Last week Sylvia and I visited North Carolina’s Cape Fear region, the southern tip of the series of islands, shoals, and lagoons that form an elbow into the Atlantic, nudging the Gulf Stream toward Europe. My attendance at the semi-annual conference of the North Carolina Writers Network prompted the visit, but we took a few days extra to explore the historic city of Wilmington and the Cape Fear peninsula. In Colonial times Wilmington was a major seaport, exporting not only cotton and tobacco but also huge quantities of tar and turpentine, giving the state its nickname as the Tarheel State. It was also a major part of the system of slavery that underpinned the economy and the society of immigrant Europeans that drove it. In our Civil War it was the last center of Confederate blockade running, overrun by Federal troops in early 1865, shortly before the war’s conclusion. Today’s Wilmington boasts the third-largest concentration of movie production in the US, with ongoing productions around the region.
But these human atrocities and sufferings are not why it is Cape Fear. Originally named by sailors who feared for their lives while trapped in the river’s estuary, it has remained Cape Fear because it is the beginning of the stretch of violent storms and shallow waters that makes it “the Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Thousands of ships and human beings have ended their days in these stormy waters. It has been a place of warfare, slavery, and disaster, but it is also a place of serene beauty, spreading oaks, and abundant wildlife. Today there is a fine aquarium at the tip of the peninsula, which lays out the complex and delicate ecology of water, land, and life that constitutes the Cape Fear River basin.
While we were wandering through the aquarium I was aware of another cape that has shaped our life – the Cape of Good Hope. The opposition of their names as well as similarities in their life and history began to play upon me. Cape Fear is a placid beach covered with trees and grasses. The Cape of Good Hope is a rocky backbone plunging in froth and spume into the frigid waters where the warm currents of India meet the Antarctic and Atlantic oceans. Good Hope is latitude 33.5 south, Cape Fear is 33.5 north. Both Cape Town and Wilmington were centers for the slave trade – the kind of symbiosis I traced out in Red Clay, Blood River. The Cape of Good Hope is rocky, forbidding, austere, perpetually windy. It has also been called the Cape of Storms. Cape Fear is sandy, warm, welcoming, and, when the storms aren’t roiling up the Gulf Stream, salubrious. Yet both are incubators of an abundant ecology of life, whether it is the floral kingdom of the Cape of Good Hope or the lush vegetation of Cape Fear.
It is sailors who have put these names upon these boundaries of land and water. They named a cape Fear because of monstrous storms and dangerous shallows. They named a cape Good Hope because it marked the point where Europeans started sailing east toward India. Both are boundaries between the unknown turmoil of the ocean’s depths and the visual certainties of land. They are promontories in our human exploration outside the safety of our known world. They are liminal places where hope is stalked with fear and fear can only be endured because of hope. We put our bloody and industrious history upon them, but they also bound what human might and mind can do within the web of wider life and earthy form.
Since I don’t have a poem to share today, let me direct you to the YouTube video of my reading on Saturday night, taken by Charles Fiore of the NCWN staff. There are two poems from Turnings and three others previously shared on this site.