I am writing this on an empty beach at 7:30 in the morning the week before Thanksgiving,while camping on a barrier island that’s a 45 minute ferry ride off the coast of Georgia. This is the most undisturbed spit of coastal land I’ve had the privilege to experience in the United States of America. I can’t remember ever being in a place where there were thousands of acres of 200-500 year old live oaks, miles of palms and long leaf pines, no pavement, hardly any infrastructure and so little humanity.
On foot this island seems vast. Even with the aid of a bicycle I wasn’t able to travel from the bottom to the top in a day. When I couldn’t make myself pedal any farther I turned around to go back to camp, still miles from my destination. Our tents are pitched on the back of a dune range a quarter mile or so from the Atlantic. At night the sounds alternate between wind in the leaves and needles, and surf pounding a short distance away. Swish/swirl/rattle, then crash/pound/rumble/hiss, over and over like a lullaby.
The sky has been aluminum gray for two days. Today the sun makes its shadow play, sharpening and warming the colors of everything. Last night there were moon and stars. I opened my tent and put my pillow outside the opening so I could look up. The illuminated sky showed clouds a little darker, skating by, and black live oaks bobbing in slow motion in the breeze. There was enough moonlight that I could see small birds flying back and forth from branch to branch just over my head. Stars sparkled in the spaces between the leaves. The silver coin moon was obscured, then not, by the movement of branches.
This island has a long history of occupation going back thousands of years. Vestiges of the lives of its occupants are still here. Its last incarnation was as a self-sufficient and lavish vacation enclave for the Carnegie family. I’m enjoying imagining the flavor their lives might have had. What was the color of the light that came in their bedroom windows? What did they do on a long afternoon? What did they eat and where did they get it? I can imagine the island populated with adults and children, craftsmen and servants, farmers and hunters. Like me, they were no doubt struck slow and easy by the sun and made hungry from the sandy distances they moved between one place and another. Like me, they watched the deer and armadillos, the gulls and the eagles, and were wary of the alligators and snakes.
They, and other island dwelling families, gave much of the island to the National Park Service, forgoing the huge profit they might have reaped from its sale in order to preserve it for their nation-family. It’s remarkable that there are people whose instincts are that generous, stewards who place guardianship above profit. I’m sure they were as aware of their good fortune as I am of mine. I am among their millions of beneficiaries. For that I am deeply grateful.
Below are paintings inspired by my backpacking trip to Cumberland Island
I particularly love this image of the bleached out cypress tree draped in spanish moss.
The palm fronts were huge. I loved their aggressive forms.