North Carolina’s dominance of the nation’s naval stores industry began to change drastically in the decades after the Civil War. By that time, the industry was destroying the region’s longleaf pine forest. In a frenzied half century of exploitation, the state’s longleaf pine forest fell from an estimated 4-5 million acres to less than 60,000 acres. Travelers began to describe train trips through eastern North Carolina’s pine forests in which they did not see a single tree that did not have the V-shaped scars that were characteristic of tapping.
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.
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.
My head spins when I am listening to Stan Riggs and Orrin Pilkey. They are legendary geologists. Both have been studying coastal N.C. for more than half a century. Last week I spent a couple days with the two of them on Ocracoke Island and Portsmouth Island. When I listen to them, my whole sense of time changes. History to them is a whole other thing. They look at the state's coastal plain and what they see is a quarry near the small town of Fountain, in Pitt County. The quarry’s rock is the same rock that you’d find in Dakar, Senegal, a relic of a time more than 200 million years ago when what’s now eastern N.C. and what’s now West Africa nuzzled together....
I am at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. I’ve come to look at the field diaries of a Smithsonian biologist named Remington Kellogg. In the 1920s he visited and studied a bottlenose dolphin fishery on Hatteras Island, N.C. that I am researching.
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.
I grew up by the salt marshes and brackish creeks of a quiet North Carolina tidewater community that lies between the Neuse River and the Newport River at a place where they are both great saltwater bays on the edge of the sea. Oysters were just a part of my life. When I was a young boy, we still picked up oysters on the rocks off Mill Creek, or the flats off Harkers Island, and opened them and downed them, standing knee deep in the water without a thought to pollution or getting ill. Come the first cold snap in autumn, we relished oysters as the highlight of dinners that my grandmother Vera served every Sunday after church.