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Jonathan Wilkins | 11.1.2021

Old Church, New Life

  • Pursuit: Waterfowl

Five years ago I bought an old, southern church in the Arkansas Delta. Initially, it was only to serve as a bunkhouse for my personal duck hunting expeditions. When I signed the paperwork to become the new owner, I imagined a few weekends of elbow grease with beer-bribed buddies whipping the place back into shape. I thought a good scrubbing and judicious use of paint would yield a passable waterfowl camp. I soon learned, I was beyond my depth. The old structure was held together with good intentions and square-headed nails. Cracks in the walls were stuffed with old newspapers and rags before being covered with salvaged scraps of paneling. Underneath decaying drywall I found the charred spots where fire had scorched the walls long before I was born. The wood was gnarled and rough like alligator skin. The LBJ-era soot still rubbed off in my hands. The bathrooms were odes to the destructive power of slowly trickling water and the musty decay it yields. Everything seemed broken or forgotten.

There was much work to be done and most of it, I had never done before. Lack of options is sometimes the greatest of motivators and my lack thereof propelled me. I spent months peeling back time-capsule-like layers of carpet and tar-paper. Old patch jobs revealed themselves daily, cobbled together from bits of scrounged materials. A 76 license plate, pock marked with roofing nails, made a good patch for a hole in the wall. An old shop sign served as the subfloor to the foyer. The repairs were testament to the grit and determination of the people who loved this place before. What they lacked in materials they made up for with ingenuity.

The demolition told the story of a place that had lived many lives. The building had stood before the advent of air conditioning or the Civil Rights movement. Through conversations with neighbors and former members of the defunct congregation, I learned that it previously had an incarnation as a parsonage and before that still, a small corner store. Renovating the derelict building became more involved and many solitary tasks gave me time to think. The ability to work with my hands, strain my muscles and dream as I tore down and rebuilt, had a focusing effect. This relic had always been a space to come together, to visit, and to gather sustenance. I wanted it to be a place like that again. I named it Black Duck Revival.

I challenged myself to build an intimate, personal space that I wanted to use and that I hoped others would be drawn to as well. I designed the new layout intentionally, to facilitate movement between the outside and in. I wanted guests to eat, cook, and lounge all within eyesight of one another so that the sacred continuum of hunter and prey stayed constant. I stumbled and clumsily zig zagged my way through building goals and self imposed deadlines. I failed many times, but by leaning into the resilience, in part gathered from years of hunting, I endured.

Always though, there were the seasons and the land to stay close to. Close by and all around were the ag fields and bottom lands of east Arkansas. Ephemeral landscapes that transformed themselves every few months. The sun baked July dirt will inevitably release its brick like hold as the mercury drops precipitously. Jurassic looking bayous will transmogrify into the murky flooded forests that I long for in winter. The birds know these patterns and so do I. They will return with the cold north winds, and I intend to be forever ready.

Black Duck Revival has grown beyond a place of specificity and expanded into an ethos. I call it a duck lodge, but in truth it hardly is. Instead, it’s more a conduit for building human connection. Connection to food, connection to legacy, and connection to one another. Self-selecting, small groups of hunters now gather for communal experiences. My clients are inquisitive. The desire to learn and look at hunting through a broader lens is a prerequisite. I host people who want to make the most out of their hunts. We harvest birds, yes, but that is only the beginning. We huddle together after, plucking our quarry in order to save the savory, sumptuous fat and skin. We skewer hearts and cook them outside over open flame, bathed in laughter and the relief of a day well spent. We make rich stocks from roasted bones that only days before gave shape and form to mystical beings that appeared from the heavens. We bring them down to our muddy, terrestrial existence with bursts of tiny steel ball bearings. We watch them flutter and crash into the dirt like kites flown on inconsistently windy days. They become meat then and we make the most of that sacrifice.

To be sure though, this isn't field-to-table on steroids. It’s about living a thoughtful, examined life. Foundational to that endeavor is the ability to find food and to feed ourselves. I believe that a life well lived is one of participatory action. I’m based in a place where people have always found a way, to make a way. I revere that. I try my best to embody it. We are made to run, jump, build, and create. Our hearts are designed to beat in occasional frenzied bursts. Both exertion and awe-inspiring beauty take our breaths away. We were once people who believed that scholarship and artistry need not be separate from physical labor. We hunted. We cooked. We built our homes. We are all capable of finding that rhythm again. Black Duck Revival aims to aid in that resurgence of doing.

The old church has again found a new life. People still sit in it’s handbuilt pews, though now it’s to share a meal and recount the glories of the morning’s hunt. The act remains hallowed. The soul of the old place carries on because people continue to gather and share their lives there. I’m finding my role in that continuum and I’m enjoying the hell out of it.