Friday, September 28, 2007

Comments from Philip

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.


  1. Anonymous12:33 PM

    What a wonderful and thoughtful response to the whole notion of keeping the charm of Ocracoke. I've often thought of this in the same light - mainly because we face similar issues here in Lancaster, PA, but you were quite eloquent in your post.

    It's a difficult balance, but to be honest I've never been that worried about Ocracoke losing its way. There are too many folks such as yourself 'minding the store' and passing on the legacy of common sense when it comes to development. That certainly doesn’t mean it’s an easy task. There are, of course, battles won and battles lost, but overall it's the same beautiful place I remember coming to over 37 years ago. I even remember the Village Craftsman Tipi (although barely, sorry)!

    My wife and children now also share the same love that I have always held for this special place. When it comes to our vacations, to even think of another destination is high treason. My daughter has vowed to live there one day and I have been coming closer and closer myself to making that move – even with the all the ‘hardships’ that would entail.

    It’s hard to explain Ocracoke to those who have never been there, but you do a great job of painting the full picture. Keep up the good work. I read you daily and have for years. Thanks…

    Andy Bailey

  2. Anonymous8:09 PM

    Beautifully written and right on the money. John & Joan

  3. Anonymous10:34 AM

    I've thought on more than one occasion of commenting on your writing talent, but your latest entry really begs the question--what is your background in writing, language, etc? Your abilities as a writer are uncommonly good and suggest specialization in the field, or perhaps a career in teaching. Am I close? Appreciate your journal entries--A Daily Reader

  4. Anonymous2:48 PM

    Wonderful thoughtful response Philip, and I agree with you that change is inevitble. But from a distance one would only hope that Ocracokers have their zoning laws in order, and that aesthetics and "quality of living" trumps "making money" under at least circumstances. Also, that the cost of living is somehow kept down so that the kids of native Ocracokers can afford land and a house AND non-natives of modest means can continue to visit and stay in Ocracoke. I would hate to think that in 20 years only rich people could live or vacation on OK Island.

  5. Anonymous1:44 PM

    Dear Philip,

    I wanted to write and ask a question or two after reading your latest comments. I am like many of your readers that hates to see the island changing. I also realize that much of my thoughts are selfish as I want the door flung open welcoming me, but slammed shut when others want to come. Your comments were excellent and left me thinking.

    How much more do you think the island can change? For example, how many more buildable lots are available? Is there the potential for lots more to be constructed or is most of the large places already full? Around the harbor, how many more lots do you anticipate will change or built upon? Can the towns infrastructure handle another building boom?

    Thanks for all your time that you spend preserving, promoting and informing others about Ocracoke. You are truly appreciated!

  6. Anonymous7:18 AM

    I recently discovered your blog and have enjoyed it very much. Although I have only visited once, I felt wonderfully at home there. Perhaps its because I grew up on the Coast of Maine and the people I met on Ocracoke reminded me so much of home. Like someone posted above, I hope that there are ways for the next generation to be able to afford to stay on the island if they want. Many of the best coastal communities in Maine are now out of reach of many Mainers because they can't afford to purchase land, homes, etc. and if they want to stay in the area they have to wait to inherit the land and then the fact that they can sell the land and make lots of money sometimes is more inticing then staying.

    Porstmouth was the highlight of my trip. I've read everything I can find on it and Porstmouth worked its way into my heart. I wonder though if Portsmouth wouldn't have discovered a new breed of folks if the government hadn't stepped in.

    Born in Maine
    Living in Exile
    (a quote from my favorite coffee cup)

  7. Anonymous4:25 PM

    Wow, over a week without an update from Philip. I hope everything is ok. I know you all get busy, if so, no problem. Just trusting that all is well.

    God Bless

  8. Anonymous12:57 PM

    Everything ok down there? We haven't seen an update for more than a week. Let us know if you all are doing well.

  9. Anonymous1:32 PM

    Hello Folks,

    Don't fear everything is well here at Ocracoke. Philip has been out of town for a couple of weeks or so visiting Lou Ann and jude has been gone since late last week visiting her mother in Maryland. I think both should be back on the island by tuesday.


  10. Anonymous2:29 PM

    I't sad how we all get when we don't get our Ocracoke fix.