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Once Upon a Turtle Moon

Waiting for miracles at the water's edge

by Roger Pinckney, with photographs by Jason Houston

Published in the July/August 2008 issue of Orion magazine




FREEPORT MARINA, the edge of the world. The ancient live oaks are blanketed with Spanish moss, a tattered and ghostly legion along riverbank and marsh, giants among the pickets of yellow pine, tupelo, and lesser trees. The tide floods the spartina flats as the sun slips off toward Savannah, where the spew from that glorious and tragic city shatters the slanting light and turns the world to bronze and gold, so beautiful you wish you could forget it’s just smoke and dust and fumes.

And it’s easy to forget here at Freeport Marina. The beer is cold, the corn and sausage and shrimp are hot, all boiled up together and served on newspaper platters. The tide is humming around the dock pilings, the floats rocking and creaking in the wakes of passing boats, the river wind whistling through screen wire. The moon is still two hours below the horizon, but it’s already making music in our heads.

It’s the full moon of June, a turtle moon, and the loggerheads are crawling ashore to nest. Loggerhead sea turtles, Caretta caretta, losing beaches, struck by boats, tangled in nets, awash in oil and garbage. They are a species just like us—eyeball to eyeball with the Death Angel.

Susan and I are fresh off the beach, windblown, gnat-gnawed, sunburnt, and thirsty. A ship got in trouble off Cape Hatteras, lost cargo over the side. Forty thousand Chinese coffee makers went to the bottom, but the packing did not. For the past week we’ve been picking up Styrofoam the size of Frisbees, five hundred gallons now and counting. Besides this recent plague, there are always balloons from cruise-ship weddings, offshore fishermen’s ice bags, water bottles, and enough mismatched flip-flops to start a half-price one-legged shoe store. They are all bad news. Loggerheads can mistake them for jellyfish, a favorite prey.

We duck into the cool shade of the Freeport bar and meet Crazy Jack and Naked Bill. Crazy Jack is hooked over the end of the counter, looking like he’s been waiting for somebody to talk to. He’s got eyes like a neon beer sign, a voice like he’d just gargled with turpentine—you know, drawed up and squeaky, like he was fixing to sing with Bill Monroe.

“Mr. Squirrel and Mr. Lizard was up a gum tree smoking a joint when Mr. Lizard says, ‘Man, this stuff is just tearin’ up my throat.’”

It’s an African animal tale with a New World twist. We’re not in Africa, we’re on Daufuskie, a barrier island on the tip end of South Carolina. But Africa is never far away, nearer than Los Angeles, with only the bump of the Cape Verdes in between.

And Africa is even closer than that. Daufuskie was home to the Gullah, brought here in chains. A diverse people from diverse tribes—artisans, tradesmen, warriors, and witch doctors—they labored here one hundred and fifty years. Eventually, all along this coast, the Gullah got land with freedom, but not forty acres and a mule, the lie they told you back in high school. Mules were expensive, and amid the ruin of war, land was cheap. Expropriated from slave masters, sometimes even gifted by former masters, it was doled out, three, five, seven acres at a time. Tasks, they called them, the acres it took to feed a family, ground a good man could plow in a day—if he had a mule.

No polyester in those days, no Dacron either. The country needed cotton, the world needed cotton, slave labor or free. If the Gullah had land, maybe they would stay. The Gullah stayed and they bought their own mules whenever they could afford them. They farmed, fished, built cabins, stores, and churches, elected constables, school boards, and bishops, and even sent one of their peers to Congress. But the Gullah would not chop cotton any more. They grew African crops instead, like rice and melons, yams and peas and peanuts; Indian crops like corn, squash, and beans.

There were a hundred years between freedom and dispersal, magic years. But then the great-grandchildren of Yankee soldiers came back for the golf and tennis and waterfront lots, tens upon tens of thousands from Ohio and New York and Pennsyl-tucky. The Gullah call them come-heyahs. This county’s population doubled in ten years, taxes increased sevenfold while the slop from the paper mill and the sugar mill slowly crept up the waterways from Savannah, poisoning the oysters and thinning the great schools of fish.

The Gullah could stand any tide but this. They abandoned their land, moved off to find work in Charleston, Jacksonville, and Savannah, sometimes New York, Philadelphia, and Detroit. Their sagging cabins are all awash in jungles of kudzu and wisteria, their tasks gone back to honeysuckle and briar, and now both deacons at the First Union African Baptist hail from somewhere up in Yankee land.

Crazy Jack is not Gullah, he’s white like me, like Susan and Naked Bill, like most of us on this island these days. But we are more African than we might think. Things we eat, the way we speak, the stories we tell, and sometimes, how long they take.

“So the squirrel says, ‘Man, just go on down to the creek and get you a drink.’ So the lizard crawls on down and is lapping up some water when Mr. Gator comes sliding along. ‘Hey, Mr. Lizard, what you up to?’”

Crazy Jack ran a record shop over in Savannah, and I can see the domed and spired skyline shimmering just over his shoulder, across the great flats of spartina, gold as grain for the harvest. Crazy Jack sold LPs, 78s and 45s, tickets to Little Richard, Ernie K-Doe, Pigmeat Markham, rolling papers, and so forth.

“Lizard says, ‘Man, I was smoking a joint with the squirrel and it just tore up my throat.’ Gator says, ‘Well, lemme have some!’ Lizard says, ‘Squirrel’s got it. Better crawl on up there and axe him.’ So the gator clumb up the tree and the squirrel looks at him and says, ‘Great God, man! How much water did you drink?’”

Maybe you should have been there to hear him tell it. And indeed, you should be a come-heyah, if only for a day. You should see this island before more Yankees gobble the last of it up. It’s an hour by boat from the nearest highway, five thousand acres, four miles of beach, three hundred souls, if all of us have souls. The beginning of the end is already here, a resort, a beachfront inn, three dozen rental cottages, a scattering of homes, “starter castles,” we call them. Development fizzled in the 1990s, after a bubble on Wall Street busted. Fine with us. But the market is seesawing its way back up again and the developers are in a high sweat. They want to tame this last bit of wild country, civilize this last tribe of wild men. Wild women, too.

Naked Bill is hunkered by the jukebox, nursing a whiskey and water. Whiskey ain’t African but juke is, an impolite verb whose English equivalent would not likely be printed here. But you’ll see how the jukebox got its name when you punch up some raucous old blues and get to bump dancing on a turtle moon.

“Just leave the damn turtles alone,” Naked Bill says. “If the Mexicans can’t find ‘em, they’ll be fine.”

Leave them alone. Nesting loggerheads, bigger than washtubs, three hundred, three hundred and fifty pounds. Yes, tides will run, winds will blow, and sand will shift, and after a couple of days, you won’t see the herringbone tracks upon the strand marking the midnight comings and goings of a creature three hundred million years old. You can read those tracks like you would read a book, the way the sand lies behind the thrust of each flipper, the wiggle-wobble of their tails between. You can see where they came up, where they went down. The way they wallowed, dug, and covered. Or if you’re lucky enough to find one laying, you can watch eggs like ping-pong balls ploop into the cavity she digs with her flippers. You can walk with her as she struggles back to the surf, swim with her, lay your hand upon her shell in a parting blessing, watch the sea phosphorus explode at your fingertips like a thousand tiny lightning bugs.

This annual miracle gives us faith. Show folks the nests, and tourists will leash the dogs and kids, the gals from the resort stable won’t ride their horses over them. The old Gullah women used to raid the nests for eggs for baking, because the whites never set and the shortbreads and cakes kept soft and moist and fine. Now there’s only Miss Janie, Miss Flossie, and Miss Ethel Mae left, and their children and grandchildren are grown and scattered. But the Latinos working the golf course think turtle eggs are some sort of organic Viagra. Se hacen muy fuerte!

Susan and I are registered under the Endangered Species Act, as part of a network of beach keepers working from here to the North Carolina line. We’ve been off to school and they have been here to teach us. We find nests and stake them each low tide, June through August. Then we look for hatchlings till October. We look for dead or injured turtles all year long. We post “gubmint” signs: SEA TURTLES, THEIR CARCASSES, EGGS, and HATCHLINGS ARE PROTECTED BY STATE AND FEDERAL LAW.

We have a hot-rod cart that never saw a golf course. Knobby tires, jacked up and geared down, it will take you about anywhere you need to go. Rack on the front for hammer and signs, rack on the back for a bundle of stakes. Thermos of coffee for morning low tides, cocktails for the evening ones—we have our sweet rituals. The surf whispering its sad low-tide secrets, the ospreys wheeling and screeching, the pelicans diving, the terns turning, the black skimmers skimming, the porpoises lolling in the shallows, grinning and rolling their eyes like they just heard Crazy Jack tell a joke.

“You go out every morning?” Crazy Jack asks. “And you drive on the beach?”

We do. At first when the tourists saw us coming, there would be a great collective grabbing of cell phones, every God’s one of them calling the sheriff to complain. So we figured to look a bit more official: khaki shorts, khaki shirts, and a big Turtle Rescue sticker on the cart. Now the tourists know who we are, but the golf-course workers think we are from the INS and hide in the bushes whenever they see us coming.

“If the Mohican hadn’t got tore-down drunk and cut wheelies in front of the inn,” Naked Bill says, “we’d all still be driving.”

The resort called 9-1-1 and the cops shut the beach down—a secret law they dredged up from somewhere. Our friend Maria was out on the beach the day they lowered the boom, sunning herself alongside her ATV, maybe naked, maybe not. “You got any papers to prove it?” she asked when they told her she had to move. “You want paper, lady, you got it!” they said and laid a $187 ticket in her hand.

Then they put up the sign. It was better than over on Hilton Head, where they post a big red no followed by three or four hundred words of fine print. But it was bad enough: no vehicles of any type or nature, no horses for about half the year, no fires, no fireworks, no nudity. They knew about Naked Bill.

So no more loading up surf rods, tackle, and folding chairs, no coolering up beer and bait. No more easing down till you find a spot that looks fishy, even though the fish don’t bite the way they used to. No more shortcut to the store, driving down to see the neighbors, or farther where you could juke without interruption.

Blame it on the Mohican. He’s not here to defend his good name. He’s a direct descendant of the convicts the English turned loose in Savannah in the 1740s, Georgia to the bone, but he looks like some wild warrior chief, swarthy from pulling crab pots in the sun, rope of black hair, his nose hooked and busted from barroom brawls, a scar the size of a half dollar in the middle of his forehead from when his last girlfriend got after him with a claw hammer.

“How about you?” Crazy Jack asks Naked Bill, his Adam’s apple bobbing like a pump handle trying to draw prime. “They mad at you too, bare-ass in that old fire truck, all them girls bare-ass, too, down on the beach shootin’ at them damn Yankee tourists with a damn potato cannon.”

“Random acts of naked terrorism,” Naked Bill says. His sentiments are left over from when General Sherman got too handy with his matches, when he burnt every home, school, courthouse, outhouse, and church in a swath a hundred miles wide and four hundred miles long. Sherman went on to command the army during the extermination of the Plains Indians, and a hundred and forty-odd years later, he made liars out of the talking heads after 9/11, when they said such a conflagration had never happened in America before. It’s a long time to hold a grudge, but we got burnt out, so we still hold it.

Naked Bill pulled the water cannon off the back of the fire truck, replaced it with a long stick of two-inch plastic pipe. A whiff of starting fluid and the flick of a Bic, and it would rocket a russet two hundred yards. Wouldn’t kill nobody, but it sure made ’em scatter.

Naked Bill got his name when he was fishing off Tybee and wouldn’t put on his britches for the Coast Guard. That was the year of the Atlanta Olympics, when they ran the sailing events down here and the coasties, game wardens, and deputies were boarding boats looking for Osama. There was a good-looking young boatswain’s mate in command, Naked Bill says, and this is how it went:

“Sir, can I see some identification?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Sir, can I see your fishing license?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Sir, will you please put on your pants?”

“No ma’am.”

And then she sped away before he had a chance to get her phone number.

“It’s the lights, not the driving,” Susan says. “Last year they fished forty hatchlings out of the condo pool. They thought it was moonlight on the ocean.”

Hatchlings the size of poker chips. Susan calls them her babies, the sum of all our hopes. A bedraggled island coalition had fought the condos in the press, in committees, in state and federal court. They cost us time but we had time. We cost them money but they had plenty. Yeah, we knocked off a floor, but they built the damn things anyway, five-story nightmares on an eroding beach, turtles nesting in front of it, bald eagles behind. But it wasn’t just hatchlings that wound up in that swimming pool.

“Take me to the condos,” Susan said.

Susan is the kind of gal who will dog a bone right down to nothing. You might tell her no a dozen times, but it just won’t stick. And she was about to get shut of all this civilizing. By that time I had had my quota of condos, but I humored her. 

“Okay, baby, we’ll do it tomorrow.”

Tomorrow came and tomorrow went. “You said you were gonna take me to the condos!”
I slid off the hook again, but a couple more days and she cornered me one final time. “Okay, dammit,” I said, “I will stop everything else and get in the cart and I’ll take you there right now!”

She eyed me like an osprey eyes a mullet. “Naked,” she said.

By that time there were thugs on the island—caretakers, they called them—who’d sunk one of our boats, gloomed and threatened. “I can’t go down there naked!” I howled.

“Why not?”

“Where in the hell will I put my pistol?”

Naked Bill never saw us, four o’clock one Sunday afternoon, but he was mighty proud when he heard about me and Susan naked down a mile of beach in the jacked-up cart. There was a hundred feet of loose sand I thought we’d never get through, but we did. We drove as close as we could, hopped the fence, and had the pool all to ourselves for about three minutes. Then somebody came a-running and flapping, and when we got out of the water, he beat feet just like that boatswain’s mate when Naked Bill wouldn’t put on his britches. Nothing much came of it, but it was a good story for a while.

That was all a couple of years back, before we got registered and respectable, before I cold-cocked one of the thugs with a magnum of Chablis and went to jail for it. But that’s a whole ‘nuther story.

“Don’t reckon chlorine does a turtle much good,” Naked Bill says.

Susan breaks down and cries whenever the tide gets a nest, when the ghost crabs and coons get them, too. God help anybody she finds digging. “And then they had to swim clean to the Gulf Stream,” she says.

“Reckon they made it?” Crazy Jack asks.

Ninety miles on the energy of a yoke, a thimble of faith. Susan does not answer. I want to say, Them poor little skutters was dead before they hit the sea, but I know a thimble of faith can tilt the Earth.

Crazy Jack is ten years older than the rest of us, old enough to remember German subs prowling offshore and the great litter of war that washed up on our beaches, the splintered lifeboats, oil slicks, and bodies. “You know how we enforced the blackout during the war?” He asks it like a question, but we know he already has the answer by the flash in his eyes. “We shot at every light we saw.”

“Well,” says Susan, with that osprey look in her eyes, “maybe we could talk Naked Bill into breaking out that potato cannon.”

Naked Bill grunts and motions for another whiskey. A thimble of faith can tilt the Earth. I want the come-heyahs to all go home, back to the concrete and crime and smog they have created, not stay and make more of it down here. But I know they won’t. I want the air to clear up and the water too. I want the Gullah and the fish to come back, but they won’t likely either.

But the turtles will come, back to the beaches where they hatched, fifty, sixty years before. From Africa and the Azores they will come. From the Tortugas and Antigua and from Labrador. On the full moon they will crawl up into the dunes. And there among the rattling sea oats and the jackstraw of last year’s spartina, they will weep great salty tears as they lay their eggs. Biologists will tell you it’s just a way to regulate salinity, but we know better. They weep for the babies that may never find their way back to these beaches, for beaches that may not even be here at all. They weep for all that has been and all that is to come, here on this barrier island on borrowed time.

I weep too. And I will help them as best I can. One miracle at a time will suffice.

The barkeep brings another round as the sun slides down the west and the shadows grow long upon this land I love.

I turn to Crazy Jack. “You got anything to smoke?”

He giggles. “Climb on up that gum tree yonder and axe the squirrel.”

The high-tide breeze comes ghosting up the river, sets the palmetto fronds rattling. Moonrise in another hour.

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Roger Pinckney is the author of five books. He lives on Daufuskie Island, South Carolina, and 2008 marks his fifth year as a Department of Natural Resources turtle volunteer.

Jason Houston is Orion’s picture editor.

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