Archive for October, 2006

Bland's new book

Friday, October 27th, 2006


Bland Simpson has a new book out on the sound country of North Carolina. Inner Islands has lots of good tidbits and tales in it and insightful nice reflections on how the ways along the water–and the islands themselves–have changed. Good B&W photos by Ann Clay Simpson.
He toured around a bit with Capt. Dennis Chadwick, who was featured in a series of recent Merc posts on Down East. Here’s the link to a story I did for the Indy on the book.

Here’s the text:

Down East rambler
Bland Simpson captures the vanishing heritage of the sound country

Bland Simpson didn’t start out to write a series of books on the life and history of North Carolina’s sound country; it just sort of happened that way.

Simpson, a literary professor at UNC, Red Clay Rambler, playwright, songwriter and storyteller, began wandering again the northeastern coastal lands of his childhood in the mid-1980s. The Elizabeth City native started out with a book about the Dismal Swamp, then in 1997 produced Into the Sound Country: A Carolinian’s Coastal Plain. He kidded himself about empire building: “I grabbed one swamp and then wanted them all.” He recognized, though, that he was among a group of writers filling in the blanks about coastal North Carolina history and culture. “There are all sorts of books about Western North Carolina and the mountains,” he says, but except for the work of a handful of writers like David Stick, there was not a lot of work being done to capture the fleeting history and culture on the other end of the state.

In Simpson’s latest, The Inner Islands: A Carolinian’s Sound Country Chronicle, he traveled the band of islands along the state’s sounds and rivers: some of them turned by time and tide to shoals or piles of oyster shells, most of them baring some kind of indication of habitation and abandonment. They are often eerie places, a fact brought home by Simpson’s wife, Ann Cary Simpson, through her photos of hunt clubs, forts and fish camps in ruin amid a landscape of moss-draped yaupon and live oak.

Each island, Simpson says, has its own story, and the book moves from his recollections to historical accounts and oral histories. There’s Shell Castle Island–barely more than an oyster shell reef near Ocracoke–whose docks once dominated maritime commerce in the late 1700s; and the marshes of the Curritucks where the great hunt clubs flourished. There are plenty of stories and legends, but Inner Islands is a personal chronicle of Simpson’s marvel at the unique inner shoreline of the state.

The stories and songs that come out of his travels to the sound country are part of the work, he says. But so is conveying a message about the intricate ecosystems in and around the islands. And like the wildlife, he notes that long-held ways of life are threatened as well, as the state’s inner coast makes way for baby boomers retiring to the water. The loss of fish houses and docks to condos, he says, is “busting up the fabric of the commercial fishing business.”

But the islands, most of them anyway, are still hard to get to, still a world away from the mainland. “When you’re out there, you’re out there.” And while it’s hard to escape that sense of desolation, there’s also what he calls a “kinship with the ephemeral”–a knowledge that the island itself is as temporary as those who inhabit it.

“Even in the dead of winter,” he says. “It’s a beautiful place to be.”

Bland Simpson will host a launch party for The Inner Islands: A Carolinian’s Sound Country Chronicle this Friday, Oct. 27, at 7 p.m. at Market Street Books & Maps in Chapel Hill.

A sea ethic

Tuesday, October 24th, 2006

Nice Times story and short film about Carl Safina, a marine biologist and avid fisherman.

His prime goal, he has said, is to develop a “sea ethic” similar to the land ethic of Aldo Leopold, and a scattering of success stories has convinced him that a balance is still possible between exploitation and conservation of marine resources.

Dark night at the fair

Wednesday, October 18th, 2006


Not much was open. The rides were shut down. Some booths had lights on, but nobody was home. We walked through the cattle and goat buildings, where exhibitors were gathered around talking and grooming and shoveling. Saw the giant pumpkin, the unusual vegetables and all kinds of honey. Ate a barbecue sandwich in one of the few places that was open and went home. Click here or on the pic for a short film.

In the land of fire

Tuesday, October 17th, 2006

The little caravan snaked through the dusty gravel roads of the Croatan National Forest, wheeling over when the lead pulled to a stop at the next spot on the tour.
At each stop, a handful of botanists, guides and a sizeable contingent of the North Carolina Native Plant Society climbed out and made their way to the edge of the savanna. After a little instruction about why a particular spot is the way it is, a nimble-footed jaunt into the wiregrass and its mates ensued.
Some stops were “wow” spots—rich in variety, odd variations and hue. Some stops were examples of improvements gone awry, like neat rows of weak loblollies where longleaf would have grown strong. Often, the first few steps were accompanied with a rattlesnake warning.
These are the fire-swept lands, burned by man not by lightening but to similar effect. Scattered about are the charred, bushy heads of the longleafs that didn’t grow high enough to survive the fire and the scorched trunks of those that did. Without the scrub and saplings the savanna blooms like nothing else.
The day of the caravan it was supposed to storm, but the rain held off and the cloudiness gave the wildflowers, pitcher plants, flytraps and sedges a richness you can’t see squinting in full sun; the cobalt blue of pine barren gentian, the ruby veins of the sarracenia. You wave the mosquitoes off in a world saturated with color.
This is the land of the longleaf pine, burnt in spring and now on fire with the blooms of autumn.

Bogue Banks moment and the Seafood Festival

Thursday, October 12th, 2006

A couple of hundred yards off Bogue Banks, dolphins–airborne at times–were working their way down the coast. Farther out, a trawler worked the channels near the inlet.

Along the beach was a well-spaced row of surf-casters in their shorts and hoodies. You could see the mullet roiling the waters–the long, slow breakers practically bubbling with them in the morning sun. Many, but small, one caster groused, but the sight was amazing–the schools traveling the waves at the pace of a brisk walk. The scene was a reminder that the currents at play this time of year, when the water is a warm 77 degrees and the morning air a dozen degrees chillier, draw a multitude all along the Carolina coast.

Farther up the coast, along the waterfront at Morehead City, was a much more organized reminder of the waters’ harvest. The air was not salty there; the sea breeze was thickly perfumed with the actions of hundreds of deep-fat fryers crisping the breading around flounder, oysters, crab balls, shrimp and mullet.

This is a time in North Carolina marked by county fairs and regional festivals, and in that way the N.C. Seafood Festival is no different. Like others around the state, this one has games, science displays, country karaoke and crafts and watercolors up for sale in long rows of tents and booths. But, save a lone fried Twinkie stand and the occasional turkey leg and blooming onion, this festival’s fare is a daunting array of the history of ingenuity applied to the day’s catch.

For landlubbers and seafood lovers, walking the midway is a dream come true–Blue-crab burritos, oyster burgers, baked potatoes stuffed with shrimp and scallops, shrimp rolls, clam chowder, shark bites, shrimp and chips, scallop fritters and sea trout sandwiches to name a few. You can’t try it all, but you can try these tricks at home. And that’s the idea.

There is a lot of talk, and rightly so, that the old ways on the water are fading as condos and seaside mansions edge out the fish houses and docks. But on some days, they still shine as bright as the morning sun on a breaker teeming with life.

Dogwood Fall

Thursday, October 5th, 2006

It’s time

I don’t need a calendar; I’ve got a dogwood tree. It’s fall and the leaves are getting rusty-colored and red berries are hitting the deck. So are pokeberries reprocessed, if you will, by a variety of locals like the cardinals and brown thrashers and migrating species like the hermit thrush, a wonderful singer.

This is the very same dogwood whose blossoms herald spring—perhaps you’ve seen the firework.

This is the very same dogwood that nearly didn’t make it through that nasty ice storm in ’02. It gave me the first clue that evening that something weather-wise had reached an intensity far beyond predictions.

The sound of pelting ice–pure pink noise–woke me. Not far from the bedroom window, the tree was already bent clear over, top branches frozen to the ground. I ran outside in moccasins and took a broom to the ice until it let go of the tree. Then I knocked off some more and went over to the hemlock and did the same.

Only after pausing to catch a breath did the sound of what was really going on become clear. Off toward the highway, all through the woods, you could hear the tops of trees exploding–a chorus of cracking and popping and crashing to the ground. I scanned the 14 pines in my yard, said a little prayer and woke up the missus.

We listened under the safety of the eaves for hours as pines lost their crowns in the woods and the neighborhood. Occasionally, farther on down the hill toward town, you could see the blue flash and hear the bang as another transformer went up.

We had some close calls, but no damage–just a lot of debris. Seven days with no heat was the worst of it and, like the dogwood, with a little help–a lot, really–from our friends, we survived.

So the dogwood is changing color. And the mammals of the house are getting their coats ready. It’s time to ride the tilt to the shadier side of the sun. Here’s hoping I just need the broom for sweeping.