Travels with Kingfish

I first met Bland Simpson at an oyster roast at the old hunting lodge at Lake Matttamuskeet. That was in the winter of 1997, and we were in the middle of a remote, swampy and unforgettably beautiful landscape. From the top of the lodge’s wildlife observation tower, the view took my breath away. In every direction, cane brakes, freshwater marshes, and juniper swamps stretched to the horizon, while thousands of Canada geese, snow geese, and tundra swans rested on the lake.

“Sometime, somehow, I hope I can take you to Lake Mattamuskeet,” one of Bland’s favorite nature writers, Rachel Carson, wrote a friend in 1963, when she was dying of cancer and recalling one of the happiest days in her life. “The thing I will always remember,” Carson wrote, was “the constant, haunting music of the geese.”

She described “the throbbing chorus of their voices…” and she remembered how, at daybreak, “they would pass literally just over our heads—so low the sunshine made their dark heads and necks look like brown velvet. And all the while the air filled with their music.”

That music filled the air when Bland and I first met at Lake Mattamuskeet as well. We were introduced a little before sunset one night and by the next morning, we were deep in the midst of a great pocosin swamp 10 or 15 miles north of the lake. We were paddling up a little, meandering creek called the Northwest Prong of the Alligator River, a blackwater stream that flows out of the Hollow Ground Swamp. The Northwest Prong and the Southwest Prong eventually come together and create the Alligator River, which, far downstream, opens up and becomes that big river that you cross on US 64 between Columbia and Manteo.

This was a speech in honor of Bland Simpson at the North Carolina Writers’ Conference annual meeting in Chapel Hill on July 31, 2010. The group recognized Bland as its special honoree that year. 

A Swamper, a Writer and a Music Man

There are relatively few souls who hear the calling of big pocosin swamps or feel at home in dark cypress swamps, but I knew from that first day that Bland was one of them. That winter morning, he paddled his old white canoe quietly through the dark waters, breathing in the fragrance of the white cedar and the earthy richness of the peat moss.

I still recall how he eyed a hefty cottonmouth snake with interest, but stayed cool, and together we speculated about the fate of an antique lumber barge that we found half-submerged in the creek.

Mostly, Bland just seemed blissful to be out there. Many people might find that wilderness hostile, but to him it was home. At the end of that day, as we paddled our boats back to the state wildlife ramp at the US 94 bridge, I inhaled deeply and let out a little sigh: I had found a kindred spirit.

For a long time, I knew Bland mainly as a swamper. He is, of course, much more. He is the award-winning writer of lovely, lyrical books like The Great Dismal and Into the Sound Country. He is also the keyboardist for the internationally-acclaimed string band, the Red Clay Ramblers, who, along with his compadres, has performed in everything from Sam Shepherd plays in New York City to concerts with everybody from country music legend Earl Scruggs to the North Carolina Symphony. He is as well a dedicated professor of creative writing, a passionate teacher and a university leader.

In addition, Bland is, along with Don Dixon and Jim Wann, one of the trio of Coastal Cohorts behind the sensational and very funny musical show, King Mackerel and the Blues are Running, about the escapades of a rag-tag band of pier fishermen trying to save the mythical “Miss Annie’s Fish Camp” from real estate developers or, as the show calls them, the “Greed Heads.”

Bland has done a lot of musical theater over the years. In fact, he and the Ramblers have earned a host of theatrical accolades, including a Tony Award.

A stint Off-Broadway also gave him his nickname. According to sources close to the story (in this case, Bland), the other musicians in their show “Diamond Studs” decided one day in New York City that they should all have nicknames. Somebody came up with an especially offensive one for young Simpson, who, having recently re-read Robert Penn Warren’s novel All the King’s Men, about the legendary Louisiana governor, Huey “Kingfish” Long, replied, “I’d rather be called Kingfish than that!” He got his wish.

Bland has accomplished all these things, and many more, but for a long time I knew him best just as a friend who shared my love of the dark waters. More recently, we have shared his office at Greenlaw Hall, brainstormed endlessly about coastal history and folk life, and written an article or two together. Occasionally, we have shared a stage, too.

Black Bears and Bobcats

But in the beginning, as I recall it, we did not talk a lot about music or writing. Instead, we climbed over beaver dams in the early morning mist in the swampy headwaters of Tranter’s Creek. We picked wild muscadine grapes as our boats drifted through the Great Dismal Swamp. On the banks of the Deep River, we explored a Confederate iron furnace and the site where, almost a century ago, 51 coal miners died in tunnels that run under the river. On Sweetwater Creek, in the Roanoke River’s bottomland swamps, we paddled on waters so glassy that we could see the reflections of the warblers flitting about the forest canopy. We visited Big Flatty Creek, too, in Pasquotank County, where he dreams of putting a house boat or building a little cabin on land that his father left him.

A biologist friend once told me that many of the wild creatures that now make their homes in our coastal swamps do not really belong in them. Black bears and bobcats, he told me, are two of them. Historically speaking, swamps have never been their natural habitats. My friend says that they have abandoned more upland forests and learned to take refuge in swamps in order to elude crowds, interstate highways and, I suppose, Fox News.

I often suspect that Bland and I have something in common with those wild creatures. We relish the beauty, solace and tranquility that we find in our state’s great swamplands. But we also discover in them a quenching antidote for what the Welsh call hiraeth, a word that translates loosely as a fierce, nostalgic longing for things that are irretrievably lost to us, like so many of the wild places and old ways that Bland and I knew when we were growing up on the North Carolina coast.

Into the Great Dismal Swamp

Tonight I am thinking especially about our first trip to the Great Dismal Swamp. Bland spent his earliest years not far from the Great Dismal. His family has deep roots in those parts, and that vast wilderness is the subject of his splendid chronicle, The Great Dismal: A Carolinian’s Swamp Memoir. For all those reasons, I was excited when Bland invited me to join a class field trip to the Great Dismal. We went in the fall, along with a crowd of UNC students, one or two of my Duke students and my son, Guy, who was 9 or 10 at the time.

That morning we drove several hours to the hamlet of Corapeake, just shy of the Virginia line. Then we left the state road and traveled 7 or 8 miles on a dirt trail that ran deep into the Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. We pulled up by the shores of Lake Drummond, in the very middle of the swamp, unloaded our boats, and set off across the lake. We all shared a sense of exhilaration at being out on that great lake under the bluest sky ever and being surrounded by all that wilderness.

On that first trip to the Great Dismal Swamp, we ate our lunches on the east side of Lake Drummond. During lunch, Bland regaled the students with tales of loggers, rumrunners and fugitive slaves. He told them, too, how George Washington had sought prosperity there, and how the poet Robert Frost came there with a broken heart, determined to throw himself in the waters and be done with it. Bland might have sung the students a song or two as well.

The students were absolutely enthralled. It was like a scene out of The Canterbury Tales, a troubadour filling us with merriment, wonder and a feeling for the folks just across the river or over the next hill that we would not otherwise ever meet.

Which is really what Bland has always done for us—all of us, I mean. In this discordant, tangled world of ours, he has always managed to find a melody that is sweet and pure and clear. As a musician and writer, he has continually captured the soul of this place we call home. As a conservationist, he has worked to preserve our coastal wild places, and he has done so with an open heart and a sense of humor—just consider the mirthful genius of “King Mackerel and the Blues are Running.” As a teacher, Bland has inspired his students to believe that they might do nothing nobler than to make their stand here and tell this state’s stories. Above all, in everything he does in song, in theater and in literature, he has– as he once explained to me one of his fiercest aspirations for his work– “spread joy.”

That first afternoon in the Great Dismal Swamp, we paddled back across the lake as the sky grew pink. My son Guy had brought a bottle of soap bubbles with him for entertainment and, as we made our way to the far shore, Guy began to blow bubbles. The air was so still and the water so calm that the bubbles drifted far out across the lake, then clung to the surface for a moment or two without bursting.

Back on the west side of Lake Drummond, we loaded our boats and got in Bland’s truck and headed west again. We paused at a little general store in Parker’s Crossroads for gas and peanuts, ate supper in Windsor and later stopped for the night at the Comfort Inn in Williamston. Our choice of accommodations was not random. The Comfort Inn is just an ordinary chain budget hotel, but at that time the one in Williamston was located across a parking lot from the Sunnyside Oyster Bar.

At the Sunnyside Oyster Bar

At the Sunnyside, they have been shucking and serving up steamed oysters to patrons from every walk of life since the 1920s. Bland and I sat at the bar and ate oysters and joked with the shuckers and told stories.

Bland, of course, knew several of the shuckers by name. Guy contentedly swilled Coca-Cola and soaked in the scene. I think that he liked that little glimpse at what men do when they go into swamps together.

Later that night, not long before we walked back to the motel, I was returning from the restroom and I caught a glimpse from afar of Bland and Guy sitting at the oyster bar and talking together. Sharing war stories and ruminating on life’s mysteries, they looked like two old comrades. But something about their bearings drew me up short, too, and, for just a few moments, I stopped and watched them from the far side of the poolroom.

My little boy was clearly growing up. And Bland, well, I realized that the two of us had been going off onto the dark waters together for a long time. We had both grown older and a bit greyer. Our children had gotten big and much else in our lives had changed.

Time had caught me off guard, again. Somehow, up until that instant, I still felt as if Bland and I had just recently stood by the state wildlife ramp next to Highway 94, celebrating a fine morning on the Northwest Prong of the Alligator River and what I could not possibly have realized then was going to be a lifetime of friendship and adventure.

Looking at Bland and Guy from across the oyster bar, I remembered something that my grandmother once told me, when I was not yet twenty and she was in her 80s. “Life is very short, except to the young” she wrote me at college, encouraging me, in her way, to seize the day. Life really is very short, I said to myself that night at the Sunnyside, but it can also be very sweet in the right company.





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