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The Coasts of Carolina Seaside to Sound Country (review)

From: Southern Cultures
Volume 18, Number 4, Winter 2012
pp. 114-115 | 10.1353/scu.2012.0039

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Picture books come in a variety of forms but ultimately most of them serve the same purpose: they are gift books, and once the wrapping is off and the pages flipped, they are destined too often to gather dust on a coffee table. In the case of The Coasts of Carolina, a collaboration by photographer Scott Taylor and writer Bland Simpson, this fate would be unfortunate, because the book rewards the reader as much as the viewer.

Editorially, the book is a great match. Beaufort photographer Scott Taylor has had a long association with coastal North Carolina, with several photo books to his credit (Coastal Waters, The Wild Horse of Shackleford Banks) and a long publication history with Coastwatch, the magazine of UNC Sea Grant. Chapel Hill writer, musician, composer, and professor, Bland Simpson has also been attuned to coastal magic for many years in articles and books (Into the Sound Country and The Inner Islands, among others) as well as in music (King Mackerel and the Blues Are Running). He's a beloved figure in the state, with many honors that attest to his literary and musical success. Not too many serious authors can write books, play in one of the country's most revered string bands, and win a Tony award!

In The Coasts of Carolina, they have combined their talents to focus in individual ways on the North Carolina littoral. Scott Taylor's 145 color photographs are a mix of familiar coastal scenes—fishermen, boats, lighthouses—and a scattering of less familiar inland shots of rivers and lakes. The cover photo is a knockout—two men in a small boat pulling net against an incredible bounty of golden sunshine. Many others match the colorful intensity of that photograph, a testament to the book's superb printing as well as to the photographer's art.

Bland Simpson's contribution is a long essay called "Never Let Me Go: At Large on the Coasts of Carolina," a memoir of growing up and finding his way as a man and a writer in coastal rivers and sounds aboard a variety of vessels, and in such ports of call as Beaufort, Elizabeth City, Southport, and Columbia. Like much of Simpson's personal writing, the essay is above all about home and history, kinship and nostalgia, and it is washed in love—for the Eastern North Carolina areas where he grew up and for his family and the friends in his life. He writes from the heart.

The sixth day we spent assaying Pembroke Creek, one of the Spanish-places in all eastern Carolina, on the western edge of Edenton, the old colonial town. We cruised far up this gray-bearded, cypress-lined creek, on up into its Pollock Swamp headwaters, and today the birds were with us again: flickers, kingfishers, cedar waxwings in flocks, a downy woodpecker . . . four austere blue herons like the fates plus one. Once the outboard started churning swampmud, we came about and bounded downstream and moved steadily out upon the broad, still cover that was Edenton Bay and to its opening onto Albemarle Sound.

There are no premonitions in Simpson's lyrical prose or in Taylor's photographs of the problems besetting coastal villages today: the decline of commercial fishing, over-development, pollution. Yet to quibble with the book because of its sunny skies and smiling faces is to do it an injustice, for both pictures and prose are in service to a good-hearted and forgiving master—memory. The coast, after all, is where so many of us like to spend some of our vacation time, curled up in a rental cottage with a book or trolling for flounder in a tidal creek. In such ways, we let the water wash away some of the cares that we arrive with, leaving us healed enough to return to everyday life.

The Coasts of Carolina is a keepsake of such sunny moments—the simple yet iconic sights of the tip of Carrot Island just skimmed by the rising sun (25), the lonely skiff in a low-tide marsh just as the setting sun plunges below a cloud (39). It evokes the magic of a place awash in history...



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