Bland Simpson didn’t start out to write a series of books on the life and history of North Carolina’s sound country; it just sort of happened that way.
Simpson, a literary professor at UNC, Red Clay Rambler, playwright, songwriter and storyteller, began wandering again the northeastern coastal lands of his childhood in the mid-1980s. The Elizabeth City native started out with a book about the Dismal Swamp, then in 1997 produced Into the Sound Country: A Carolinian’s Coastal Plain. He kidded himself about empire building: “I grabbed one swamp and then wanted them all.” He recognized, though, that he was among a group of writers filling in the blanks about coastal North Carolina history and culture. “There are all sorts of books about Western North Carolina and the mountains,” he says, but except for the work of a handful of writers like David Stick, there was not a lot of work being done to capture the fleeting history and culture on the other end of the state.
In Simpson’s latest, The Inner Islands: A Carolinian’s Sound Country Chronicle, he traveled the band of islands along the state’s sounds and rivers: some of them turned by time and tide to shoals or piles of oyster shells, most of them baring some kind of indication of habitation and abandonment. They are often eerie places, a fact brought home by Simpson’s wife, Ann Cary Simpson, through her photos of hunt clubs, forts and fish camps in ruin amid a landscape of moss-draped yaupon and live oak.
Each island, Simpson says, has its own story, and the book moves from his recollections to historical accounts and oral histories. There’s Shell Castle Island–barely more than an oyster shell reef near Ocracoke–whose docks once dominated maritime commerce in the late 1700s; and the marshes of the Curritucks where the great hunt clubs flourished. There are plenty of stories and legends, but Inner Islands is a personal chronicle of Simpson’s marvel at the unique inner shoreline of the state.
The stories and songs that come out of his travels to the sound country are part of the work, he says. But so is conveying a message about the intricate ecosystems in and around the islands. And like the wildlife, he notes that long-held ways of life are threatened as well, as the state’s inner coast makes way for baby boomers retiring to the water. The loss of fish houses and docks to condos, he says, is “busting up the fabric of the commercial fishing business.”
But the islands, most of them anyway, are still hard to get to, still a world away from the mainland. “When you’re out there, you’re out there.” And while it’s hard to escape that sense of desolation, there’s also what he calls a “kinship with the ephemeral”–a knowledge that the island itself is as temporary as those who inhabit it.
“Even in the dead of winter,” he says. “It’s a beautiful place to be.”
Bland Simpson will host a launch party for The Inner Islands: A Carolinian’s Sound Country Chronicle this Friday, Oct. 27, at 7 p.m. at Market Street Books & Maps in Chapel Hill.