By Ava Storey, first place winner of our inaugural Arkansas Voices Essay Contest

I remember crossing the street to my grandpa’s house, my little sisters trailing behind me as I walked the familiar route. Pretending that the paved road matched the scene around me, morphing it into a huge river that the trees bent to in my mind. The sway of the leaves dared me forward. Glancing around and holding out my hand to stop my sisters, our adventure began. Jumping and running, before finally, the final pass materialized ahead. The biggest part of the river, shimmering black with mystery, with two looks to my left and to my right, to check for the zooming alligators who could strike, we darted across. Now safe and satisfied with our journey, we skipped past the remaining trees and threw our wishes into the pond we passed, arriving to, at last, our destination. These memories, among others, solidify our state’s alias. Arkansas is the natural state, and natural indeed. As forests flourish and mountains tower, our beautiful state is no doubt bursting with the lovely scenes of the untouched world. Looking closer, however, one would find there is something deeper. Arkansas is also naturally inclined to other aspects: that being a natural strength within its geography as well as its community.

Naturally Strong

The strength of Arkansas cannot be defined in concise and definitive natures. In fact, the strength presented in the state is quiet and subtle. The strength can be hard to notice when it becomes routine. This is precisely the case in Arkansas. Looking around the state, diversity is everywhere. Not just in its flora and fauna, but within its communities. People who have suffered great loss walk each day like they always have. Leaving their scars to heal and buds to blossom. The beauty in this routine is that it’s found everywhere here. People get up, go to work, and come home. Maybe they are trying to make a living, or achieve their dreams, or maybe provide a better life for the ones they love. Regardless, one thing remains true, here in our state, everyday we grow. That is our strength, despite the failure, despite the pain, we continue to grow. The soil does not bend around the roots, they have to pave their way. Arkansans know this, the people here are not defined by their soil. They push past the dirt, and even move rocks. They start in one environment, but they do not end there. A mother working hard for her children, learning and fighting, becoming the sturdy cornerstone which builds her family. A child maturing around the broken parts of society becoming a trailblazer and blunting the blade of blame in our world. This comes so naturally because it is all around us. It is built into our homes, families, and people. Here in our state, we become: we grow. 

Not only is growth important for each of us, but each of us is important for growth. Our communities build our structure. The leaf and the stem may seem nothing alike, but they are connected through their plant, they need each other. We grow together, and we are strong together. Arkansas may not be for everyone, but it is for anyone. We may seem different but we are connected through the way we live. Our clothes or habits may separate us on the outside, but everyone tries their hardest to make tomorrow better than yesterday. And while our identities in our hearts do not always agree, Arkansas is a place to listen to the different rhythms of pulse. Here the landscape drips with scenery envied by the sunsets themselves; effortlessly splendid; but it is no match for the inhabitants. Walking downtown where I live, everyone is so warm to each other. Even on the worst days, an individual can still summon the strength to smile at a stranger. This simple strength shows again. We build one another up, and if they fall we lend a hand. When tornadoes destroy homes, neighbors and friends help rebuild. When a pandemic strikes and panic threatens to invade, our families of all kinds hold together. All of this exists as naturally as breathing. Our kindness is not plastic and our love is genuine. Even as times get difficult, as they have the past few years, we have never lost our sense of what matters and never given up on the fellowship within our borders. 

Strength is deeper than utility, it is perseverance brimming on stubbornness. More than natural diamonds are made in Arkansas. Our future leaders, mothers, fathers, and models may be pressurized at times, but coal was meant to grow into something stronger. And, diamonds are used to refine those around them. Here in Arkansas, our strength is drawn from our past, used in our present, and determines our future. I believe Arkansas will continue to grow and exemplify strength to all who visit through its people. After all, Arkansas inspires and kindles the flames of the future: naturally, of course.