By Lucy Bryan
From the ferry’s observation deck, we watch the sleepy port of St. Marys recede. Beyond the brackish water churning in our wake, the gray December sky hangs low over a winter-gold marsh. I inhale the scents of mud, salt, and sea, grateful for the wind on my cheeks and a moment’s reprieve from the nausea that has accompanied my first trimester of pregnancy.
It’s been more than a decade since my last visit to Cumberland Island, a 17.5-mile long barrier island just north of the Florida-Georgia border. Accessible only by water or air, it offers adventurers 9,800 acres of designated wilderness and more than 50 miles of trails. In both high school and college, I led friends on backpacking trips there. We chased armadillos through its maritime forests, waded through tidal creeks, and trekked barefooted over miles of deserted beaches. This time, I’ve brought my husband and my brother with me—and the tiny being, no bigger than a lime, that’s floating in my womb. But I’m not sure what, exactly, I’m taking this new being to.
Three months ago, Hurricane Irma tore through this region, sinking boats, downing trees, and ripping docks from their moorings. The National Park Service evacuated Cumberland Island National Seashore and closed it to visitors for weeks of cleanup and restoration, just as it did last year after Hurricane Matthew damaged docks, trails, and beaches. I know that natural disasters like these are likely to multiply and intensify as a result of our changing climate. Rising, warming seas are already lapping up the edges of islands everywhere, which makes me wonder: how do I raise a child in this world, knowing such destruction will be his inheritance?
Relief fills me when we disembark at Sea Camp dock. The majestic live oaks of my memory remain, unscathed. Thick branches bow toward the sandy soil, forming living archways, benches, and slides. Other limbs, draped in Spanish moss, spiral upward and divide into an intricate lacework overhead. Beneath the canopy, the fanned fronds of saw palmetto form a nearly impenetrable understory. We shoulder our packs and set off on a silvery trail cut through the bright green blades. After half a mile, we reach our campsite—a clearing with a fire ring, picnic table, and a cage on a post, designed to keep our food from the nimble paws of raccoons. To the east, massive sand dunes border the canopy. We can’t see the Atlantic Ocean over the powdery, white mounds, but we can hear its waves crashing on the beach.
Interspersed throughout the campground are mature citrus trees, heavy with oranges, grapefruits, tangerines, and kumquats. My husband and brother sneak into neighboring campsites and scale twisted trunks, plucking bright orbs and shaking others to the ground. They return with a bounty, their fingers scented with zest, and we feast on tart wedges. This abundance surprises me. How is it that the hurricane didn’t rip the hard, green fruits from their boughs?
I wonder, too, who planted these trees. This island has a long history of human habitation. The Timucua people and their ancestors hunted, fished, and occupied villages here for thousands of years. Spanish and British colonizers built forts on the island, and later, plantation owners used slaves to raise livestock, harvest timber, and grow cash crops like cotton and indigo. Pittsburgh millionaire Thomas Carnegie, brother of Andrew Carnegie, acquired an estate here in the 1880s; in the following decades, his family purchased 90 percent of the island and built several mansions as winter retreats. I suppose it was one of the Carnegie employees who put these trees in the ground and tended them in their early, vulnerable years. Could he have imagined that the fruits of his labor would delight the tongues of hungry hikers more than a century later? I envy the legacy he unwittingly nurtured.
After making camp, we walk south on the beach, stopping to examine the vacant carapaces of horseshoe crabs and patterns carved in the sand by the outbound tide. A flock of seagulls scours a shallow pool near the shore, then ascends in a chaotic whorl. With a mile of boot-prints behind us, we turn inland and take a boardwalk through a swamp interspersed with cabbage palms. Here, we see the first of many feral horses—a white mare who, despite her dingy coat, looks like she wandered out of a fairy tale. She is a descendant of the mounts brought here by the British in the eighteenth century and, given her coloring, perhaps of one of the Arabians the Carnegies turned loose, hoping to improve the wild stock enough to domesticate and sell.
A little while later, we arrive at Dungeness, the estate of Thomas and Lucy Carnegie. We stand before the ruins of their mansion, completed in 1884. Crumbling brick and stone walls, towering chimneys, and hollow portals are all that’s left of the opulent 59-room castle. Gone are the lavish fixtures and furniture. Gone are the elites who golfed, hunted, and dined here as guests of one of America’s wealthiest families. Gone are the nearly 200 servants who once maintained the estate. All it took was a single spark, in 1959, to consume the years of planning and labor (and the sizeable fortune) required to construct the 35,000-square foot edifice. It gives me a strange pleasure to know that the island’s horses, considered inferior by Thomas Carnegie, have outlasted his mansion by more than 20 generations.
I continue thinking about the Dungeness mansion—grass sprouting through its cracked foundation, vines snaking up its interior walls—as we hike back to camp through the forest. I think about it as we roast kebabs over our campfire. I think about it after I retire early to our tent, the fluids in my body churning like the ocean beyond the dunes. Every parent is an architect, bent on shaping the world around her children so that they—and their children—will thrive. Wasn’t that what Lucy Carnegie was doing when she oversaw the construction of her castle, then funded three more Cumberland Island mansions for her married children? Whatever world she was trying to create for them isn’t here anymore.
In the morning, we pedal rented bicycles up the road that bisects the island, whirring through a long, green tunnel on white sand. Miles north, we pass through fragrant pine groves and over a brackish creek. Eventually, we reach Plum Orchard—the classical revival style mansion built for George Carnegie and later occupied by his sister Nancy and her husband, the island’s doctor. Inside, we pass through rooms clad in hand-painted wallpaper and ornate wood paneling. A tour guide points out the innovative plumbing in one of the mansion’s 12 bathrooms and shows us the coal furnace used to heat the indoor swimming pool. Here, we get a glimpse into the Carnegies’ extravagant lifestyle. But for me, the dark hallways and stuffy air evoke decay. I am eager to return to the live oaks and salt breeze outside.
Soon, we are speeding south alongside the surf. Long shadows spill from our bicycles and intertwine as we race past each other. Wheeling over the hard sand, sunlight glinting on the waves, I am overcome with joy. For the moment, I inhabit a world worth leaving to the being my husband and I have created. I throw my head back and shout, “I’m having a baby!”
We spend the final night of our trip stargazing on the beach. In the morning, after a simple breakfast of coffee and granola bars, we collapse our tents and return to the Sea Camp dock. Waiting to board the ferry, I watch a pair of parents chase their grubby one-year-old over gnarled oak roots. I smile at them and think, yes. The key to raising a child in a world permeated with destruction is to choose wilderness over walls. For in the face of fires and floods, fortresses crumble. But the beings that become part of the wild, rather than attempting to subdue or resist it, beget life. The citrus trees and horses here testify to that truth.
I will not be able to spare my child this planet’s brokenness any more than I can save this island from the rising seas. Who knows what will surround this seed I am planting half a century from now. But I can teach him to love birds and beasts and trees. I can teach him to learn from them and live in peace with them. And I can take comfort in this: wherever there is wilderness, there is life.
Lucy Bryan is a writer, adventurer, teacher, and mother who splits her time between Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and Ohio's Appalachian Plateau. Her work has appeared in Earth Island Journal, The Other Journal, Quarterly West, and Nashville Review, among others. She is currently working on an essay collection that examines experiences of loss and discovery through the lens of place.
Banner photo courtesy Joseph Bryan.