A loving goodbye to our inner islands

by DG Martin

What is it about islands that intrigues us?

“No man is an island,” wrote John Donne, “entire of itself… any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Donne’s powerful language reminds us how interconnected we are. Perhaps it also helps explain the appeal of the islands, especially to the part of us that sometimes wants to disconnect from the pressures of all the connections that surround and control us.

From Cynthia and Robert Bashford’s condo at Wrightsville Beach I can look south towards Money and Masonboro Islands and see small sandbars that rise up as islands when the tide goes out. Sometimes, the explorer’s urge rises up and makes me want to visit one of them and learn its story.

Bland Simpson and his wife Ann yielded to this kind of urge and set out to visit, study, photograph and write about the North Carolina coastal islands that lie behind the Outer Banks and other barrier islands.

The result is a gift to us in the form of a new book, The Inner Islands: A Carolinian’s Sound Country Chronicle, written by Bland and illustrated with photography by Ann.

The Simpsons are not newcomers to the sounds and rivers where these islands lie. Both spent much of their childhood “down east.” Bland Simpson has been writing about the waters, marshes and shores of Eastern North Carolina for years, most recently in a book titled Into the Sound Country: A Carolinian’s Coastal Plain.

About these islands Bland Simpson writes at the beginning of the new book, “I have boated to them, beached small craft upon them, worn my trousers rolled and walked their small shores, listened always for notes from ancient flutes and shell-shakers, snatches of song in the wind, and, knowing I was there but for a slip of time, probably never to return to most of them, I have loved them all – from the little mossy islands of Pembroke Creek near Edenton, to those at the mouth of Deep Creek into Bull’s Bay; from Colington in the sound behind Kitty Hawk, where my cousin the high sheriff of Tyrrell County as a young man used to beach his boat and make his way with kin through the liveoak woods over to Leroy’s old family-style hotel on the seabeach… to Durant Island where my son climbed the big sandy bluff, and from shellbank Harbor Island in Core Sound, where Ann played as a child….”

Through 15 chapters Simpson describes the history and geography of these often overlooked islands, weaving in memories and family stories to make a lush descriptive tapestry of each inner island.  

He begins in the north near Elizabeth City, remembering how he told his son about Machelhe Island, a place he knew when he was his son’s age. Then he takes his readers southwards, winding up with descriptions of several islands in the environmentally rich and very threatened lower Cape Fear.

Simpson is a musician (of Red Clay Rambler fame). He plays, sings and writes songs. So it should not have surprised me that his narrative rushes off the pages like good music, like poetry.

Ann Simpson’s fine photographs are a gift by themselves and help seal the reader’s connection to the places her husband writes about.

Bland Simpson worries about these islands. In part because of the rising ocean waters, they are gradually disappearing. He seems to be telling them good-bye as he writes at the end of his book, “These inner islands are not rocks, not metals hammered hard at Vulcan’s stithy and made final for all time – they are simply mud and sands, or shells, or swamps, massed for moments mere. We may stand and stride upon them and take their measure, feel the brevity of their moments (how like our own), and perhaps feel too some sense of kinship between animate and inanimate, the kinship of all ephemera.”

“No man is an island,” says John Donne. Not only that, Simpson tells us, but also the fragility of our disappearing inner islands makes them kin to us and a part of our own interconnected and temporary existence.

DG Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at 5 p.m.