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There are a great many visions, and places, we haven't words for. It is in our nature perhaps—our Corvette nature, our Pulsar nature, our Disney World Tomorrowland nature—to be able to speak far more eloquently about sex and the movies than about wildernesses. We spend so much time inside our heads, marshaling abstractions, fondling our emotions, that we have no time for the world's uncluttered spaces and their peace. We fear silence. We have not become civilized, educated and free enough for silence. Or perhaps we can nerve ourselves for just a moment of it, with a martini as the sun goes down. Certainly too much stillness, with its connotation of death, is not a good thing. We're not here for long, we haven't much time.
We must make our mark, build our houses, take our recreation. The concept of "recreation" is a new one, and we love it. We've taken to the idea like puppies to pork chops. Land use has become an obsession. There's a developer on Hilton Head who refers to conservationists as "druids." For isn't it the developers with their slick hotels and condos and villas who really have our best interests at heart? They want us to have a little bit of tamed playground for our own, where we can watch the sea and the sky and maybe the last seabird flying home. We haven't much time. The developers make nature accessible, do they not? They're curbing the wilderness discreetly and at great expense. And then it is presented to us—the championship golf courses, the raked beaches, the sumptuous buffets. We take our city pleasures, our suburban pastimes along with us, and tell our friends we're getting away from it all.
It is still possible to get away from it all, on islands, for instance, islands that the spoilers have somehow overlooked. So far. In America our loveliest and most important islands could very well be those off the coast of Georgia. They are among the richest we have in terms of history and wildness. And more and more people are discovering them. Some people even hope to save them from being leveled into mere resorts.
Georgia's barrier islands—Cumberland, Jekyll, St. Simons, Sea Island, Sapelo, St. Catherines, Ossabaw and Wassaw—were formed in a geological time when the sea level was much lower than now, perhaps by as much as 250 feet, a time when the continental shelf was the coastal plain. They are gorgeous islands, ringed with wetlands.
Half the marshes on the East Coast have been lost to pollution, sewage, dredging, filling, industrial effluent. There are those who still believe that saving marshes is a luxury. In fact, our estuaries produce 20 times as much food as the open sea, and more efficiently than any other ecosystem they combat man's insatiable desire to burn up the earth's store of fossil fuel, pollute the atmosphere, trap the earth's heat, melt the glaciers, flood the plains. Marshes produce much of the air we breathe, the living grasses and algae combining to release oxygen into the atmosphere, the dying grasses, feeding plankton, oysters, shrimp, clams, crabs and fish. It is an intricate, delicate, powerful world, anciently working, curing and correcting itself.
And here, on several of the south's "Golden Isles," the systems remain more or less untouched, although certainly not unthreatened. Shell middens, those ancient garbage heaps which preserve organic material such as seeds, fish and mammalian remains, provide a 3,500-year record of the natural environment of these islands. The wildness here is a treasure, a gift of the centuries. The land always has been desirable, coveted by the Indians, the Spanish, the English, slave-owners and wealthy Yankees. Few have possessed it for long.
St. Simons and Jekyll Island are pretty much ruined now; St. Simons with resorts and housing developments and Jekyll as a Georgia state park with a tourist-and convention-centered economy that has tidily boardwalked a good part of the beach. And on Sea Island is that grande dame of resortdom, The Cloisters. But Sapelo, Wassaw and particularly Ossabaw still retain their wildness.
Sapelo has the largest island-born black population and is the home of the Marine Institute of the University of Georgia. The blacks, many of them descendants of one of America's unique cultures, the Gullah, live in the haunting timeless ways of their mythology. Everything happened a long time ago on Sapelo. It is a silent place, rich in rhythms all but forgotten elsewhere in the world.
On Ossabaw these same rhythms of an unviolated land are preserved, and the opportunity to appreciate them is extended to more than a few, thanks to the attitudes of its owners, particularly Eleanor and Clifford West. Ossabaw is 43 square miles, bigger than Bermuda. It used to be a Creek Indian hunting preserve. Later it supported four flourishing plantations, producing indigo and sea-island cotton. Now nothing of that era remains except three tabby slave huts. The land has returned to the deer and heron, the red-shouldered hawk and the gigantic oaks covered with outrageously colored lichen and resurrection fern, a sanctuary where life continues and replenishes itself with a minimum of interference from man.
In the '20s Eleanor West's father, Dr. Henry Torrey, bought the island and constructed an estate on the north end, overlooking marshland and Ossabaw Sound where the Ogeechee flows into the Atlantic. In 1961 his daughter, wanting "to share Ossabaw in any way that won't destroy it," founded the Ossabaw Island Project. Although having the utmost respect for the land, the Wests have made Ossabaw accessible. This is no artists' colony, but certainly writers, painters and sculptors enjoy the hospitality of the big house, the working space and time provided, the delicious meals. Ossabaw also serves ecologists, botanists, historians, ichthyologists. It is an admirable employment of a land which should not be taken over, as some would wish, for recreation, development, use. There are deer, boar, turkey, wild Sicilian donkeys, sea turtles, rare woodpeckers, alligators, ibis. It is a place where in the silence one can hear the journeying of things.