The Inner Islands

A Carolinian's Sound Country Chronicle

By Bland Simpson

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The Inner Islands

232 pp., 7 x 10, 54 illus., 4 maps, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-7125-6
    Published: March 2010
  • eBook ISBN: 978-0-8078-7674-9
    Published: March 2010

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Author Q&A

Copyright (c) 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.

Q: Your wife, Ann Cary Simpson, took many ofthe photographs for The Inner Islands. Tell me about yourcollaboration.

A: Ann and I were on the banks,walking from the ocean over to Currituck Sound one October day many,many years ago. Without too much talk about it we simply told each otherthat we would like to do such a thing—do a book together, pictures andtext, about the coast. It was years later that we worked on Into theSound Country, and then more years before Inner Islands. It's awonderful way of spending time together, going to interesting andunusual places together, and then presenting a melded vision. We've beenlucky to do this, the travel and the books.

Q: This book can be read as a companion pieceto Into the Sound Country. Does one pick up where the other left off?How do these books function together? How do they workseparately?

A: Inner Islands was originally tobe a chapter in Sound Country—it simply got too big, and we pulled itsunfinished self out of that text. Then it claimed its own life, and wewere fortunate enough to get to do it too, in more or less the samefashion we did Sound Country. They're meant to be complementary works,of course.

Q: What exactly are the inner islands, and what inspired you to write about them?

A: Anything inside the barrierssuch as the Outer Banks, Core Banks, Bogue Banks is an "inner island."One inspiration was the fact that there is a lot of literature on NorthCarolina's Outer Banks, but I could find virtually nothing on theseinner islands (most of them, anyhow—obviously Roanoke and Harkersislands have been much written about!). And, as the ones I knew abouthad always intrigued me, I decided I wanted to go exploring and see whatwould turn up. Places like Durant Island, which I could see from theAlligator River Bridge, and Harbor Island in north Core Sound, where mywife, Ann, took me by boat, really did intrigue me, and it's just plainand simple old-fashioned "wonder what's out there" sense of explorationthat provided the inspiration to do this.

Q: Although some islands, like Durant and Currituck, are known, others, like Machelhe and Batts Grave, can't be found on many maps. Can these islands be reached by anyone? How do we find them?

A: Batts Grave is a disappearedisland. It's now a shoal right near the mouth of Yeopim River; the lastsandbar vestiges of it went under in the 1950s. Machelhe Island is thenarrow body of land right over the Pasquotank River bridge fromElizabeth City—it's a lot of what one sees from the waterfront, andanyone can drive or walk over the bridge to it. There are a couple ofboardwalks, as well as good small marinas, and a restaurant. Totallyaccessible.

Most of the islands in this book are accessible only by boat—some, suchas Carrot Island, Bird Shoal off Beaufort, Huggins off Swansboro areeasy and great fun to get to. Others would present a fair bit ofdifficulty to anyone who didn't know the territory or have localknowledge or a guide.

The most important matter here, though, is that many of the islands—thebird nesting islands—are under the lease and care of the NC AudubonSociety's "NC Coastal Islands Sanctuary" Program and are the importantnesting/breeding grounds for all sorts of important shorebirds: terns,pelicans, ibises, etc. And, as such, these islands for most of springand summer cannot be landed upon. Battery Island off Southport, the ibishaven, is an example.

So it's best to know the ownership and regulatory status and visiting protocol before launching.

Q: What is your favorite least-known spot on the North Carolina coast?

A: There's a tiny, beautiful beachon the south side of Rumley's Hammock in the Cedar Island NationalWildlife Refuge, where Ann and I and our family have often gone—you siton it and look south down wide open Core Sound. A glorious spot.Reflecting on that, I start to think of several hundred other spots forwhich I feel equally strong and identical affection.

Q: Ephemerality is a main theme of this book. How much longer do we have to enjoy these islands?

A: Any number of them may not lastanother generation or two—others, those with higher elevations on themobviously, could be around for hundreds of years. It really all dependson rapidity of sea level rise, on how soon new and lasting inlets getcut through the banks, or, as coastal geologist Stan Riggs might put it,on how quickly the banks collapse.

Q: The Inner Islands is a blend of oral history, research, and your own exploration. How did you interweave these sources?

A: Each island that Ann and Ilooked at in The Inner Islands had its own tale to tell, so the blendvaried, just as a jazz trio varies its approach, song to song. In part,I used methods of simple reporting; for example, what and where is thisplace, what has happened there, and what is interesting about it orabout getting to it? And in part through thinking back, usually longafter a visit and at a couple hundred miles distance, as to what wasreally striking or odd about the spot. I try to be intuitive or evenimagistic, as a poet or songwriter would be, in looking for ways andwords to reveal the spirit of the given place.

Q: The book is arranged in a north to south trajectory. Is there a particular reason for this?

A: Yes—I wanted to start out withthe area I know the best, the northeast, where I lived as a boy. Then Iwanted to move toward the central coast, which Ann has shared with meand introduced to me very well over the past twenty years, and then headto the Cape Fear country, which I've gotten to know through doing musicshows and readings and some television.

Also, as our coastline is quite complex, moving north to south seemedlike a way to help a reader unfamiliar with this complexity have aneasier time keeping straight where we were on the map, relative to wherewe were in the text.

Q: You are a very busy person. How do you find the time to teach writing at UNC-Chapel Hill, play in The Red Clay Ramblers, and write books? Which of these pursuits is your favorite?

A: What I am is a very luckyperson, always with plenty to do and a lot of support for it, from myfamily, community, the University, and on and on. To get to go, in turn,from classroom to concert hall and then out into the field, the swamps,or out on the big open water, and then back again, is a pretty happymix. A favorite? Impossible, like dividing up air in a jug.

Q: The Inner Islands is the fifth in a series of books exploring North Carolina's coastal plain and sound country. Do you have plans for a sixth? Are there any areas left to explore?

A: Sure, I'm already at work on asixth. Any geography or topography, though finite, has otherlevels—social, historical, emotional—that go along with it, and theseare infinite and inexhaustible. Eastern Carolina, its coastal plain andriver and sound country, this all gets bigger to me all the time—I'llnever run out of places to explore, ever.

For more on The Inner Islands, listen to an interview with Bland Simpson.