INTRO – The goal of any author would be to get someone to read his-or-her book, and once they’re finished with that one, pick up another. For one Chapel Hill author, the goal of his latest book is for you to read it and then NOT pick up another, at least for a while. George Olsen has more.
Bland Simpson is the Kenan Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at UNC-Chapel Hill. Spend much time reading his latest book and you could believe his real goal is to become North Carolina’s unofficial “tourism director” in charge of state waterways.
“I certainly wanted this book and other works that Ann and I have done to inspire people to get outdoors, whether it’s in a boat or hiking down a woodland trail in the Croatan Forest. It’s good for us. I’ve loved boating around the streams and rivers of eastern Carolina as well as here in central Carolina, I just know the ones in the east better, since I was a boy. And that was the joy of that I was really trying to share and communicate.”
“Little Rivers and Waterway Tales: A Carolinian’s Eastern Streams” is the latest in what inadvertently has become a series of books Bland Simpson and his wife photographer Ann Cary Simpson have collaborated on, taking readers along North Carolina’s waterways. In some way, these books are as close to biography as Simpson might come as he recounts a lifetime of excursions on coastal waters, including his remembrance of one very early, somewhat fateful float.
Read from page 7 “I do not recall, now, the name of…we ever chose to leave.”
And Bland Simpson didn’t leave. Though his career took him to UNC-Chapel Hill he found himself on the waters back east enough to have produced several books with ties to local waters… including “Into the Sound Country,” “The Great Dismal” and “The Inner Islands.” “Little Rivers and Waterway Tales” becomes the fourth in what Simpson now says “in hindsight” has become a series, the latest spurred by conversation as Ann and Bland Simpson traveled through Greene County… just this once, by car.
“We were very inspired, I’m sure, by our sense of discovery when we started coming east via 264 and NC58 down through Stantonsburg and Snow Hill and really discovered the Contentnea Creek. The Contentnea Creek is quite a river though its name says otherwise. I think that helped, that was a turning point, because I had heard of that creek all my life but I didn’t really know much about it, then we started looking into it, it’s a very interesting place with the Tuscarora history and all that, so we thought there’s a lot of these small streams that feed the main drains which are the Roanoke and the Pamlico and the Tar/Pamlico and the Neuse and the Cape Fear, all of which are much written about, but the smaller streams, less so.”
Among those smaller streams, the upper Newport River, which Simpson describes in this passage from “Little Rivers and Waterway Tales.”
Read from Page 92 “All in all, this was another fine jungle…Does this say summertime to you.”
“A facility with language” … a phrase I always come back to when reading any of Simpson’s books, whether “Little Rivers” or historical takes like “Ghost Ship of Diamond Shoals,” Simpson’s look at a great maritime mystery surrounding the missing crew of the Carroll A. Deering. Writing such as that almost leads a reader to think the words are given to the author and not sweated over.
“I take a lot of… it’s not pain, it’s care with these descriptions. I love descriptive writing. I love reading it. I love writing it. There’s something… if you’re describing a disaster … a fire or flood or something from a war… that’s not descriptive writing that’s in any way celebratory. But when you’re talking about the natural world and trying to show things that you have or I have an inherently celebratory feeling about, I’m trying to show parts and places and pieces of this magnificent province, the coastal plain, and celebrate them, so that that spirit is there.”
Simpson is an inveterate note taker on these trips, and once back on dry land takes those notes and expands on them while still fresh in his memory. And his memory is aided and augmented by the photographs taken by his wife.
“We go places together and frequently I have an idea of some research of what sort of thing, artifact or piece of landscape I hope we can get some pictures of. So we have an informal shooting script, as it were, maybe let’s get these half-a-dozen images and she’ll go from there and get much, much more, and I’ll wander around taking notes and asking questions to myself and she’ll go off, never more than 20, 30, 50 yards apart but when we get back and I see her photographs it’s a whole ‘nother trip.”
Call those trips “a paddle…plus”… the trip you took and the trip revealed. And Simpson’s nature and history will demand more paddle trips, meaning his inadvertent series will likely grow, as he agreed with my notion he had an eternal well of source material when it came to waterways in North Carolina. And not just waterways, but preservation of state culture and history. So there will be plenty more river trips, plenty more hikes on woodland trails. So the inadvertent series is likely to grow, but if all future boat trips and hikes lead to not a single word on printed page, it’ll all still be time well spent in Bland Simpson’s book.
“But as you well know when you get out and knock around you’ll see plenty of unexpected stuff, and that’s the fun. The prompts or the ideas of what we’re after, that’s just a door we walk through, and then we’re out there. We went to, up in the New River, we went to Tar Landing a mile away from where my grandfather grew up. I’d been to Tar Landing the community but I’d never been to that landing by water, and it was a thrill. I didn’t know what it would look like. I didn’t know it would be such a high hill, quite a slope, rises to about 30 feet above the level of the river, and I didn’t know what the river would look like from that point. I knew we wanted to go there and sort of what kind of photographs we wanted, but it really is, this kind of pursuit, is really a lot about discovery.”
Bland Simpson’s latest book is “Little Rivers and Waterway Tales: A Carolinian’s Eastern Streams” and is published by UNC Press. I’m George Olsen.