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.
After the storms, wreckage accumulates not only ashore but on the water, on the rivers and sands, the bays and wetlands of North Carolina. The Coast Guard removes the most harmful materials, the oil and fuel, but the wreckage is the responsibility of local governments, often the poorest counties in the state.
An abandoned sloop on Chocowinity Bay.
So the derelict hulls remain, rotting slowly. Steel and fiberglass take a long time to rot. The wreckage remains for years, sinking slowly into the muck, the earth rising to meet it, dark water lapping in dark places.
There’s something especially tragic about the wreckage of a boat, more than an old house or a collapsing barn. The boat is utterly abandoned, cast out of its element, exiled from the sea and discarded on the shore.
Someone once slept inside that hull, like a mollusk in its shell, rocked by waves, and dreamed of distant places beyond the curve of the horizon.
Boats weren’t made to be motionless.
Aground on the banks of the Pamlico River near Washington, North Carolina, after Hurricane Dorian.
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.
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.