sun was setting, it cast its warm light on clouds while the full Super Moon was rising. The beauty of that evening was a gift from The Creator and will always be a sweet memory. 

The Atkins tree was always a great spot for a sunset picture when the atmosphere and clouds were perfect. I will miss the old single tree silhouetting against a vibrant orange sky, but the spot still remains for images of gorgeous sunsets with its open horizon and views of Petit Jean and Mount Nebo. I still feel a little like an old friend has departed from the earth and I must admit I suffered a little sadness when I heard the tree had fallen. So, now I’m searching for a new tree “muse.”

More thoughts

I write stories about where I have been and about what I have experienced for 501 LIFE. Sometimes, while writing these stories, memories of childhood experiences come flooding out. That happened with this story.  

While I was writing about the Atkins Bottom tree, I experienced a distant recollection of a trip to our family’s farmlands in the Cadron Creek Bottoms with my grandparents. I can recall sitting under shade trees at the edge of the field and having lunch my Grandma Hoggard had prepared. 

I still remember that lunch. It was packed in wax paper. It was a ham sandwich on white bread and an apple fried pie. I have not thought about that picnic lunch in many years. 

I am thankful that recalling my memories of an old tree in the Atkins Bottoms helped to jog my memory about a long-forgotten trip with Grandpa and Grandma to the farm.  

Old trees and old memories have a lot in common. Sometimes you do not know how important they are to you until they are gone. So, take lots of pictures and write your memories down.