- The Inner Islands: A Carolinian’s Sound Country Chronicle
“Liminal” is a familiar adjective to many coastal geographers. The word suggests “an elusive, sensually-rich threshold between two different places or states, ambiguous and indeterminate.” The “inner islands” Bland Simpson explores in this Down East travelogue could not be more liminal in space and time. Many sit mere inches above the surface of the water, their shapes shifting with incoming hurricanes and nor’easters, simultaneously threatened by rising sea levels and real estate development. Likewise, Simpson’s writing transcends genres and periods, at once autobiography, regional oral history, poetry, and modern ecological investigation.
“These inner islands are not rocks, nor metals hammered hard at Vulcan’s smithy and made final for all time—they are simply mud and sands, or shells, or swamps, massed for moments mere. We may stand and stride upon them and take their measure, feel the brevity of their moments (how like our own), and perhaps feel too some sense of kinship between animate and inanimate, the kinship of all ephemera” (p. 188).
Simpson carries the reader through coastal North Carolina from Currituck County in the northeast, south through Pamlico Sound and inside Cape Lookout, and to the mouth of the Cape Fear River in Brunswick County. Each of his 15 chapters celebrates one small island and its inhabitants, some well known like Harkers Island, others, like Battery Island off South-port, accessible only to nesting ibises, herons and egrets. Four maps in the back of the book possess enough detail to clarify locations without distracting from the narrative. Simpson sources his stories and acknowledges the many voices that contributed to his work in an appendix—a treasure trove for additional reading and coastal stewardship contacts.
Coastal geographers will appreciate these essays because Simpson, a native of Pasquotank County, North Carolina, and creative writing professor at UNC Chapel [End Page 129] Hill, treats each island and essay as a mixture of human and natural history, seamlessly mingling people with their places and facing the resulting tension with grace. In the Permuda Island essay, for example, Simpson introduces the reader to several families of oyster gardeners. Generous quotes from the Swartzenbergs and Bernice Rice describe shellfish waters and oyster salinity preferences, proliferating yachts and development pressures, barbecue, conservation efforts, and personal tragedy. These essays border on ethnography, capturing Down East culture, even as it disappears into gentrified communities with private boat slips rather than working waterfronts.
The Inner Islands and an earlier companion book Into the Sound Country (Simpson 1997) should be required reading for Down East transplants eager to understand barrier island dynamics, both ecological and political. In a chapter titled “The Curritucks,” Simpson eases the reader into an appreciation of the region’s hurricane and nor’easter history. Barrier islands and back sounds depend on hurricanes to cut inlets that replenish sands on their landward side. The islands are designed to roll over themselves landward as sea levels rise, then move seaward as ocean levels fall. Rescue parties plucked Knotts Island hurricane survivors “from the garret of a house . . . found anchored, afloat, and tied to live oak treetops” (p. 41).
Coastal newcomers weary of complaints by long time residents that rising property taxes are forcing them to move inland may feel more sympathetic after reading Simpson’s story about Yankee gunners in the same chapter. Market gunning for abundant waterfowl proved big business toward the end of the nineteenth century, but Northern steel and publishing money controlled the best shooting grounds. Legendary hunting clubs decimated waterfowl populations, reducing native islanders to subsistence or “pot” hunting. The parallels to modern development pressures and attitudes toward rural folk are understated, but undeniable.
Native North Carolinians and historians will appreciate the depth and details of Simpson’s history. The Lower Purchace Iles lie where the Cashie, Roanoke and Middle rivers meet the Albemarle Sound. Who knew they had names—Wood, Good...