Photo via Instagram @raleigh9kitch
When I was little, I was told some Coastal South folkore about the creation of Spanish Moss. The story is set several centuries ago, before the invasive moss covered our coastal trees and the native tribes still reigned throughout the region.
As the European explorers settled the Coastal South, a Spanish man met a young native woman. He liked her, but she refused him. The much older Spaniard did not take the rejection very well, so one day he attempted to corner her alone.
The indian girl ran and ran, and eventually found an oak tree that she could scurry up. The Spaniard followed her up the tree, so she went out on a limb -- as far as she could manage. Just when she thought the Spaniard had trapped her, he lost his balance and slipped out of the tree. However, his long gray beard got caught in the branches and ripped from his skin.
After this nasty fall, the Spaniard died. However, the story claims that his beard continued to grow on the tree, and with it, his spirit continued to search for the girl. Spreading from tree to tree until it covered the entire Coastal South.
Local dolphins in the St. Johns River have been spotted with severe cases of skin lesions, indicating their immune systems are compromised. In these photos, a newborn calf is covered in lesions and also appears to have an orange algal-type mat growing on its rostrum (face) and dorsal fin. Unfortunately, this does not bode well for his/her survival. A similar algal-type mat was observed on resident adult dolphins at death.
There have been several recent reports on the east coast (in addition to the Gulf) of people spotting dolphins, manatees, and other marine wildlife with growths and fungi on them. These growths are attributed to red tide, which is an algal bloom that produces toxins that can kill marine organisms, taint shellfish, cause skin irritations, and even foul air. They can also cause respiratory issues in children and elderly.
Algal blooms naturally occur, however, scientists, fishermen, and outdoors-people have noticed that they have been increasing in size, intensity, and persistence in recent decades. This is attributed to the increase of foreign nutrients in coastal waters – which causes the algae to grow at an unnaturally fast rate.
I wanted to share some simple tips on identifying the algae and what you can do to help!
If you spot an algae bloom (like the one pictured), you can quickly report it by dropping a pin on the App “Water Rangers” https://app.waterrangers.ca/
Create a River Friendly Yard.
Whether you are in your car or boat or on foot, pay close attention to what is going on around you. Is dirt running off a construction site into a creek? Did you spot a fish kill or a broken pipe? Is someone illegally-dumping trash or pollution into a storm drain or directly into a river? Report these issues to your city works or state environmental agency (they should have a hotline).
Most importantly, keep children and pets away from blooms. Wash thoroughly if you have come into contact. And do not eat fish caught in bloom areas.
You may have noticed that lately, magnolia trees are blooming everywhere!
The Southern Magnolia has become a symbol for the deep South – even being chosen as the state tree of Mississippi and the state flower of Mississippi and Lousiana. However, these trees can grow in states ranging from southern portion of North Carolina, down to Florida, and all the way over to Texas.
These trees are large in every way. They grow 1-2 feet per year to reach a total height of 60-80 feet, and a width that is about half their height. Their blossoms can reach one foot in diameter when fully opened. Their leaves typically measure at least half a foot long.
When planting a magnolia, their size should be taken into consideration as well as their leaves. Seriously, I can speak from experience – these large leathery leaves are not to be taken lightly! As a kid, my parents sometimes gave me the chore of raking these leaves and collecting their large seed pods – and since these trees typically shed their leaves year-round, this can be never-ending. When this layer of heavy leaves is combined with the dense shade of the tree, you will be fighting a battle to try to retain your lawn underneath the tree. So, don’t plant a magnolia if you want a pristine lawn…. Or, unless you have children for free labor. (Just kidding!)
Magnolia seed pods are also frequently used in art and décor throughout the South. My favorite use of these seed pods is located in the Tattnall Square Park in Macon, GA. The park is currently undergoing a restoration, due to a community effort composed of locals and Mercer University students and staff. The park originally had several brick gateways, but they had since been torn down.
Rather than creating the typical magnolia finial (pictured above) the Friends of Tattnall Square (along with help from the Knight Neighborhood Challenge) got ceramicist Amy McCullough Hellis to create one-of-a-kind finials for the new gateways.
“Macon-based ceramicist Amy McCullough Hellis designed and created the magnolia pod finials special for Tattnall Square Park; Mike Dobson at Westside Stonework did the incredibly complex rubber mold and stone casting for the finials; and Franco DeMichiel oversaw the entire project. Most importantly, we decided not to use a prefab or mail order catalog finial early on in the process. We wanted something more creative and imaginative—something that really reflected Tattnall Square’s own personality as a center of creativity and natural beauty. After bandying ideas back and forth, Tattnall Square art adviser and decorative artist Katy Olmsted suggested that we create original finials to reflect the many seed pods or nuts present inside the park […] Inspired by the scores of old magnolias in the park, Amy chose an autumn magnolia seedpod as her model and worked on the piece for ten months, first finding pods, then sculpting a maquette (a small model), and then another maquette, and finally the larger piece. She wanted to create something that looked hand-crafted, rather than mechanically reproduced, something asymmetrical to reflect the unique and asymmetrical world of nature (and magnolia pods), and something that subtly suggests the historic arches at Tattnall’s gateways.”
– Andrew Silver, pictures and quote posted on Friends of Tattnall Square Park
Update: The Alabama Historical Commission concluded that the ship found does not match the measurements of the Clotilda. Read below to learn about the history and continued search for the last American slave ship.
A few weeks ago, environmental reporter Ben Raines of Alabama made a discovery that many reporters and historians dream of. For years, Raines had been studying the disappearance of America’s last known slave ship, the Clotilda. Thanks to a recent storm, he thinks he might have found it.
While I was living in Alabama and reading about the state's coastal history, the story of the Clotilda made an impression on me. When historians or locals reference the Clotilda, it’s not mentioned proudly. On the contrary, the ship is typically referred to as an example of the continual defiance of wealthy southern plantation owners – not only regarding slavery, but also federal and international law.
Almost from the nation's beginning, the South’s growing reliance on slavery was in direct conflict with the new “revolutionary” ideals of liberty and human equality. While many of the Founding Fathers were not abolitionists, they were overwhelmingly anti-slavery. John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson began anti-slavery campaigns as early as the mid-1700s, and eventually President Jefferson would succeed in outlawing the Atlantic Slave Trade in 1808. In a speech, he explained their hope that the law would stave off the slave industry and eventually result in its elimination – and he also acknowledged his fears if it failed to do so:
“It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation and deportation peaceably and in such slow degree as that the evil will wear off insensibly […] If on the contrary it is left to force itself on, human nature must shudder at the prospect.”
Rather than take these concerns seriously, some plantation owners welcomed the challenge. Even decades after Jefferson's outlaw of slave importation, slave smuggling continued in small numbers. Around 1860, well-known plantation owner Timothy Meaher made a bet that he could successfully smuggle an entire ship of slaves past the federal guards and into Mobile Bay, AL. To do so, Meaher retrofitted an 85-foot cargo ship used for carrying timber and hired Captain William Foster to take it to West Africa, where he exchanged $9000 of gold for African tribal war prisoners. Once the ship returned to Alabama, the surviving 110 slaves were delivered to various plantations and the ship was steered to a secluded spot and burned to destroy the evidence.
For more than 150 years, there has been wide speculation as to the location of the remains of the burned Clotilda. Reporter Ben Raines collected numerous written and oral stories about the ship, including the captain’s records, but it wasn’t until this winter that a “bomb cyclone” caused water levels to drop 2.5 feet and gave him a rare opportunity to hunt for it.
"It was actually breathtaking and I thought, 'This might be it!'" he said.
He described his initial view of the site: "With the tides more than 2 feet lower than normal, I saw this big sort of dinosaur backbone almost, arcing up out of the mud along the shoreline." (NPR)
Though he’s not certain, Raines is working with other experts to find any evidence that would rule out the ship. However, so far they’ve found only similarities, including the burnt and charred framework:
“Like the infamous slave ship, this one also had two masts. ‘Then you look at how the ship was rigged with iron fasteners that are commonly found in lumber trade schooners and that's another connection, marine archeologist Greg Cook said. Additionally, ‘based on what we know of the width or the beam of the ship, it's spot-on with the measurements that we had.’"
The Clotilda has continued to gain historical significance to this day, as descendants of the Clotilda Africans have maintained their small settlement outside of Mobile. They are the only African Americans in history who are able to trace their slave ancestry back to the exact ship and tribe.
Since the Clotilda Africans were smuggled into America, they were never registered or considered “legal” slaves. So, when the Civil War occurred only a year after their arrival, the Clotilda Africans volunteered to be deported back to Africa. Both the local government and Meaher refused. In response, the Clotilda Africans then began saving money in an effort to pay for passage back to Africa. Once they realized that they could not save enough money to afford the trip, they asked Meaher to sell them some land to establish their own community. Meaher sold them land on the delta just north of Mobile and on the west bank of the Mobile River. They called their community Africatown.
In Africatown, they chose their own leaders and adopted community rules that were similar to those of their African tribes. They maintained their language into the 1950s, as well as keeping many cultural traditions. Over the past century, their population has fluctuated, but an estimated 100 of the inhabitants are directly descended from the Clotilda.
The last survivor of the original Clotilda Africans was Cudjo Kazoola Lewis, who lived until 1935. This also made him the last living slave brought directly from Africa. Cudjo died around the age of 94 years old. He is pictured below with his great-granddaughters, twins Mary and Martha, born in 1923.
Cudjo Lewis was born Oluale Kossola in the modern West African country of Benin. He was a member of the Yoruba people, more specifically a sub-group called the Isha. Kossola was born into a modest family and at the age of 14, he began training as a soldier and learned how to track, hunt, camp, shoot arrows, throw spears, and defend his town, which was surrounded by four tall walls. The teenager was also inducted into the oro, a Yoruba male society whose role was to police the community. At age 19, Kossola fell in love with a girl he met at the market, and at his father's urging underwent initiation that enabled young men and women to get married. However, in the midst of Kossola's teenage training his town was attacked by the Ghezo, the King of Dahomey (a neighboring warrior tribe). Dahomey is well-known for their highly skilled, all-female military unit known as the Amazons.
Many of Kossola's tribe were killed and the rest of the townspeople were taken prisoner. Kossola and his companions were held for three weeks in a slave pen before being sold to the captain of the Clotilda. During his 45 days on the ship, Kossola remembers suffering from terrible thirst and the embarrassment of being forced to travel naked.
Once in Mobile, Timothy Meaher could not pronounce Kossola and instead called him Cudjo. Cudjo worked in a steamship and lived in the bottom of Meaher’s house. As such, Cudjo later served as Africatown’s spokesman when dealing with Meaher.
Cudjo outlived his wife and all their children. It wasn’t until Alabama-born author Zora Neale Hurston filmed him in 1930 that the Africatown settlement became known for its individuality. From this, Cudjo is also the only known African deported through the slave trade whose moving image exists.
The work songs in this video: "Wake Up Jacob," "Tampa," "Mule on the Mountain," and "Halimuhfack." The film footage shows children’s games (1928), logging (1928), and a baptism (1929). The film appears to be from her work as a student of anthropology under the tutelage of prominent anthropologist, Dr. Franz Boas. A graduate of Barnard College and a Guggenheim fellow, Hurston traveled to back to the South to capture a variety of short takes of African-American life at that time. The films emphasize folklore and traditions, with a belief that “…cultural performance and beliefs must be expeditiously collected and documented because they would soon be gone forever.”
After the twinkling lights and ornaments have been packed away, most of the nation settles into a deep hibernation – where social obligations are few and rarely spent outdoors. However, coastal residents continue to celebrate the season with a knife in one hand and a glove on the other. In the Southeast, it’s fair to estimate that a mention of a bushel of oysters is met with greater enthusiasm and attendance than any given warm-weather party (no matter how many kegs or slip’n’ slides are advertised).
Oysters have been a part of the local diet even before the arrival of Europeans. Pre-colonial mounds (AKA middens) of oyster shells can still be found scattered across barrier islands and throughout the Lowcountry. In fact, historians believe that the oyster roast as we now know it most certainly has Native American roots. Native Americans also used the razor-sharp shells for a variety of tasks.
Early settlers made use of the leftover shells, burning them to extract lime then mixing it with sand, water, and more oyster shells to create a durable type of concrete called "tabby." Tabby is known for being able to withstand the elements (even fire), and it was used in the building of houses and other structures, some of which are still standing.
Oysters continued to gain significance throughout the colonies and it is even said that Charleston’s old social calendar was purposely aligned with the season for oyster harvesting. However, most Charleston socialites didn’t originally shuck oysters, but poached them for soups and sauces. One of the most ubiquitous of these dishes was creamed oysters or "chafing dish oysters." Ladled over toast or pastries, creamed oysters were almost as important to a ball as the champagne... (Read more below.)
While walking around the Flora-Bama, I heard one of the musicians begin playing "Ode to Billie Joe." Though I probably haven't heard this song in at least 20 years, I immediately recognized it from when my older sister used to sing it.
The song is a Southern Gothic story about the singer and a boy named Billy Joe McAllister. I never understood what the two were throwing off the bridge or why Billie Joe jumped, but now I understand that that is one of the main discussions surrounding this song.
The song was written and recorded in 1967 by Bobbie Gentry, from Chickasaw County, Mississippi. The single was a number-one hit in the United States, and became a big international seller. The recording of "Ode to Billie Joe" generated eight Grammy nominations, resulting in three wins for Gentry. Rolling Stone later went on to rank the song #47 on its list of the 100 greatest country songs of all time in June 2014.
(See below to read more about Bobbie today)
The Flora-Bama Lounge and Package (aka The Flora-Bama) sits right on the Florida-Alabama state line. It’s been touted as being America's "Last Great Roadhouse" – the five-star honky-tonk of the Redneck Riviera, immortalized in song by Jimmy Buffett and in prose by John Grisham. Its greatness is agreed upon by all who gaze upon it in wonder, some of them seeing two of it. It’s a mix of honky-tonk, oyster bar, beach bar, and Gulf Coast cultural landmark. (... See below to read more.)
You may have noticed these same fences on almost all beaches, both here and in other parts of the world. The sand fences look thin and flimsy, but they’re actually serving a great purpose. The fence is made of wood slats that are deliberately spread apart. These openings allow for sand to be blown into the fence, but then accumulate naturally in that area. These simple fences help restore sand dunes in populated areas and prevent future erosion. Gulf State Park is currently undergoing a $135 million dollar project to install these fences, which will be paid for by the 2010 BP oil spill funds.
The dune pictured below stood around 8-9 feet high. Much of Florida’s panhandle used to be bordered by similar dunes. As you move away from the beach, you can see ancient dunes that resemble hills, growing pine and oak trees. Though these have become rare in Florida (due to development), in recent years residents have realized that dunes provide an extremely effective and cost efficient barrier against erosion and storms. Now, dune restoration has become a popular cause in many coastal communities.
You may have noticed that beaches on the gulf are well known for this ultra-white, sugary appearance. This is because the sand is almost entirely made of quartz. Ironically, quartz is not a naturally occurring part of the Gulf Coast -- so how did all this white sand get there?
These quartz particles are originally from the quartz rock in the Appalachian Mountains. At the end of the last Ice Age when the world temperatures began warming and the ice caps began melting, large rivers washed down the mountains and carried the sand to the ocean. The quartz sand that is in the Gulf of Mexico can be traced up the Apalachicola River, which rises in the Appalachians.
Anyone who knows me knows that I can become very excited about identifying local birds of prey. While a cormorant may not be an obvious bird of prey, they are unique hunters... (Read more below.)
Posts are a combination of my own research, visits, and conversations, plus various information found around the web. I try to provide sources, but if you have specific questions, feel free to ask!