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Natural Splendor on Cumberland Island

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Photo: Roe Ethridge

There are 10 bedrooms in the stolid, four-story colonial-style wood main house of Greyfield, and two cottages containing another six. As on oceangoing vessels, life at the inn revolves around the civilizing rituals of cocktails and meals. One eats very well on Cumberland Island, from set menus prepared by Ian Kitch, a young chef who shares the owners’ commitment to food that is grown organically and in the vicinity. One drinks well, too, from a diverse wine list, and whether because of that or a combination of salt air, physical exertion, and bracing isolation from the hubbub of civilization, one tends to sleep there as if clubbed.

Cumberland Island is longer by four miles than Manhattan. It is broader than the many more northerly islands draped like a loosely strung necklace along the coastal shelf. Unlike some of Georgia’s barrier islands, it is still a large and substantially secure place, even when the tide is high. This fact was well appreciated by successive waves of inhabitants, perhaps first among them the statuesque Timucua Indians, who long ago passed out of existence, leaving behind immense shell middens and skeletal evidence of a link between bone growth and a diet rich in protein and calcium. Spanish explorers of the 16th century marveled at the robust anatomies of these tattooed six-foot giants. Then the little bearded foreigners began the process of wiping them out.

Food sources were apparently always plentiful on Cumberland Island, and to this day there are oyster beds dense enough to resemble prickly pavement. Wild hogs probably descended from pigs introduced by the selfsame Spaniards roam the place, or anyway skulk furtively in the underbrush, trying to dodge a Park Service biologist committed to exterminating them as destructive non-native pests. Locals call this man “a pig-killing machine,” and so he must be. I never saw the slightest hint of a hog.

Sea Island cotton, rice, and corn were all grown commercially here at one time, and archaeological evidence points to abortive attempts to establish sassafras as a crop in early times. Pine, hickory, cedar, and live oak stand thick in the interior forests; beneath them grow red bay trees whose leaves have long added savor to a low-country boil.

There are otter in the creeks and mink in the swamps and armadillos wherever it is that armadillos burrow. There are great horned owls, white ibis, ospreys, peregrine falcons, and eagles both golden and bald. There are 335 species of birds all told, 15 to 20 of which are endangered or else so direly in need of sanctuary that the United Nations has designated the island a Biosphere Reserve.

The wood stork, to name just one of the more imperiled residents of the island, is a child-size creature that roosts in rotted oaks by a lagoon turned poisonous green by duckweed. Attracted by their raucous conversation one day, I came upon 17 of them arrayed in order of size, wings tucked in a way that suggested a sinister conclave of priests. Common mockingbirds are seemingly everywhere on the island, and some suggest it was here that John James Audubon drew the pretty gray specimens he identified in Birds of America by their unfortunate Latin name: Turdus polyglottus.

In the bar at Greyfield Inn hangs an original Havell lithograph of Audubon’s mockingbirds, struck on Whatman Turkey Mill paper. In it one of the birds defends the young in its nest from a rattlesnake’s fangs. I was informed that there are rattlesnakes on the island and also alligators, but winter was coming on when I visited and so the reptiles had already bedded down in their wallows and dens. There are dolphins, I also learned, that hunt the shallows of the extensive salt marshes, but I never saw one. And here our naturalism seminar ends.

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