Sunday, May 20, 2012

Barrier Islands of Georgia

Sometimes, we in the Northwest think we have the only franchise on natural beauty.  After spending a week in South Georgia on one of the Atlantic barrier islands, Saint Simons, I’m getting the feeling we should open another store.
I’ve always liked the sense of motion set off by the tectonic action that is part of living in the Northwest, the great Juan de Fuca Plate plunging under the North American Plate creating the basics of our place, thrusted-up and folded mountain ranges, topped by working volcanoes and the occasional shaker.  In turn, this movement creates the temperate rain forests on one side of the region and the great dry regions on the other.  It all provides an abiding feeling that you are moving with it, rafting a little bit closer to Canada everyday.
Google Earth
On Saint Simons, I felt a similar essential motion, though the motive force is hydraulic.  A rising ocean scrapes sand from the eastern beaches, stores it up in great, shifting sandbars, pushes it around the edges of the islands every day.  Eight foot tides carry this energy to the west, joining with the runoff of the silty rivers inland, creating flat salt marshes where an inch of elevation means success or failure to hundreds of species.  The islands are picked up and put down again, a bit closer to the older western shore.
Understanding and living with the causes of this movement organizes most hours of the day, connecting you to a rhythm played out in a soft and warm envelope of air with just a fleeting bit of humidity, like a long sigh. The barrier islands are a system rising out of several thousand years of climate change that continues and accelerates today. Observing and connecting to those rhythms, all the while entertained by the sensational bird and other wildlife the islands host, was the essence of my very busy week on Saint Simons Island.
University of Georgia
There are really several sets of sets of barrier islands, evidence of the really old ones seen in exposed clay as far away as Waycross, 50 miles to the west.  Closer to the shore there are two groups of islands, the first set formed in the Pleistocene, 35-40,000 years ago, when the shoreline was four to six feet higher than it is today.  The other time, at the peak of the last great ice age, 18,000 years ago, the shoreline was 80 miles to the east, at the edge of the continental shelf, because huge volumes of seawater were locked up in the great ice sheet.  Fairly rapid warming led to a fast moving rise in sea levels.  As it slowed, 4-5,000 years ago, these new barrier islands rose to the east of the older ones.  At that time, the ocean was rising 4-6 inches a century, stable enough to allow island formation and also pushing the new islands to the west, which continues today but with higher water levels at a rate of 12-14 inches/century.
Recurved Spit
Southwest Coastal Group
The technical term for the island’s creation is a 'recurved spit.'  Longshore currents from the north create the islands, curving and extending the land to the south.  Inside and protected by the arm of this new land is where the marsh grows.
Behind the islands, the salt marsh stretches across very considerable distances – four to eight miles wide -- the great plains of this seashore.  Because of water piling up north of the Georgia Barrier Islands, the tides pack a real punch, eight to nine foot tides at Saint Simons and other nearby islands – Jekyll, Sea Island, Sapelo, Wolf, Cumberland, Blackbeard, Tybee, Ossabaw.  The tides sweep the salt marsh twice a day.  Filling quickly and overflowing into the adjacent flats, the tides make the small creeks, looking peaceful and flat, an athletic event in the kayaks, dunking a couple of our number not more than twenty feet after pushing off.  
Because the salt water doesn’t linger long on the edges of these water courses, the thick Cordgrass grows to its full height, about six feet.  In other areas, where water spills onto the lower levels and creeps slowly along under a hot sun, the Cordgrass is less vital, reflecting the soil salinity and the anaerobic muds, growing to just three feet.  Where the water stays longer, for nearly the full tidal cycle, Cordgrass is three to six inches if it survives, but is often replaced by hardier grasses.  In places where the marsh has grown into sandy highpoints, just a couple of inches higher than the surrounding land, water may stay for just an hour or so, but it bakes and evaporates, pulling up salt from below by capillary action and crusting it on top.  These are called salt pans and vegetation does not grow there. 
Other life is transient on the salt pan, even the Fiddler Crabs, otherwise ubiquitous across the great flats, find some other place to be.  Research in North Carolina had the burrows of Mud Fiddler Crabs at 4-28/square foot in a salt marsh there.  The 100 miles of Georgia’s coast contain nearly a half million square miles of marshland, a third of all the salt marshes on the east coast of the United States.  They are a great factory of life forms serving many purposes, but most significant is that they are the flyways of eastern North America’s bird life.
The house we stayed in was directly across the marsh from a small, squat monument to the War of Jenkins' Ear and its climactic battle, The Battle of Bloody Marsh, where the Spanish failed in their lengthy attempt to expand their influence from St. Augustine in Florida further up the coast to Georgia. 
The Spanish did not do well in Georgia.  The Creek Indians were not enthralled by the busybody Jesuits.  They murdered or enslaved the missionaries and worked with the English to keep the Jesuits out.  The Spanish turned their attention to rivals in Europe.  They chased out the French, who saw this part of Georgia as a great place to transport the Huguenots, French protestants whom they couldn’t hang fast enough at home.
Despite their failures, the Spanish had treaty rights from the War of the Spanish Succession, a conflict based on growing influence over Spain by France and the frustration the Dutch had about their Spanish rulers.  While Spain’s wartime political objectives were not met, they did gain the right to board British ships in America to ensure that the trading concessions they were forced to give were not being abused by the serial plunderers and smugglers they knew the Brits to be.  A commercial captain named Robert Jenkins, was boarded in 1731 by a Spanish captain who found evidence of contraband and created a judicial solution on the spot, cutting off one of Jenkins’ ears and handing it back to him. 
Georgia Encyclopedia
While the popular telling of the story has the disengaged ear enraging Parliament who then immediately declared war, it was actually seven years before Jenkins brought his severed ear to Parliament!   How was Jenkins able to keep his ear for that period of time?  While there are engravings of Jenkins showing the ear to the lawmakers, there is little commentary on how a fleshly part of the head, no more than cartilage and skin, and seven years detached, could be so compelling.  Nonetheless, it apparently helped the argument and the British declared war.  Three years after Parliament's declaration, the Battle of Bloody Marsh ended the conflict. 
Georgia Encyclopedia
A large Spanish force had invaded, broke through the island’s shoreline defenses, followed the creeks up toward the British stronghold at Fort Frederica and were ambushed from the thick part of the forest along the marsh, something the botanists call the Forest Climax, the thick canopy of oaks and pine that signals the boundary of the marsh.  The Spanish broke and ran, those that could.
Resting in a patch of Cordgrass along Postell Creek, thinking how I might get out of this damned kayak, I felt the tide start to push the other way, toward the sea.  Happily, I let it take me.  Soon happy turned to a general concern that I was going pretty damned fast.  A dolphin breaking the water nearby was more than cool, but I quickly turned my attention to the sandbar along a channel to the east, our bird watching objective.  It required paddling across the broad, sturdy tidal flow and managing my beating heart.
At the sandbar, we saw a remarkable collection of birds, many of them mating.  Also mating were the horseshoe crabs, a species 450 million years old, huge and slow moving creatures caught on the sandbar, burrowing into the sand until the water comes again.  Looking away, across the choppy ocean to the east, we saw two examples of how much sand the ocean moves about the edges of these islands.  There used to be a sandbar called Pelican Bar, a great sweep of sand reduced to a small break in the ocean surface.  At one time it hosted vegetation and even a tree.  Two years ago, it disappeared and was replaced by Haas Bar, several thousand yards away and still barren, except for the massive numbers of birds, migratory and resident.
Crossing over to the beach, we pulled up the canoes and watched how hard the plants worked to keep all this movement at bay.  My favorite was the Beach Oat, a tall, bushy grass existing along the beach ridges.  Once a plant establishes there, it knocks down blowing sand, creating a small mound, covering up competing plants and establishing a colony of just Beach Oat.  The State of Georgia makes it illegal to take this plant off the beach, it protects so well. 
We also saw our friend from the salt marsh, Cordgrass.  Eroded into the tidal flow of the creeks, old plants are pushed out to sea, collected there and brought back home the eastern beach with a new look and function, placed by the tide into orderly rows, they are homes for fleas, beach crabs and other critters the shorebirds fancy.
The house we had was on the marsh side and the noise of the birds was so various and loud that I speculated to myself that the sound engineer of the Masters Golf Tournament responsible for its rich bird call sound track was renting the house next door.
We were joined in the morning for coffee and later for cocktails along the house's little pool above the marsh by Red Wing Blackbirds and a pair of Long Tailed Grackles who would wash up or cool off by knocking water over themselves, throwing it into the air with their heads.  They even practiced full immersion bathing, appropriate for animals growing up around all these Southern Baptists, jumping into the pool and popping back out.  Sometimes they were so wet they could hardly fly to a nearby tree to preen. 
We saw two species of vulture – first the Turkey Vulture, one of whom sat on a dock until deep dusk and waited for us to leave, not ten yards away, so he could have the carrion stashed on the other side of the marsh creek. 

Clusters of Black Vultures, whose head lacks the red skin of the Turkey, hung around the edges, waiting for a mistake by the Marsh Bunnies, residents of the marsh edge and oh so smitten by the tender and sweet grass made by the lawns of the house creatures. 
Audubon's Woodland Stork
Printable Images
There are 280 species of birds living in or visiting these barrier islands.  People say the Bald Eagle is making a big comeback here, though we saw only one, an immature who lost a fight with a big vulture over something in the marsh.  Osprey are everywhere.  The kings of the salt marsh are the long legged birds, ciconiiformes  -- Ibises, Herons, Spoonbills, Storks, Egrets, Bitterns.  Two sitings were notable.  An enormous Great Egret sat comfortably on the dock nearby, solitary, watchful and uncommon.  We saw a pair of Woodland Stork, quite rare, twice and hoped they might have been two pairs, though we doubt it.
Other notable species here are professional golfers.  St.  Simons is home to PGA Tour players Davis Love III, Matt Kucher, Zach Johnson, Lucas Glover and Jonathan Bird.  They can be found at the Sea Island Club, a lovely and exclusive club and at the airport, just off the main road, where a clutch of jets patiently wait.
There are many slave stories, of course.  Nearby Jekyll Island was the place where the Wanderer landed, in late 1858, containing 409 people who had survived the passage.  It was the last slave ship delivery on American soil. 
Ebos Landing
Georgia Encyclopedia
Another story is that of Ebos Landing and why some black fishermen still don’t fish in Dunbar Creek.  In the early part of the 19th Century several just-arrived slaves were sold in Savannah and put on a smaller boat headed for St. Simons, about 70 miles away.  The Igbos are a tribe from the southeast region of Nigeria whose lot has been one of global and national predation and the greatest suffering.  In the 60s, as nations and corporations battled for the oil that lay under their land, the Igbos were caught up in a civil war, creating briefly their own country, Biafra, the name synonymous then of starving children, replaced today by Darfur or South Sudan. 
As the slave boat approached St. Simons, some stories have them committing suicide by scuttling the boat, drowning all on board.  Others have them taking over the boat and ‘heading for the swamp,’ a term calling up the sure consequence of death.  Rising from this tragedy is a powerful mythology that they did not drown.  Rather, they were able to gain the ability to fly, turn themselves into buzzards and fly back to Africa. 
A New Deal Writers Project in 1940 recorded another telling of what is likely the most enduring story of this region:
Ain't you heard about them? Well, at that time Mr. Blue he was the overseer and . . . Mr. Blue he go down one morning with a long whip for to whip them good. . . . Anyway, he whipped them good and they got together and stuck that hoe in the field and then . . . rose up in the sky and turned themselves into buzzards and flew right back to Africa. . . . Everybody knows about them.
Novelist Toni Morrison used the Ebos Landing story as the basis for her book Song of Solomon. 
One other slave story caught my attention on St. Simons.  The biggest slave owner on the islands was the Butler family, owning 638 slaves in 1812, farming rice on Butler Island and cotton on St. Simons.  A grandson, Pierce, was living well in Philadelphia where he saw a performance, in 1832, given by Fanny Kemble, a British stage performer.  He fell flat out, face down in love and followed the later stops on her American tour.  She took her time, but finally returned his love and they married, settling in Philadelphia, quickly having two children, both girls.
Fanny Kemble
Civil War Quilts
In 1836, Pierce and his brother inherited the plantation and its many slaves and, after a time, Fanny and her English anti-slavery views came to live on the plantation.  She was a storyteller, a diarist, had a great eye and an even bigger heart.  Her account of her time there, Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation in 1838 and 1839, did what few books about slavery accomplished.  She made room for the voices of the slaves themselves, sharing the conversations she had with them.  She vowed not to publish it, but her experience there and her husband’s pro-slavery views had already doomed the marriage.  She left the island, continued her performances and finally left for England, Pierce suing her for divorce.  She published the story in 1863 during the Civil War when she feared that Britain’s interests might lead to their entering the war on the southern side.
Just before the civil war began, Butler’s finances were in disarray and he was forced to sell the slaves.  He sold 500 people for $300,000, the biggest single transaction of human beings in the history of American slavery.  The children of Fanny and Pierce continued the familiar and corrosive slavery narrative.  One daughter stayed with Pierce on the plantation and was pro-slave, the other daughter moved to England to be with her mother and was abolitionist. 
This is a place to go back to.  While a bit of a trek, it is a five hour flight to from Seattle to Atlanta and another five hour drive to the island, it was worth it.  We also caught a Class A Savannah Sand Gnats baseball game, Savannah and all its joys just 70 miles up the road.

New Georgia Encyclopedia--Great for anything about Georgia

Ebos Landing

Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation in 1838 and 1839 by Fanny Kemble


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