By Kelley Shinn
Anyone who has spent at least a few seasons on Ocracoke will tell you that things here happen differently. Often, despite what I may have scheduled for a day, the actual day finds me. I ride the bike to run errands, to finish a job, or to Down Base to see how the wind blows—how it might affect a mortal’s plans.
A friend greets with an Ocracoke scud-by-salute (a sideways flick of the pointer finger, the head nod), all of which include opportunities for distraction. Distraction is an art form here. People know how to live in the moment. The winds and water and changing earth demand that they do.
Before sunrise, I love to bike down South Point Road. Often alone, my mind is free to process life in a way that is accentuated by the easy glide of the egret, the bow-shaped plunge of the sparrow (a mimicry of its wingspan), quick as an arrow through this hopefully ever-opening heart and mind. It’s a different sort of distraction, the kind that makes living here a bit of paradise.
It makes sense that living life on a persistently fluctuating landscape could make one acutely aware of the need to be willing to change with little notice. Of course, a body, mind and soul will be influenced by the geography upon which they dwell. We are all connected living beings.
A week or so after the Portsmouth homecoming, I was introduced to James Barrie Gaskill. The next morning, I was on my way to Beacon and Portsmouth islands with a most winsome crew.
Last year, the North Carolina Coastal Federation (NCCF) granted The Pelican Award to James Barrie and Gene Ballance for their exceptional efforts to prevent erosion on Ocracoke and Beacon islands by constructing “living shorelines” out of oyster shells. Last month, Capt. Rudy Austin took these men out on a fair morning to see how their work has been holding. They were joined by myself, Scott Bradley of the Ocracoke Foundation, Keith Campbell of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Sarah King and Todd Miller of the NCCF.
During the boat ride, Rudy and James Barrie shared history in the form of personal stories. Every individual in the boat was a mountain-mover, but the three, well-chiseled O’cockers were at bat. All eyes and ears were upon them and the waterscape that bore them.
Rudy slung some dingbatter stories from his pocket canon. The stories are never quite as funny as how hard he laughs at them despite the numerous times he has told them. His captaincy is high art in motion.
It is easy to imagine that James Barrie and Gene work just as strikingly together. James Barrie’s blue eyes reflected a mirth-filled, ornery sea. He answered questions with a wind-worn face and a smirk. Gene covered his head from the wind in a gray, billed, woolen cap. He hunkered down, rising only for a short, kind word during a lull in the hard descents of the skiff’s bow.
The wind and water are constants here, and where one of these men is fire, the other is earth. All combined, theirs is an elemental harmony that is helping to preserve this vital region and its rich heritage.
The true stars of the day were winged things. As Rudy lulled the boat around the circumference of the island, the pelicans were prolific. Though the numbers on the Beacon Island colony are down this year, (perhaps due to the brutal winter,) the tiny island is still brimming with the prehistoric birds.
Like a bee’s nest, they were clustered and social with a lot of random squawk and flight. The birds soared by us with threads of grasses and debris held in their beaks. They were building nests. They were preparing to give birth. They were laying their foreheads against one another for a moment’s rest from spring’s toil. And though the crew stood as the boat glided, sharing intermittent memories and knowledge of lives lived on the coastline, the humbling industriousness of the birds left all in a state of silent observation and awe repeatedly. The pelicans on Beacon Island are a rare glimpse of nature’s incessant will to persist. They are hopeful. And hope is always worth preserving.
The day ended with a quick trip to Portsmouth Island. There was just enough time to walk into the village, to be refreshed by the spirit that dwells there, to swap more stories and revel in all that had been beheld—a rogue prayer meeting of sorts. Then, Capt. Rudy ferried us back to Ocracoke.
We rolled with the boat, as we roll through life—our bodies, bones shifting with each motion, our eyes and hearts looking forward. Then we parted, both more prepared for the next distraction, and with a deeper understanding of the part we all must play in preserving this beloved place, landscape, waterscape and people. This here is precious salt.
Writer’s note: In approximately a century, Beacon Island has dwindled from 21 acres to just under three. The island is one of only nine nesting sites for brown pelicans left in North Carolina. For more information on any of the organizations mentioned above, and to find out how you can be involved, check out: