Sunday, February 10, 2013

Down East- Where Time Stands Still

       Since I started this blog a mere month ago I have been wanting to write about one of the most interesting places in coastal North Carolina. What originally inspired this post is my overall fascination with the area, where time seemingly comes to a halt, and life continues to proceed at a speed much slower than the surrounding 21st century world. Throughout the communities that makeup Down East, the way of life remains nearly unchanged from what it was a half century ago or more. Many still work the surrounding waters for a living, relying much on the natural resources that surround them to provide them with livelihood. In essence, Down East North Carolina is the ultimate sustenance community, working together with what surrounds them to survive.
      So, given the above passage about Down East, the next logical step is to tell you where on Earth it is. According to some, the term Down East refers to anything in North Carolina that lies East of I-95. This broad geographic region however, is hardly what many people  familiar with coastal North Carolina call Down East. To many locals, Down East is a vernacular term for what is generally thought to be the small communities Northeast of Beaufort such as Harkers Island, Stacy, Atlantic, Sea Level and many more towns that just barely make the map.

Down East NC, shown as the portion Northeast of Bogue Banks, highlighted in blue.
However, for what the area lacks in size, it more than makes up for in personality. To fully express the character of the region and its people, I call on the Carteret County nature writer Bob Simpson and his description of what and where Down East is and who Downeasters are from his book When the Water Smokes: Tides and Seasons on a Wooden Boat. This description, I believe, is one of the few descriptions of Down East (of which there are a surprising amount) which pays the area justice. It is as follows:
             "We found Down East to be the section of North Carolina Down East of Beaufort, where folks still live in harmony with the sea. To be precise, a Downeaster is best defined as one who prefers salt fish (notably spots) for breakfast. But mostly it is a state of mind, where the people like wooden boats and build them in back yards beneath big live oak trees. It is where women are sensible enough to wear calico sunbonnets while out hoeing collards in a garden fenced with fishnet. It is where men still gather in the lee of an old shed, wearing rubber boots, to tell yarns as long as your  arm and drink what they still call sodas. Down East is where you can see a black hunting dog dozing amid old decoys stacked carelessly beside a nethouse.
        Down East Carolina is where rust-streaked skiffs rock easily, tethered to stakes in the shallows, while a soft wind ripples the sounds into hills and valleys of blues and greens and beyond is the yellow glare of sand and salt haze and sun. It is where gulls nosily follow trawlers and long haulers, their decks piled high with jumbles of nets. Its where the sharp scents of salt and marsh linger in the light, damp air. It is great stacks of crab pots and fish boxes lining the docks and kids pedaling their bicycles on sandy roads. Its men going barefoot all summer, tough-footed on shelly shores and grassy lawns, men who don't seem to mind getting up while the stars are bright to set a net or pick up a line of crab pots whose floats dot off across the sound to where horizon blends with rising sun.
       Down East? Why, that's where the folks still walk along the roads at night to visit with friends sitting on porches, and gather every Sunday in church to sing together and pray together. Downeasters are the hard-working people who make up the backbone of the land, independent, strong, and proud, the salt of the earth. So whenever you visit the region located somewhere east of Beaufort, where you can watch the sun rise boldly from the sea, feel the sand between your toes, and inhale the pungence of fish and brine, of marsh and pine, you may, by watching closely, find a land of dreams that is no fantasy land, but Down East" (Pgs. 80-81).
       Simpson's description of the area is unparalleled by any I have come across. He writes with what seems to be a true passion and admiration for the area, and it certainly is conveyed through his writing. Despite the hectic world that surrounds Down East, the towns that make up the region have always managed to hold true to their roots, not letting the outside world greatly impact them, for better or for worse. Being resistant to great change and influence from the modern world means that Down East is still a very isolated region, with no large supermarkets, stores, or many of the conveniences of modern life which us city dwellers have grown to see as the norm. Despite its perceived shortcomings, there is a mystique which surrounds the area, one that allows visitors to see the external Down East but only by living there can one discover the true Down East culture. What attracts me to Down East? Perhaps it is the simplicity of the names such as Sea Level or Atlantic, or the simplicity of lifestyle, which coming from a city I have always yearned to explore. Perhaps it is the symbiotic relationship that the people have with their environment. Downeasters are a people who make a living from their surroundings while still living within the natural constraints that the land and sea sets forth. Whatever it is that calls me to the region, I hope it remains unchanged for decades to come, as the world (specifically us city dwellers) occasionally needs to be reminded that havens such as Down East exist.


Image link-

Great site for exploring the Down East communities-


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