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Natural Splendor on Cumberland Island

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Photo: Roe Ethridge

A neurotic housewife named Peggy Gravel has murdered her husband. Or rather, her 300-pound maid, at Peggy’s urging, has pinned him to death beneath her colossal bosom. Panicked, the accomplices take off in the family car, their destination an encampment for the homeless built into a garbage dump. The road to Mortville, as the place is called, leads the wrongdoers in John Waters’s 1977 Desperate Living through a park in suburban Baltimore that the film treats as a forest primeval. As the two career down a bosky autumnal avenue, a horrified Peggy Gravel recoils. “Why did you tell me to come this way, Grizelda?You know I hate nature,” cries Peggy. “Look at all those disgusting trees, stealing my oxygen!”

This scene came to mind one day last November as I stepped aboard a small ferry headed from a sleepy north Florida town for one of the last places in the coastal United States that one might accurately term unspoiled. The largest and most southerly of Georgia’s Sea Island chain, Cumberland Island is a place known for its vast empty beaches, near total absence of development, and a version of the coastal pristine that, as a local novelist once remarked, can usually be experienced only by paying a greens fee.

I had vowed to myself before setting out that I would not succumb to Thoreau syndrome. No rhapsodies on the lesser tern would be committed to the page. There would likewise be no meditations on mortality, eternity, or the great architect of Fate. “You cannot have mountains and creeks without space,” wrote Annie Dillard, perhaps the loopiest of Thoreau’s descendants, “and space is a beauty married to a blind man. The blind man is Freedom, or Time, and he does not go anywhere without his great dog Death.”

Faced with such passages, I thought, one has little choice but to side with Peggy Gravel. True, you cannot have dunes and marshes without space, and yet on five fine days at Cumberland Island I thought not once about that beauty or the blind man, never mind the portentous hound.

On Cumberland Island one can tear along on a bicycle across hard-packed shoreline stretching empty for miles; follow trails fringed with clattering low fans of saw palmetto, overhung with the fingering limbs of live oak draped with the tatters of Spanish moss that so closely resemble stage beards flung into trees; and spot winged creatures of a size and type rarely seen outside the airless gloom of a museum diorama. On Cumberland Island one can encounter the wild things unencumbered by their explanatory captions. There, they are real and palpable and too busy going about their business to nag one into ruminations on Our Vanishing World.

The reasons this place survives almost as it has always been near a coastline littered with hideous condos, ugly marinas, and preposterous nautical-themed malls are simple. Millionaires of the 19th century had an appetite for what Henry James called “conspicuous privacy.” Thomas Carnegie, the brother and business partner of the tiny Scottish-born industrialist Andrew, was one such, and it was he who purchased most of this island in 1881 and left it to his wife; she in turn bequeathed it in trust to their numerous children, who—through a chain of circumstances so ornate that the principals discuss events of a century ago as if they were breaking news—eventually transferred it into the hands of the National Park Service.

Roughly 90 percent of Cumberland Island is land protected for the public and also, one might add, protected from them, by virtue of limited access to it. Ferries to the island from Florida and Georgia carry a daily cargo of about 300 day-trippers and camping-permit holders, who can be seen from time to time trudging with their tump-strapped gear along the island’s sole road. There is a single hotel on the island, a former private house owned and managed by Carnegie descendants who carved out a piece for themselves before the place was deeded over to the government. When dusk falls and the last day visitor heads home, those fortunate enough to be lodged at Greyfield Inn experience the delightful sensation that the island is their own.

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