Just in time for Christmas gift season, the University of North Carolina Press offers up a handy coffee table book of Tar Heel images with terrific text.
Bland Simpson has enjoyed a protean career. The longtime keyboard player for North Carolina roots music band The Red Clay Ramblers, he’s co-written Broadway and Off-Broadway revues including “Diamond Studs,” “Kudzy” and “King Mackerel and the Blues are Running.”
In between, he’s written a shelf of books, including history (“Two Captains from Carolina,” “Ghost Ship of Diamond Shoals”), historical novels (“The Mystery of Beautiful Nell Cropsey”), and long, meditative essays and travelogues to the North Carolina coast and marshlands (“The Inner Islands,” “Into the Sound Country,” “Little Rivers and Waterway Tales”).
For his latest book, “Land of Water, Land of Sky,” Simpson goes farther afield. Along with stops on the Outer Banks and the barrier islands, he ventures into North Carolina’s coasts and mountains, focusing on the natural wonders.
It’s a delightful trip. Simpson, a Kenan professor of English at UNC-Chapel Hill, was clearly raised on a diet of Thomas Wolfe and Stephen Vincent Benet, and his prose tends to channel both those worthies.
And he has good company. “Land of Water, Land of Sky” is extravagantly illustrated by images from three of the state’s foremost photographers, including Tom Earnhardt (host of PBS’s long-running “Exploring North Carolina” series), Scott Taylor and Simpson’s wife, Ann Cary Simpson.
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Simpson’s description of Wilmington is brief, with a reference to the horrors of 1898, but there’s a long, bemused account of the heyday of marijuana smuggling on the Lower Cape Fear in the 1980s. Who remembers the Sea Crust, the Bahamanian freighter seized and anchored at Wrightsville Beach with a cargo of pot? So large a cargo (according to old-timers) that when Wrightsville Beach police tried to burn it, the load blew the lid off the incinerator and denizens of the Wit’s End, a long-since-closed local dive bar, rushed out to grab the remains.
At Southport, Simpson mourns the passing of the old cedar at the Whittler’s Bench on the waterfront (though he does enjoy a lunch at the Provision Company). A trip to Lake Waccamaw inspires a reminiscence of A.R. “Archie” Ammons, Columbus County’s poetic genius.
There are clouds on the horizon. Water levels are rising and alligators are venturing farther north as temperatures rise. Still, as Simpson notes, North Carolina remains a great place to visit, and you might love to live here.
Ben Steelman can be reached at 910-616-1788 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘NORTH CAROLINA: Land of Water, Land of Sky
By Bland Simpson
University of North Carolina Press, $37
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