It was hours before dawn and bitter cold. I scraped ice from my windshield. When I launched my kayak into Runyon Creek and paddled into the Pamlico River, I questioned the wisdom of wearing only thin nylon shorts, water sandals, and an old hoodie.
There were stars but only a few. No one else was on the water, not even fishermen hurrying to find their place before first light. I paddled past the dead cypress trees rising from the shoals of Grandpap Island like standing stones. A blue heron took flight, screeching in indignation.
The sun rose on the far side of the Norfolk Southern Railroad bridge, a riot of indigo and violet. At the Highway 17 bridge, the Pamlico inexplicably became the Tar River. The north bank was populated with houses and industry, the south bank with wetlands, ruined wharves, and an old boat abandoned among the bald cypress trees.
The headlong rush into the future has largely left the river behind. The south shore especially, the Chocowinity shore opposite Washington, is littered with broken wharves and abandoned ambitions.
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.
Today the osprey are gone from Chocowinity Bay, abruptly, as if compelled. Their nests are empty as are the branches of dead cypress trees standing like stones beside the water. There are no osprey circling overhead or flitting between the wetland foliage and no sound but the indignant crows. The osprey have left, the adults and the newly fledged, driven south for the winter by unrelenting instinct. I’ll miss them.
Chocowinity Bay is full of osprey nests, great piles of sticks and twigs, padded with Spanish moss, bark, and grass, layered with the detritus of successive generations. Fish offal mostly. Bones and scales. The young soon learn to stream their feces over the side of their nests like sailors pissing over the gunwale.
The osprey mate for life and return to the same nest, year after year. And year after year, the nest, usually high in the fork of a dead cypress tree, grows more massive. After years of patient building, the nests can be 10 to 13 feet deep and 3 to 6 feet in diameter. A man could sit comfortably in such a nest if he wasn’t too fastidious about the smell.
There are exceptions, nests built on navigational markers or pilings or the ruin of a cypress tree that looks like a shipwreck, shattered timbers encrusted with barnacles, raised only a few feet above high water. That nest is draped with Spanish moss. It’s on my route to the head of the bay. I gave it a wide berth while the parents were busy bringing fish to feed chicks insistently chirping but now the nest is empty, like the others.
The birds aren’t territorial except for their nests and then there’s no telling what might set them off. Bald Eagles, certainly, but there’s nothing that likes an eagle. The crows relentlessly mob any eagle that strays into the wetlands. Sometimes osprey take offense at fishing birds like cormorants, and sometimes not, but they always defend their nest against another osprey that isn’t their mate. They’ve been seen locking talons with an interloper and falling from the air into the water.
Osprey evolved to prey upon fish. They eat almost nothing else. One of their three forward facing toes can turn backward, becoming opposable. Their nostrils close when diving. And they have sharp spicules on the underside of their feet to help grip slippery fish.
Once in contact, the spicules weld predator to prey. Even a healthy osprey can deadlift only a 1 or 2-pound fish. The fish instinctively dive for the safety of deeper water. There are stories of large fish dragging osprey to the bottom.
Osprey skim the surface and pluck unwary fish from shallow water or plunge after wary fish swimming in deeper water. On Chocowinity Bay I’ve seen them dive from a height of 50 feet, tucking their wings as they plummet, at the last moment extending their talons and striking the water with an explosion of spray. More often than not they’re unsuccessful but often enough to thrive.
Chocowinity, North Carolina, has ever been a village, since before the revolution and now, but not without its small tragedies. September 22, 1711, the first house to burn in the Tuscarora Indian War was owned by John Porter, Chocowinity.
It’s small, even by the measure of villages. Chocowinity had a population of 820 in the last census. It sits near a bay by the same name. People find both difficult to spell. Without consulting the villagers, in 1917 the Norfolk Southern Railroad decided to rename the place Marsden. Easier to spell on a telegraph line, apparently, and toadied to one of the railroad’s investors, Marsden J. Perry. The railroad didn’t return the proper name to its place until 1970 when 2-way radios replaced the telegraph.
The fact that a railroad could arbitrarily change an historic place name says something about the callous use of power. That the Norfolk Southern Railroad was still using Morse code and a telegraph in 1969 says something about the loss of power.
Sitting in an attic room overlooking Chocowinity Bay, I can hear the Norfolk Southern locomotive as it snakes through the wetlands, whistling at bridges and railroad crossings. Eventually, the sound of the train’s diesel-electric engine drifts across the water like the churning of boulders in distant surf.
I came to Chocowinity as a refugee, although I didn’t know it. I’ve lived my entire life in the United States, never realizing it was a foreign country.
I’ve long since abandoned the religion of my parents and grandparents and generations before them. And now I’ve lost faith in politics and progress, even human rationality. Where is there left to stand?
Perhaps there has always been only one place to stand. On the earth, feet planted in the dirt, enveloped by an ocean of air. I’ve thought too much and felt too little. I’ve lived inside my head, staging endless dramas and bloody retributions, all no more significant than a tempest in a teacup.
Joseph Conrad had it right in The Mirror of the Sea. “To see! To see!—that is the craving of the sailor, as of the rest of blind humanity.”
To see the sun rise like thunder over the Pamlico Sound or the sawgrass wreathed in fog, to see still water stippled by the tail flips of bass feeding on insects, to see the tide rise and fall in a rhythm older than time—those are things that help me feel less competitive, less belligerent, less human.
I’m not certain being human continues to carry an evolutionary advantage. What served us well in small, naked bands on the savannah may not serve on a planetary scale. And I don’t think technology will be our deus ex machina, plucking us from the inevitable consequences of a bad script. This is who we are, who we’ve always been. Unless we can become something else.