A Place Like No Other

From a Love of Gardening to a Love of Place

 As I have listened to gardeners across the country,  I became fascinated by the idea of how place defines the character of a garden. From there, I began to see how place shapes people, and that led me to explore how place — geography, environment, climate — shapes the history of a people.

What I am saying is not so profound, but applying it to where I live now, in northeast North Carolina, has taken me on an unexpected sail that will probably never end. A froth of sea foam, this will blow off in a moment, I thought when I began. Instead, it has become a wave of curiosity that has carried me on a heady ride of discovery.

Topographic map of North Carolina showing the coastal plain, the rolling piedmont, and the mountains. The northeast coastal plain is dominated by Albemarle Sound. Note the absence of big cities in the northeastern area. Nations Online Project

This is not a pop-up expedition. I came to understand the area, gradually, when, as co-founder of the Albemarle Environmental Association, a multi-county grass roots group, I fielded issues as diverse as paper-mill pollution of rivers, recycling, a training field for military jets, hazardous waste incineration, citizen water quality testing, pig farms, golf courses, marinas, and contaminated runoff from farms, towns, and industries.

In a roundabout way, this led to exploring and recording canoe trails and byways, nature refuges and historic sites. This was, we thought, a way to put the Albemarle area on the map for tourists — before people were thinking about eco-vacations. The results are on our web site. AEAontheWeb

(PS There are good ice cream cones, too, in the small towns we visited.)

Late afternoon on an arm of the Alligator River, from a canoeist’s perspective. aheronsgarden photo

You meet a lot of people during all this advocating and meandering. Some were living in old family homes with long histories. The folks we met had a deep deep love of their land that I had not encountered elsewhere. Others had lately come because this was land ripe for gambling on big profits. It wasn’t hard to tell the difference.

And so I began to develop roots here. Not the deep tap roots of time and family, but thready, wandery roots that anchored me and pulled me into exploring the dynamics of a special place. Albemarle Waters, the story of life here, was born. It is a voyage through time on a landscape governed by wind and water.

Mighty trees once grew here in rich lowlands bathed by clear, tannin-stained black-water creeks and rivers, but there is far greater antiquity here.

A specimen cypress tree, almost 3,000 years old, in a black-river swamp

Fifteen or so centuries ago, while continents were still weighted by stolen ice that laid the ocean low, ancient people called  the coastal plain, a far wider coastal plain, home. 

This depth of age we cannot fathom, and most evidence is buried by an ocean that has reclaimed lost territory.

So we begin our Voyage through Centuries with the recorded history of English exploration and settlement in the Albemarle. These records are rich in observations that allow us to empathize and make reasonable assumptions about the world and its people back then.

While the colonists of Jamestown and Plymouth are celebrated in history books as pioneers, other settlers, unheralded and unknown, were venturing into watery sanctuaries of the Albemarle. Forbidding and treacherous they were, pools of isolation that tried the mettle of newcomers seeking fortunes or escaping hellish lives.

With grit and ingenuity — and luck — they could tease gifts from the swamp and survive and prosper. Sometimes the luck was missing. Nevertheless a particular way of life, bonded to water and tides, evolved here, often referred to as tidewater culture.

There have always been tensions between humankind and the land and wars over lands and beliefs. The Albemarle was no exception. People manipulated the land to suit their needs, and inevitably there was conflict and exploitation without consideration for the future.

Yet, as we shall see, nobody ever truly owned this land for very long. Ventures came and went. Rough weather, rough times, a parade of diseases exacted their tolls, though there was a brief romantic interlude for a privileged few before the Civil War crumpled an empire built on the labor of enslaved people.

The Voyage through Centuries series of Albemarle Waters tries to show the connections between geography and environment and their influence on tidwater culture and history.

The River series — I am writing about five rivers — presents a more intimate portrait of the region. Despite common geography and climate, each river has a distinct character.

The Alligator River is the wildest, yet its lands are most vulnerable.

The Roanoke River has been called the River of Death, but I call it a Giver of Life.

The Perquimans River welcomed the oldest settlements.

The Chowan River was noted for its great fisheries.

The Pasquotank River emerged as a nexus for commerce and shipping — and progress.

Sunset on Albemarle Sound

There is the future to consider. The Albemarle is already feeling the effects of climate change and rising sea level. In Part XI, I talk about the slow but inevitable surge of the seas, how it is affecting the land, and strategies for facing the tides of the future.

I hope you enjoy a browse through the Voyage series. It is being published as one document, but I have also put each part out as a separate post, so you can access them singly. The River series will soon follow.

Final Notes: I consulted many on-line sources to frame this Voyage through Centuries. Among them, historian David Cecelski whose blog with its wonderful old photographs gives insights to  fisheries and everyday life. Coastal and marine geologist Stan’s Riggs who tirelessly advocates for a realistic understanding of coastal dynamics and the opportunities they present. And environmentalist Todd Miller, who founded The NC Coastal Federation, a powerful watcher of coastal lands and waters and publisher of Coastal Review Online.

This Voyage grew exponentially out of a grant the Albemarle Environmental Association received from the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuarine Study thirty years ago to produce a series of Profiles of Albemarle Sound and its rivers. The original versions can be found on the website AEA on the Web.