Last of two parts
I also enjoyed some inland hunting back then with George McEachern, related to Sandy and Rob. He and his father owned excellent English pointers and took me on quail hunts in the pine savannas around Wilmington. One of these was on the present location of the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. There must have been hundreds, if not thousands, of coveys of quail in New Hanover County then. How many exist today?
Which brings me back to birds. In my experience, most hunters worth knowing take a genuine interest in nature, beyond just the particular game they hunt. There were quite a few such people around Wilmington back in the 1950s, and one result was that Wilmington regularly put on one of largest and most productive annual Audubon Christmas Bird Counts on the East Coast.
Edna Appleberry was the chief organizer, I think, with her husband, Cecil, being field manager. Knowing my interest in science and wildlife, my father saw to it that I got introduced to the group when I was in high school, and I got to participate in several Christmas counts. It was very exciting to be out in the field with dedicated adults working for a scientifically based purpose. I recall being a bit bewildered by the ability of some in the group to confidently identify birds by their songs alone. And I was impressed by going to the south end of Wrightsville Beach on a cold, windy afternoon to use a high-powered telescope to identify and estimate counts of gannets and other sea birds diving far out at sea.
However, as impressive as the dedication and skill of the observers were, the most important thing associated with the count came at the end of the day: the dinner served by Mrs. A, as she was known. To come to their house for the dinner, after a long day out birding in the cold, was wonderful. All of her food was good, but, in particular, Mrs. A could produce a rare and superb southern dish known as egg bread, matched, in my experience, only by the quality of that made by my maternal grandmother. If you have not encountered it, egg bread is a rich cornmeal soufflé, consisting of butter, beaten eggs, and a little cornmeal. Eaten hot out of the oven, it was incredibly delicious. I have no idea what the cholesterol content is. My wife has my grandmother’s recipe, but we have considered it presumptuous to make it ourselves.
I could go on and on about the good old days in New Hanover County. They were good. But, while writing, I‘ve had a revelation regarding the source of a major interest in my life today. I am building a 20-acre piedmont prairie. It has turned out to be a big job, truly a labor of love. What would lead a person to put years of personal effort into converting forest, which has its own obvious natural benefits, to grassland? Some explicit motivations can be seen at a blog I’ve started on the project.
Behind that, though, is an esthetic drive, and I see now that it comes from my wonderful years out on the marshes and beaches and sea and pine savannas of New Hanover. They and prairie have in common a beauty compounded of elegant repetition of simple visual elements on a regular background. In building this prairie, to satisfy my desire to see what a significant portion of the piedmont looked like before 1500, I guess I’m also re-creating a bit of my own old home.
Finally, I want to express my gratitude to my parents, at rest in a cemetery by Bradley Creek, for giving me the freedom to grow and explore. My father, Mike Vaughan Sr., also loved to visit Masonboro Island, and I believe he initiated the first official effort to bring it under the public protection it enjoys today. He was one of Jesse Helms’ boys, and we differed in our politics, but Dad was a true conservative, whose motivation came from his heart rather than his pocketbook. When he heard, I believe in the 1960s, that there was a move afoot to develop Bald Head Island privately, he went at his own expense to the Nature Conservancy’s headquarters in New York, to try to persuade them to buy out the developers. I don’t know why the Conservancy refused to become involved, but what a treasure was lost.
Looking back, it’s not just the beauty of the Carolina coast and the life of adventure with my friends that I miss; it’s even more the loss of freedom, of lack of constraint in interacting with the natural world. New Hanover County is so changed today that I have no idea how children growing up in it can be given that sense of freedom, but I challenge those of you who are raising boys and girls to try to bring a measure of it into their lives.