“That’s Noah’s Ark,” the woman said.
She came out of her door when she saw me in the woods, photographing what was left of a huge wooden fishing vessel sitting by the road, something destined, I said to myself, to sink not in water but here amid the trees, into the earth. “That’s a dead man’s dream boat,” she told me, happy to have a visitor.
She’d been neighbor to it for a decade, and it was part of her home, I think. “He started to build it about fifteen years ago, then died of cancer halfway through,” she said. “It’s been sitting there ever since.”
Twenty-feet high but already overshadowed by young trees growing through its ribs, the boat’s frame was returning to the soil, the same way the boatbuilder’s was – an emblem and companion of its maker’s life and soul even now. The ancients sent horses and slaves and sometimes wives with the dead. I wondered if this ark sailed with its creator.
It was an emblem of that place, too. South River, where the Neuse River becomes an estuary and flows into Pamlico Sound, is a small fishing town in one of the most rural parts of a “fisherman’s” county: Carteret County, North Carolina, called Down East, one of the last maritime holdouts in the South until a decade or two ago, and barely so today. The spot is twenty miles north of Beaufort in the remote heart of the interior sound country, far from any beach or crash of surf but pervaded and brought to life absolutely by water.
Like the Great Plains, this is a subdued, understated place that, all the same, communicates a wide-open grandeur, a sacred immensity that speaks in a vocabulary of quiet words. Like the Plains, it is a country of grass and horizons – and deep loss.
The estuaries and sounds, like the ocean, have all but died in the last half century, poisoned by development in their urban watersheds and by other environmental pressures, including fishing itself, which is part of the heart and soul of this location and without which this will be another place soon. Space and place, we forget, are different creatures, not always identical.
In a county where practically every yard once had a boat under construction, “Noah’s Ark” was one of the last wooden fishing vessels ever built in eastern North Carolina. Commercial fishing will last about one more generation here, then it’s all done. As I write this, the centuries-old coastal culture faces its last days, driven out by money and the collapse of the sea’s old balance. Just two or three boatbuilders today pass on the craftsmanship that built this boat. It will be a symbol of this whole human geography, of spirit and generations and community, riding somewhere in an unfinished ark against a new flood.
“We have no more beginnings,” George Steiner wrote in his breathtaking book on the idea of creation. “Incipit: that proud Latin word which signals the start survives in our dusty ‘inception.'” And as Charles Bowden, a stirring pessimist, said in the first pages of Desierto twenty years ago, everything today is memories, and “We call these memories the future… I live in a time when the imagination is dead… At such moments I often go to ground, literally. I seek some clues and solace in plants, animals, swirls of soil.”
The quiet noises that autumn evening were distant dogs and seagulls and crickets at dusk. If the boat longed for water, as I, crawling through its skeleton, imagined it did, a stretch of Pamlico Sound was just out of reach, on the other side of the trees, down the road through the tiny fishing town, and the water kept its company as a vision, at least.
Noah’s Ark was rotting among trees that were probably as old as itself, that might have been kin to it. I crawled up inside the hull or skull and saw the whole belly of it. Something beautiful beat with a pulse there still.