Twice in as many weeks, I’ve been startled by something big crashing through the thick reeds that grow on the bank of Sidney Creek. Jumping directly to the apocalyptic, I thought — bear.
There are bears here, black bears, although so appropriate to the environment they are seldom seen. I once found a black bear in a ditch beside a nearby road, likely roadkill. And I’ve been told black bears have been seen on the shore behind our house. It’s hard to imagine a bear so bold.
It wasn’t a bear but a deer. In both cases, young bucks. Startled by my presence, they bolted, making a ruckus as they leaped through the water and the reeds. In one case, the buck paused to look through the reeds, curious about what sort of threat I might be. Only a slight motion and a shadow gave away his position. I had time only for a snapshot.
The risk to any animal well adapted to its environment is a rapid change to the environment itself. The world is now changing more rapidly than it has in millions of years, largely the result of our compulsive meddling, and all the creatures that live in it are at risk, even ourselves.
There is a downside to intelligence without wisdom.
A Great Blue Heron regularly roosts overnight in a neighborhood tree on Chocowinity Bay. Sometimes it squawks indignantly and flees when I paddle too close. Sometimes it tolerates my approach.
The frayed feathers on the heron’s chest are called “powder down.” The birds can crush these feathers into a powder with a fringed claw on its middle toe and apply it to the feathers on its underbelly. The powder keeps those feathers from becoming fouled and oily wading in the swamps. The swamp slime clumps on the feathers and the heron brushes it off with its feet. They also powder oily fish before eating.
The disapproving gaze and crouched shoulders of a Great Blue Heron remind me of Groucho Marx.
Herons stalk shoal water for hours, waiting for a fish, a frog, shrimp, crabs, aquatic insects, rodents, small mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and birds, especially ducklings. Apparently, hunger breeds patience but not a good temper.
The Norfolk-Southern Railroad bridge spans the Pamlico River at Washington, NC. One end vanishes in the fog, the other ends abruptly at the draw span.
The fog has leeched the color from the photo except for the red light of a single channel marker.
As an old man Bill Seller remembered when he was young, staying at his grandparent’s house in Washington beside the Pamlico River, windows open in the sultry heat, listening to the freight trains slowly cross the bridge in the middle of the night, restricted to 10 miles per hour over the wooden trestles, counting the cars as their wheels clattered across the open joint at the end of the draw span.
Beaufort County, North Carolina has always been a hard place to make a living. People get by doing what they can. Some got by making moonshine.
There’s a story about a bootlegger in the 1950s, long after the end of Prohibition, who sited his still on a saw grass meadow at the head of Chocowinity Bay. It had the advantage of isolation. It could only be reached by boat.
The saw grass grew tall enough to screen his still from fishermen and duck hunters until the grass caught fire one day and burned down to the muck. His still became as obvious as a smokestack.
The saw grass meadows remain even if the bootleggers have all gone.
Early morning along the shore, I passed this Blue Heron perched on a dead cypress limb as the sun rose over Chocowinity Bay.
The frayed feathers on the heron’s chest are called “powder down.” The bird can crush these feathers into a powder with a fringed claw on its middle toe and apply it to the feathers on its underbelly. The powder keeps those feathers from becoming fouled and oily wading in the swamps. The swamp slime clumps on the feathers and the heron brushes it off with its feet.
The heron also uses the powder to remove the slimy oil from fish.
There were African slaves in the early settlement of North Carolina but relatively few. White settlers compensated by raiding Tuscarora villages and enslaving natives to work their fields. The Tuscarora objected violently. In September 1711, the Tuscarora War began.
Oral history records the first Tuscarora attack was against John Porter’s homestead at the head of Chocowinity Bay. Porter and his guest, Patrick Maule, successfully defended themselves.
John Porter built his home near a landing on Sidney Creek. The creek winds itself through the wetlands near the head of the bay. The old wharf pictured is likely located near Porter’s homestead and the opening battle of the Tuscarora War.
Not everyone fared as well as John Porter. A neighbor, a man named Nevil, had a farmstead near the mouth of Blounts Creek.
Nevil, “after being shot, was laid on the house-floor, with a clean pillow under his head, his stockings turned over his shoes, and his body covered with new linen. His wife was set upon her knees, and her hands lifted up as if she was at prayers, leaning against a chair in the chimney corner, and her coats turned up over her head. A son of his was laid out in the yard with a pillow laid under his head and a bunch of rosemary laid to his nose.”
The Tuscarora had a creative way of celebrating death.
Osprey often take stand on branches of Bald Cypress trees. The trees grow and die at the edge of Chocowinity Bay, offering a good view of the water. The dead trees, stripped of their leaves, are no hindrance to their flight.
Many people value trees only as board feet. There is no profit in a dead snag. Osprey see it differently. Dead trees are wondrously minimal. Nothing unneeded, nothing superfluous, a place for their talons to grip and their hunger to focus. The fish hawks wait with patience sharp as their talons and then fly.
Osprey breed on Chocowinity Bay during the season. They prefer to build their nests on trees rooted in the water, bald cypress trees mostly, to keep raccoons from robbing their eggs. Sometimes they build their nests on channel markers. Sometimes they build too close to the water.
A breeding pair of osprey used this nest year after year, hatching and fledging their chicks until Hurrican Florence swept the bay with six-foot waves. Only a few cypress stumps remain.
Water flows sluggishly through the wetlands at the head of Chocowinity Bay. Spanish moss filters the sunlight and shadows recline on the water.
The wetlands at the head of the bay are less than a mile from home. I paddle the winding leads through bald cypress trees and sawgrass meadows several times each week, watching the seasons change, the foilage thin, then thicken, the storms come and go. It’s a place that grounds my sanity when the world seems insane and humanity seems intent upon its own destruction.