The following essay is published as a guest commentary.
Two trees rise out of the Albemarle Sound, battered straight by the wind. A black gum and a cypress reach together, sharing the sun, the black water, and the wisps of Spanish moss weighing down their thin branches. They lift up more than out, brittle and slender, not wide or imposing like the ancient magnolia in the church graveyard growing out of nameless bodies.
These trees are native to the brackish waters of the sound. Generations of them have grown here, but sea level rise brings salty tides to drown their roots, knees and knots. Salt sneaks into their veins and travels up toward their fingers, slowing photosynthesis and transpiration. It suffocates them. In the lab, black gum and cypress are capable of withstanding moderate salt events, but don’t fully recover until the salt is washed off of each leaf.
The lifeblood of the Roanoke River is its sweet, black water. It forms from tannin, a brass-orange chemical that turns the water acidic and dark, antimicrobial and transparent. Tannic acid, also found in wine and tea, can stop bleeding and treat rashes in human bodies. In wetland water, it filters decaying vegetation and decomposing leaves, draining blood from the black gum and the cypress. It’s a chemical, spit up by the ground and only a bit poisonous to the body. It looks a lot like sweet tea.
When English settlers first stumbled up the Roanoke River in 1585, they found a town, which already had a people and a name.
Land of the dangerous river.
The Moratuc believed in “montoac,” the plurality of gods and spirits. They drank the dark water that flowed from the fingers of one of many gods. Little of their knowledge remains in documentation, but it is believed that they told the settlers of the spirits living everywhere, in the grasses and the swamp, the heron and the trout, the black gum and the cypress.
I sprawled out on the bow of our university-commissioned boat and surveyed the sky. The black gum and the cypress leaned into each other, their canopies winking out the sun only sometimes. Their broken branches and dying leaves drifting by in the too-salty water beneath us. These trees have stood guard over the mouth of the Roanoke for hundreds of years. They have seen Indigenous canoes, Revolutionary six-masted ships, Civil War submarines, and glossy blue kayaks break into the river from the Albemarle Sound. As glaciers melt and temperatures rise and things lift and sink to where they shouldn’t be, the black gum and the cypress have begun to wither. Some will finally surrender.
I joined a group of University of North Carolina students to visit towns on the river’s edge and at its mercy. Our muse was the Roanoke, which begins in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and meets the mouth of the Albemarle Sound 410 miles later in Plymouth. The river drains an agricultural coastal plain from the Appalachian Mountains in the west all the way to the Atlantic, bringing with it the blood of millions of dying black gum and cypress, a tide of sweet black tea.
Early Saturday morning, I slipped on my running shoes and passed a group of women in aprons and head coverings with their elbows linked. They smiled at me as I passed. These were the only faces I saw until I returned to the hotel lobby waffle machine.
The Quality Inn sits at a highway intersection, eager to catch the traffic of passersby because few tend to stay. I ran toward the Piggly Wiggly out back where I thought I might find people. The sun lit up the sleepy storefronts in an orange haze, and the bolted windows reflected it back at me. I passed graffiti-covered brick and rotting roofs with missing shingles. I picked up my pace across the train tracks, warily eyeing the empty train cars and broken glass bottles strewn around the gravel. The main street looked like a sepia newspaper cover – founded in 1779 and since unchanged, flat storefronts with dark green awnings facing half-manicured green trees and broken glass windows. Out front of a decommissioned movie theater, a single red Honda melted to the pavement with a white rag closed into its back window. I surrender.
The namesake of the town of Williamston is debated, but attributed to one of two men – Col. William Williams, a wealthy and distinguished plantation owner prior to the Revolutionary War, or Dick Williams, a settler in the 18th century who arrived with 75 cents in his pocket and built a fortune with hard work and extreme thrift.
Williamston was originally settled as a hub of Roanoke River transport, and fell into disuse when railroads and highways became more practical than water traffic, the fate of many east coast small towns that have since become overgrown by weeds and hidden beneath fallen trees. Many people have fled the decaying economy and rising flood risk, leaving behind battered family homes, soggy historic land, and a mess of half-forgotten stories. Now, Williamston advertises as one of the top 10 best places in North Carolina to retire.
Come to surrender.
Our commute for the day led us to the water’s edge in Plymouth. We took out two boats and spent the morning in the ancient current, testing flow rates with lemons and water dispersion with Cheez-Its. Our laughter bounced off the sunny surface into the woods beyond, tangles of cypress and black gum branches criss-crossing over the roof of a tiny blue cabin whose porch seemed to exhale between its stilts, threatening to fall into the waves.
180 million years ago, during the Jurassic Period, North Carolina consisted of a rocky coastline west of modern day I-95. During periods of low sea level, the western and central portions eroded, and North Carolina built up the sediment into land that is known today as the coastal plain. Change has always been hiding beneath the water and the earth. This region was historically flooded by ancient seas, and is still no stranger to high water, though for some reason, we’re surprised each time.
As we motored upriver, we passed the Domtar manufacturing site. Smoke stacks littered the property, the majority active and spewing something thick and gray into the sky. Domtar, pronounced by a local artist “dum – tar,” is the paper mill that looms over the sweet black current, west of the sound.
The factory has remained the largest employer of the town of Plymouth since 2007, when the company bought out previous owners. In this merger, Domtar announced its new plan to produce fluff pulp alone, a type of soft paper that would result in a one third reduction in the workforce, a loss of around 360 employees. According to Artist and her cousin, the mill no longer makes copy paper because they are lazy.
Paper pulp production:
- Chop down tree
- Mechanically or chemically separate cellulose fibers from wood
- Mix with water and other chemical additives
- Produce fluff paper
- Fill diapers
The Domtar paper mill sucks freshwater from the Roanoke and spins trees into diapers, creating sanitary products for the beginning and end of life, and pumping the leftover water into the sky chemically woven with things you do not want to inhale. The rest floats down the sweet black water towards the Atlantic.
The factory advertises longevity and benefits, but there are fewer people to receive them.
“Still, those few left got a job for life,” said Artist, “old ladies are always gonna need Depends.”
“Babies, too,” laughed Cousin.
The morning stretched until we arrived at Cypress Cathedral, a new wooden platform built to attract kayakers and their tents to spend a night in the cypress-gum swamp. We stuck a Russian peat corer into the mud beneath the dock and pulled up soil from thousands of years ago, packed down so tightly and so starved of oxygen that spidery, hair-thin plant roots from 0 AD may have inhaled the breath of the paper mill for the first time.
I reached over and raked my fingers through the peat. Thick, black, organic mud. We could see rings of light red material between black and brown discs. A change in land use? A flood event? An English colonist with two feet tangled in the swamp and no camping platform to rescue her?
I wonder if her spirit lives in one of the trees. I have no doubt some explorers perished, declared Bland Simpson (Kenan Distinguished Professor of English & Creative Writing at UNC-Chapel Hill).
My body is also made of this.
I tried to absorb the wisdom of the dirt with the methane bubbles that squeeze their way to the surface.
How do we fix what we have done?
The water moves slowly here, winding between the tangled swampy knees of the cypress and the fallen leaves of the black gum. Back beneath the Cypress Cathedral, the river leaves more than it takes, depositing dirt that is compressed and compressed and compressed until there isn’t enough oxygen to break down the dead plants and the lives they trap.
Peat forms when plant material does not fully decay. Because carbon dioxide is naturally released during decomposition, peatland plants capture it. It takes thousands of years for peatlands to develop reserves 1.5 to 2.3 meters deep, which would store around 415 gigatonnes of carbon. Globally, peat sequesters up to 42% of soil carbon, which exceeds the amount hiding in the world’s forests. I wondered if we warmed the atmosphere with the bubbles that escaped from our 3-foot slab.
Later that afternoon, we docked and scattered around town before lunch. I wandered into the only four Main Street buildings open after 2 p.m. on a Saturday. Artist and Cousin showed me around their new shop and recounted the changes they’ve seen over the decades.
“The town relies on the factory. The factory relies on the river. We do too, but there is some nasty shit in there.”
The Parisian woman in her ice cream shop across the street cited the Black Bear Festival in June and her bistro’s escargot dish as her motivations for moving from the global fashion capital to a town with 4,000 people.
“The town is on the up and up,” She smiled like she knew something we didn’t, “We have the largest black bear population in the world!”
Bewildered, I asked many, many clarifying questions.
“We have the BIGGEST population,” she said, “Like, the bears are quite large. They eat very much.”
I wandered into the street hoping to see the twin cubs they all swore were playing in the parking lot just that morning. The eco-tourism in the area seems promising – the biggest black bears, treehouses for rent and camping platforms with a view of “North Carolina’s Amazon.” Plymouth, and other towns like it, spent the first dawn of their success shuttling shipping containers up river and tearing apart tree fibers to fill diapers. Those that are left look forward, investing in their next sunrise by emphasizing the wonder of the remaining natural wonders – the black bears and the blacker water.
At Grace Episcopal Church down the street, the Minister gave us a tour and told us stories of the town during the Civil War. Due to its position controlling the Albemarle Sound and the upper Roanoke River, Plymouth was the access point for goods shipped to Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy at the time. The Union Army fought hard for a blockade, forcing the town to surrender. During the war, Plymouth was burned twice, once by each side. During the Battle of Plymouth, the church was used as a hospital.
I could almost picture the chaotic triage inside the walls.
Tell us what you know, I urged the fading wood panels.
Legend has it, the holy building even gave up its pews to build coffins for the fallen.
After the battle destroyed all the other holy sites in the town, Grace Episcopal became the sole place of worship, and people of all beliefs flocked. I wonder if they could smell blood over the scent of the sweet black water.
As I wandered between stained glass windows and tried to keep my muddy river shoes off the plush red carpet, I saw a marble slab with two handles wedged into the floor. I asked Minister, and he promptly lifted the stone to show us its contents.
Stale air burst from the cavern, revealing dozens of green and red canisters, blue tin cans and silver metal boxes, even a red Prince Albert pipe tobacco jar.
“Ashes,” he told us, passing a gold container around our circle of uneasy smiles and trembling fingers.
“So they are just…in there?” someone asked.
He chuckled at our fear and unscrewed the cap, tugging out one corner of a dusty plastic bag.
“The identification is either in the bag tag or on the bottom. I don’t see…” he turned the container, spilling some human into the floor. “I don’t see a name on this one.”
My body is also made of this.
I tried to absorb the knowledge of an anonymous life as it mixed with the dusty church air.
Minister told us that Plymouth is home to four Superfund sites, two of which are still active. Four areas so full of waste that the United States government deemed them hazardous enough to mandate legal postings on homeowners’ informational websites. We used factory chemicals on this land, and now they grow into the grass there, mixing with the Algonquian spirits in the sweet black water and seeping into the drinking reserves.
We poison the land until we can’t live here anymore, and nothing else can either.
Outside in the church yard, a few dozen headstones leaned, surrendering to the rich black soil.
“There are more bodies here than anyone can know”, said Minister, passing under a large magnolia. I imagined its roots spreading deep, cracking into the old church pews buried beneath their younger sisters and feeding on the fallen. I wonder if the trees know which bodies poisoned the sweet black water.
I took a detour up a trail away from a beautifully manicured green field that I thought was a golf course before I realized it was a public parking lot. Nothing is built there, maybe due to seasonal flooding or historical parking shortages in the town’s prime. I watched the ground closely to distinguish snakes from sticks and almost tripped over the edge of a platform, a pier built out to the river’s edge.
As glaciers melt and temperatures rise and things lift or sink to where they shouldn’t be, the black gum and the cypress dropped their leaves into my hands. We unbury the bubbles in the peat just to fill the holes with chemicals and bodies and are surprised that the bubbles are angry at what they find at the surface. They warm the air, the ice melts, the water rises, flooding homes with waste and turning rivers from lifelines to monsters.
Moratuc. Dangerous River. We are driving ourselves out.
The change is seeping in from the Atlantic, sea salt invading drinking wells and paper pulp factories, clogging machines and tree arteries. It mixes and spreads with the factory chemicals we’ve buried in the peat and the red-black tannins that the river gives to heal us. Rising water licks the doorsteps of tiny blue river houses on stilts and steals boats from docks with missing planks.
Many of the people are gone. They have surrendered, fled from the Superfund sites and the old movie theaters; they’ve been swept out to sea, sequestered in the peat with the rest of our carbon, or stuffed into a Prince Albert can below the church floorboards. Those that remain, though, can hear the cogs slow in the paper mill and look elsewhere to find life. They have begun to listen to the spirits in the grasses. The knowledge is here, how to live with this land. It is buried in the peat along the banks of a sweet black dangerous river.
The trees are dying, but they will grow back, perhaps upriver where the salt can’t reach. The people will eventually be gone from this land. It will be soon, if we continue to lay the land to waste. If we want to last a bit longer, alongside the black bears and the Great Blue Heron, we can seek out a dusty car melted to Main Street, pull a white rag from the back window, and begin to wash the salt off the leaves of the black gum and cypress until they are healed, one by one.