Heraclitus declared that we can’t step into the same river twice. Others have noted that the only constant in life is change.
Time and time again I have heard visitors to Ocracoke express the same sentiment we read in the comments to a recent post: “Don’t let Ocracoke change!” I have often remarked that most people who voice this thought are actually advocating for an Ocracoke like the one they first encountered (30 years ago? 20 years ago? 5 years ago?). Everyone, it seems, wants to close the gate behind them. And yet no one I’ve spoken with wants to return to an Ocracoke before their own time.
Although I fully agree that we must work to preserve the best qualities of our unique, beautiful, and often threatened island and community (more on that below), it is naïve to believe that Ocracoke can ever persist in some artificial time warp. Furthermore, whose “first encounter” will we use as the benchmark?
When confronted by good-intentioned folks who yearn for the idyllic Ocracoke that never changes, I sometimes point out to them what it might be like if things had not changed in the last fifty – sixty years.
When I was a young boy,
· Ocracoke had no ferries. What few visitors came to the island arrived by mailboat. Later on, we had a three-car private ferry (with no railings, no ramp, and no dock). Although this was a wonderful period of island history, be honest with yourself: most of our readers would never have even heard of Ocracoke; and most of the rest would never have considered traveling to this remote outpost.
· We had only one paved road (a short section of one-lane concrete used by the Navy). What few vehicles were on the island were frequently stuck in the soft sand; and virtually no one had any reason to venture as far as Hatteras Inlet.
· A day at the beach (an infrequent outing) meant a long, hot walk across the sand flats -- unless someone had access to a surplus Army jeep.
· Water (rainwater caught in wooden cisterns) was rationed carefully, especially in hot, dry summer months. Baths were infrequent, and drinking water was strained through cheesecloth to filter out (most of) the wigglers (mosquito larvae).
· Fires were extinguished (or not) by neighbors manning a bucket brigade.
· Medical emergencies were handled by family, friends, and maybe a resident nurse. There were no ambulances, helicopters, or clinics.
· Electricity was basic, minimal, and often unreliable.
· Telephone service was spotty and irregular.
· Indoor bathrooms were almost unheard of.
· Air conditioning was non-existent.
· Most homes were heated by kerosene space heaters.
· Cable TV, the internet, and mobile phones were un-dreamed of.
It is not that I sing the praises of all modern “conveniences.” I do not have a television, and I was even one of the few islanders who voted against the installation of a municipal water system in the 1970s. I knew it would spur growth; and it has. I loved the Ocracoke of my youth – a magical place unlike any other.
However my home and business have air conditioning and central heat. I am connected to the internet, and use a mobile phone. I even enjoy the convenience of the water that flows through my tap from our sophisticated reverse-osmosis water system.
At the same time, I am committed to preserving the best of what Ocracoke has to offer. Instead of longing for an island that will never change, I hope for an island that can somehow manage to balance a rich, colorful, and vibrant history with the demands of a modern society.
There are many things that are beyond our direct control. Federal, state, and county regulations determine property values, taxes, highway decisions, school particulars, Park Service decisions, and many other issues. Property is bought and sold; and again, federal, state, and county laws intervene, often to protect property owners’ individual rights.
As I’ve said so many times, Ocracoke is no artificial attraction, like Disney World. This is a year around community of about 750 people, and we all have a voice in Ocracoke’s present and future. And we don’t always agree. Compromise is necessary.
Every person who moves to Ocracoke brings a slightly different voice. Every baby born here is a unique individual. Every adult from the island sees the world through a slightly different lens.
Those of us who want to preserve what we see as the best of island life can do so in a number of ways. Elected office is one way. Voting is another. But there are others. Some in our community serve tirelessly as volunteers in the school, the churches, the fire department, the civic & business association, on various boards and committees, and in many other ways.
Many islanders have spent countless hours preserving stories, history, and genealogies; as well as trees, plants, open spaces, buildings, and traditional culture.
One of the reasons I personally collect island stories, and share them whenever the opportunity arises, or call a traditional Ocracoke square dance, or host a wintertime pot luck dinner, or restore a typical island home, or even brew an occasional batch of meal wine, is not only to hold on to a bit of the sense of shared history and culture that binds us together as a community, but also to encourage others to do the same.
To call for our island to never change is to call for our island to die. We have no better example of that than Portsmouth, the ghost town across Ocracoke Inlet. So instead I challenge us all to accept with good graces the inevitable changes, the new neighbors who move onto our island, the new technologies that can enhance our lives, and the innovations & creative activities that bring excitement and joy into our lives.
At the same time, I challenge us all to do a few simple things to help preserve our precious island home. Turn off your TV and walk to a neighbor’s home for a visit. Invite friends over to play cards, quilt, play music, or just to talk. Plant a garden. Take your family or friends out fishing. Let it be known that your neighbors can borrow your tools, or ask for your help with a project. Walk more, or bike. Stop along the way just to chat.
Of course, more needs to be done. There are real challenges and threats to a simpler, more relaxed way of life. We need to support our elected officials who work to preserve our unique and wonderful island community with far-sighted legislation that celebrates our heritage and prevents the destruction and degradation of our community.
We also need a practical and realistic view of our island that can balance all that is good and rich and beautiful from the past with whatever good we can extract from the outside. Change is inevitable. Without being passive, I hope we can glean from the changes what we choose, and combine it with the best of the past and present to create a living community that residents and visitors can all embrace.
PS: To all those good folks who have called for Ocracoke never to change (both in this journal, and in person), I do understand your sentiments. I no more want Ocracoke to end up like so many other coastal resort communities than you do. We must work to prevent those changes that threaten our very special community and way of life. I thank you for your heartfelt concern.
Our latest monthly newsletter is Lou Ann's story of commercial clamming with 13 year old Morty. You can read it here.