“I had spent four years propped on the front porch […] bemused and dreaming, watching the sun shine through the Spanish moss, lost in the mystery of finding myself alive at such a time and place.”
Walker Percy, from The Moviegoer (1961)
Jekyll Island, GA, is a place I have loved for over 20 years, from the first time I visited. Its “spirit of place” or genius loci, derives from several factors:
It’s small, only 7 miles long and a mile or so wide at its widest point, about 4,000 acres of land mass (not including marshes).
It’s an island, 11 feet above sea level at its highest point (the tiny airport), and it’s a barrier island at that, always changing with shifting tides and currents, the sand from the north moving south inexorably over time. (Technically, it’s not an island, as it’s reached by a long causeway over acres of marshland and intracoastal waterway from the mainland, but in geologic terms, by virtue of its function, it’s an island.)
It’s relatively undeveloped; by law, only 35% of the island can be developed, and until recently that development was very low profile.
It’s a state park, run by the Jekyll Island Authority as part state park, part business; the Georgia State Patrol has jurisdiction on the island for law enforcement.
It’s home to a wealth of shorebirds, songbirds, raptors, and others, and it’s a layover spot for many migrating birds. I was once present on a bird-watching walk for an “irruption” of multiple species of warblers (an irruption is an irregular landing, while on migration, of a large number of birds at once, often those not usually found in that area). Breathtaking.
Some birds of the island:
It’s the ancestral nesting (then hatching!) home to large sea turtles, mainly loggerheads with a few leatherbacks and green turtles from time to time. Between 100 and 200 nests are laid, with hundreds of eggs in each, every year. The nests and turtles are protected and monitored by the Georgia Dept. of Natural Resources.
It’s historically significant as the winter playground of the wealthy elite around the turn of the 20th century; powerful men converged there to hunt and to talk finance — one 1910 meeting on Jekyll resulted in draft legislation for the creation of a U.S. central bank and for what would become the Federal Reserve Act in 1913. The Jekyll Island Club and some of the homes are well-preserved.
There are miles of bike paths, along the intercoastal waterway, near the ocean, and in the middle of the island, for easy exploration of the flora and fauna.
A catalog of the island’s natural communities is impressive, especially to someone who’s grown up in the mid-Atlantic and in northern New England. Some of these include southeastern Florida maritime hammock, outer coastal plain sweetbay swamp, Atlantic coast interdune swale, saltmarsh ecotones (red cedar-live oak-cabbage palmetto marsh hammock), salt shrub thicket, Atlantic coastal shell midden woodland, sea oats temperate herbaceous alliance, Carolina willow dune swale, south Atlantic coastal pond, southern Atlantic coastal plain salt and brackish tidal marsh, southern Atlantic upper ocean beach.
That it’s a barrier island on the southern, balmy Atlantic coast of the U.S. imparts some of the spirit to this place, but there are many other such islands that don’t have the same feel for me. I think the spirit of Jekyll comes partly from its relative lack of development, that sense of wildness even a few hundred yards off of its several golf courses — or even on a golf course, where it’s not uncommon to see alligators in the canals, herons feeding in the evening, large snakes along the nearby bike paths, osprey soaring above.
(golf course visitors: osprey over the course, roseate spoonbills and great heron on it):
Its storied, peopled history also contributes to its atmosphere. It was described in a 1904 magazine article as “the richest, the most exclusive, the most inaccessible club in the world” and there is a sense here of a place out of time, the ghosts of prominent, upper-class socialites, financiers, industrialists imperially haunting the manicured lawns and the slightly dusty homes in the historic district.(Of course, this is not its only history.)
This convergence in thought and place, though not in time, of an unpeopledness now and a potent peopledness in days gone by, accounts, I think, for some of Jekyll’s particular spirit, a complex and slightly melancholy feeling, loneliness, a sense of absence, humans in a world not their own, strangers in a fertile, fluxing, tropical environment; and that feeling overlayed or undercut by a memory from the collective unconscious, both nostalgic and uneasy, of the kind of carefree moneyed leisure that barely exists anywhere now, and the kind of secretive, feverish, purposeful oligarchic activity that persists everywhere and continues to control nations.
“To be a Southerner, or to live Southern, is to feel, well, something special even in the quiet, something fine in itself after all those rebel yells and ‘roll tides’ have finally faded into silence. The great Texas writer Larry McMurtry once wrote of a man born beside a river of melancholy, and I have always loved that line. To be a Southerner, born or re-planted here by fate, is to drive through that stillness of landscape and spirit and feel it, and we mumble a few lines of a song from childhood, to gather the ghosts of our tribe around us. When I was a little bitty baby
My mama would rock me in my cradle
In them old cotton fields back home”
Rick Bragg, from My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South (2015)
In spite of recent upscale redevelopment, there is still an old-fashioned, unhurried feeling on the island, encouraged by such amenities (or not) as a simply constructed mini-golf course, the presence of few hotels and restaurants, a small fishing store near the north end fishing pier, bike riders pedaling slowly along the cement, dirt, and wooden bike paths and bridges, an old-style campground (with bird-feeding area), beach horseback riding, an abandoned amphitheatre that’s gradually returning to nature, small tram tours of the historic area, dedicated picnic areas, volunteers leading quiet and slow nature walks most mornings, and a striking absence of crowds most of the time, particularly on the beach, which is not especially white, and which can host swarms of biting flies, is sometimes covered in dead jellyfish or sea pork, and is inaccessible most places at high tide.
And there is an extensive array of wildlife, common and exotic, that roams, flits, swims, slithers, soars, buzzes, browses, and sits in wait throughout the island. And the vegetation!
A few of my favourites, in addition to the birds, above:
So there is something nostalgic about Jekyll, a throw-back in some ways, a yearning for it to be a throw-back in ways that it’s not, along with an awareness that the wealth and power of its past (and perhaps present) are in many ways detrimental and at odds with its future, and the future of other natural places, as GDP, incessant demand for economic growth and consumption, trade pacts, oil drilling, greed, and secret political deals among power brokers threaten habitat everywhere.
And yet, when I am here, the sound of the ocean surf, the vastness of the vista, a glance of sunlight on the marsh, chance encounters with gators and wood storks, the undeniable teeming vitality of the place relaxes me, takes my breath away even as it breathes life into me.
As Walker Percy says, in the quote to start this post, I am “bemused and dreaming … lost in the mystery of finding myself alive at such a time and place.”
Thanks for checking in. Be sure to see what the other 31 Dayers are writing about.
This project is a bit like Wallace Stevens’ poemThirteen Ways of Looking At A Blackbird, in that I’m writing about a sense of place from vantage points that may not obviously connect with each other. I’m not going to attempt to tie them together. In the end, these 31 days of looking at a sense of place may overlap, contradict, form a whole, or collapse like a flan in a cupboard, as Eddie Izzard would say. That remains to be seen. Thanks for stopping by.