Cumberland Island, one of the largest of the famed Sea Islands, is a glowing gem in the crown of Georgia. Seventeen and a half miles long, with an area of 36,415 acres (including 16,850 acres  of marsh, mudflats, and tidal creeks), it can be reached only by private boat or the ferry that departs from St. Marys. It lies just off the coast like a breathtaking courtesan: mysterious, challenging, unknowable and completely entrancing.

Given the estimated 4.2 million gallons per day of oil — and hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic dispersants — now pumping into the Gulf of Mexico, Cumberland Island’s pristine beaches and delicately intricate eco-system may become mere memories;  memories that will haunt us for generations to come.

In the spirit of “don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”, I will try to capture the essence of Cumberland in words. A quixotic endeavor, I know, but I feel compelled to attempt the impossible.

My first Cumberland journey:

Breakfast at the café overlooking the harbor and then on to the Cumberland Queen ferry for the 45 minute journey to the Island. I was well equipped with sun block and water for there are no amenities at all on the Island – and everything that one brings, one must take away.

Seabirds flashed like white diamonds from the salt marshes as dolphins accompanied us along the way. We disembarked at Sea Camp (one of two ferry docks, the other being Dungeness). I then walked for 20 minutes or so through dense and ancient maritime forests of palmetto and live oak. Shadowed by these mystic trees and bathed in the light of verdant green, it was like swimming through Life itself. Silent, other-worldly and slightly unnerving, that walk through the maritime forest is one of the most profoundly lovely experiences I have had.

Suddenly, from this dense wonderland of silver-green, I burst into light. The dunes lay before me in undulating hills of sand and scrub, marked only by the hoof-prints of the Island’s wild horses. Mile upon mile of wind-swept beauty, mounded and shaped by a master artisan’s hand.

Once over the boardwalk along the dunes I came to the beach: 17 miles of pristine, shell-embellished sand and not a soul in sight.

I felt the ghosts of the doomed Mocama Indians who inhabited the island over 4,000 years ago, the territorial Spanish who arrived in 1566, the land-hungry British under General James Oglethorpe in 1733, the slaves who served the lords of the later plantations: the triumphs and tragedies that are woven into the tapestry of Cumberland Island.

Further exploration took me to the great ruins of Dungeness, the magnificent castle that was built by the widow of Revolutionary war hero, Nathaniel Greene. When the Island was briefly occupied during the War of 1812, the British used Dungeness as their headquarters. One can only imagine the scenes of revelry and power.

“Lighthorse” Harry Lee, father of Robert E. Lee, Robert Stafford, the Carnegies, the luminaries, dignitaries, debutantes and dilettantes – all came to sip of the elixir that was, and is, Cumberland Island. The elegant lords and ladies who waltzed through the many balls, those who luxuriated in a life-style of unparalleled wealth and those who fell to their knees before the cruelty and bloodshed: these are the sibilant ghosts that inhabit the Island today.

Records show that in 1846, there were 36 white people and 400 enslaved people. With the end of slavery after the Civil War and in the face of a changing economy, the plantation era came to a close. Dungeness burned to the ground in 1866 but the ruins still stand as a monument to a grand, glorious and painful past.

Those who have explored the North End of the Island are forever changed. I was fortunate enough to be allowed to do so,  though few “tourists” are. The Slave Settlement is now a field of standing chimneys – the hearths of the tiny slave cabins. To lay one’s hand upon those stones is to open one’s heart to the shattering reverberations of the past. The black cemetery drew me in and my fingers traced the inscriptions. “Uncle Primus. Born a Slave. Faithful field hand on Cumberland Island until death.”

The First African Baptist Church, established in The Settlement in 1893, was rebuilt in the 1930s. It is one of the few remaining structures of this community and is renowned now as the site of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s wedding. It is tiny, rudimentary, almost crude, enduringly lovely…and I sat in a pew and simply breathed in the prayers of the past.

The National Park Service named Cumberland Island as “one of the most significant natural areas in the United States” in 1955. In 1969 an eager developer, sensing a tourism gold-mine, attempted to turn Cumberland Island into a commercial area. This ill-advised plan resulted in an uproar among environmental activists who joined with the Georgia Conservancy to push a bill through the US Congress that established Cumberland Island as a national seashore. The bill was signed by President Richard Nixon in 1972, whereupon the Carnegie family sold the island to the federal government. Cumberland Island stands, to this day, as one of the most undeveloped places in the United States.

I have returned to the Island again and again in my four years in St. Marys. Now I sit at my desk, reading of the epic tragedy unfolding in the Gulf, and I wonder what is to become of this extraordinary treasure.

As a primary “stop-over” point on the transatlantic migratory flyway, over 335 species of birds have been recorded on Cumberland Island, including several threatened and endangered species such as the Least Tern, Wilson’s Plover and the American Oystercatcher. Pelican Banks, the southernmost point of the island is a preferred location for black skimmers, oystercatchers, pelicans, and numerous ducks and other shore birds. The fresh water pond areas provide idyllic rookeries for wood storks, white ibis, herons and egrets. In the forest canopy, you will catch sight of warblers, buntings, wrens, and woodpeckers while, on the shores, you may be treated to the magnificent sight of osprey, peregrine falcons and bald eagles and golden eagles.

From manatees, dolphins, crabs and sea turtles to wild turkeys, armadillos, feral horses, vultures, white tail deer, bobcats and otters, Cumberland Island is a paradise of natural beauty and fascination.

As the Gulf’s oil is “dispersed” it will enter the water column. That mixture will eventually be caught up in the voracious Gulf Stream Loop and hurled up the eastern seaboard. Will I stand on the endless beaches of Cumberland and watch sea turtles again – not as they make their ancient, laborious journey across the beach to nest, but as their corpses wash ashore? Will those dunes, marshes and creeks become fouled and dead as toxins make their inexorable way inland?

I am not an oceanographer, meteorologist, marine biologist or any other “ologist”. But I do know that we cannot fight poison (oil) with poison (dispersants). We cannot destroy the quality of our land, air and sea without paying a price beyond all reckoning.

“Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  I find that I have little tolerance left for that cry of exoneration and grace. We do know…and yet we continue.

All photos by Alex Kearns.


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Alex Kearns

Alex Kearns

Alex writes for a variety of national and international publications. A relative newcomer to the United States, she co-founded her town's first environmental organization (The St. Marys EarthKeepers, Inc.). In turns bemused, confused, entranced, frustrated and delighted, she enjoys unravelling the eternal enigma that is the Deep South.