All winter my friend Tom Earnhardt sends me photographs of the birds at Pungo Lake, in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Washington County-- tundra swans and snow geese and countless thousands of migratory ducks-- green-winged teal, widgeons, pintails, spoonbills and many others.
At the Denver Public Library's Western History Collection, I also found an even more surprising set of documents bearing on the history of the North Carolina coast— a collection of letters and maps from the 1930s that provide insight into the origins of some of our most beloved coastal wildlife refuges. I found them in a collection of papers that had belonged to John Clark Salyers, a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture biologist who is remembered as “the father of the national wildlife refuge system.”
Today I’m in Denver, Colorado, and while I’m here I’m visiting the Western History Collection at the Denver Public Library. I wouldn’t usually expect to find manuscripts about my special interest—the history of the North Carolina coast— in a collection that’s devoted to the Rocky Mountain West.... But this library also has Edwin R. Kalmbach’s field diaries. I was interested in Kalmbach because one of his diaries describes an 11-day trip that he made to an especially interesting part of the North Carolina coast—the old rice plantations along the Lower Cape Fear.
"At this point in my research, I was wishing that I could write something about my beloved home state’s history—anything—and not have it come around to race and white supremacy.... So much for telling an innocent little story about a family of bird egg collectors and the popular passion for oology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries."
The incident that led me to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago was the tragic death of a young bird egg collector in 1909. His name was Richardson P. Smithwick and he was from a family of amateur bird, bird egg and bird nest collectors that lived in Bertie County, N.C. late in the 19th and early in the 20th century.
Twenty-five years ago, I lived for most of a year by the shores of Lake Mattamuskeet. I arrived in the fall and watched the great flocks of Canada geese, snow geese and tundra swans settle onto the lake for the winter, and I was there in the spring when they rose back into the sky and headed home to the Arctic Circle.