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DG Martin: Bland Simpson’s North Carolina

By D.G. Martin

The next time somebody asks you to describe North Carolina, pull out and read aloud this quote from the beginning pages of Bland Simpson’s new book.

“It is a line of sandbars some nearly 30 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean some less than a mile from the mainland; a set of broad, flat terraces, vast farm lands, and timber stands broken by willow-clad rivers both black water and brown and by their deep gum and cypress swamps, occasional bluffs, and green and golden marshes; a host of hills made of red clay and sand, growing pines called loblolly and longleaf, oaks called white and red and turkey and blackjack, red maples and river birches and hickories with shaggy bark; and then a profusely eruptive land of tall folds upon folds, peaks, ridges and rocky tops, domes, cliffs, grassy balds, and gorges, a host of mile-high mountains, too, with a vast quilt of blue haze laid out over it all.”

Then, if you really like this person, guide her to Simpson’s new book, “North Carolina: Land of Water, Land of Sky.” It is stuffed full of color photographs of sights across North Carolina taken by Simpson’s wife, Ann Cary Simpson, professional photographer Scott Taylor, and naturalist Tom Earnhardt.

The lovely photos supplement the book’s main attraction, a trip across North Carolina led by a master communicator who is thoroughly familiar with and deeply in love with his subject.

In his first section, “This Wet and Water-Loving Land,” Simpson takes readers up and down the coast from “sleepy Plymouth,” to the British Cemetery on Ocracoke Island, through the swampy land of the Lumbee along the Lumber River, winding up in Southport and its gravesites “beneath the bending and yearning live oaks, the small sassafras, the unmoving Spanish moss.”

In his second section, “Short Hills and Sand Hills,” he guides us across the Piedmont including poignant stops from his boyhood in Chapel Hill’s Battle Woods, Forest Theatre, and Gimghoul Castle.

He shows us other underappreciated sites all over the region, including, for instance, “The Uwharries stand tall and proud high above the same-named river that flows through them, national forest and a mountain range (one of the oldest on earth) comprising the biggest wilderness in the middle of North Carolina, a great wild country scarcely known, if at all, to most of our citizens. South and west of Asheboro, west of Troy and the state zoo and the state pottery center in Seagrove, this 50,000-acre big empty with its almost 1,000-foot peaks lures wild spirits to it, for the Uwharries are full of streams, trails, and ghosts.”

Simpson’s third section, “Jump-up Country,” demonstrates that, while his prior writings have focused on the eastern part of the state, he has not neglected the awesome treasures of the rivers and high mountains in the west. He takes us to some of his favorites. One of them, Max Patch in Madison County near the Tennessee line, “a-top-of-the-world corner” about which he writes, “With a 360-degree view, we looked down upon a rim of hills all around us and rolling blue hills beyond us in all directions, at crags and haze and clouds already in valleys near and far below, this midafternoon of a summer’s day.”

The book concludes on a somber note, Simpson’s visit with William Friday shortly before he died in 2012. Friday warned that the natural treasures, such as the ones described and illustrated in this book, were in peril. He saw only negative actions from state government regarding the preservation of our rivers and streams.

Simpson concludes, “What Mr. Friday saw–and foresaw–was instead a message of carelessness, recklessness, and even defiance of common sense, and this was what had so clearly driven his concerns about water during the last months of his life.”

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” Sunday 3:30 p.m. and Tuesday at 5 p.m. on PBS North Carolina (formerly UNC-TV). 

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