Saturday, August 14, 2004

To the lighthouse

Ocracoke Lighthouse from the Salt Marsh

We headed for Ocracoke as soon as they would let visitors back on the island. We came home a day early, just ahead of the evacuation notice for Charley. Ocracoke between storms was calm, sunny, beautiful, peaceful. As tourists, all we could know about the ordeal of Alex, which brought water higher than Gloria almost twenty years ago, was what we could overhear about cats rescued (or not), computers saved (or not), floors buckled and windows blown away.

With our first post-Alex housing being across the street from one of many well-tended cemeteries on the island, we were reminded that on Ocracoke, the dead are always with you. As we hung on to every word of Philip Howard's ghost stories on his walking tour of the village, we learned that they are closer than we thought.

Within two days, we were able to get a cottage with a vista on Silver Lake.

The day we set out, August 7, was National Lighthouse Day. This date memorializes the day in 1789 when the federal government took responsibility for building and running all the lighthouses. We made it a point to visit five North Carolina lighthouses on the trip down.

The first two are reproductions of "light stations," structures that put the "house" in "lighthouse." The lightkeeper at the Roanoke River light station, which (in a new location) overlooks the river and the town of Plymouth, lived here with his family until one of his children fell out a window and died. After that, they hired two lightkeepers who worked in shifts, their families on safe ground. The second, at Manteo, is beautifully sited in the town's harbor, though it too is not in its original location.

Down from Manteo is the Bodie Island lighthouse, the only structure that arises out of the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, a 6,000-acre haven for wintering and migrating sea birds that the Roosevelt administration had the forethought to preserve.

Then comes Hatteras. It still looks out of place, after being moved a ways inland five years ago from its original location, but the phenomenal move itself now seems like an inevitable thing. Looking down from the top toward the path it took, it's almost possible to forget that Dare County went to court to oppose the $10 million project, calling it a boondoggle and a folly in the making.

What is it about lighthouses? Why not let Hatteras fall into the sea, as others have? A weakness for lighthouses, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, can only be called romantic. It's doubtful that they were always so loved. (Confederate soldiers blew one up at Bodie Island when the Carolina coast was occupied by Union forces.) There was little romance in working as "wickies," trudging up and down dark staircases to light the whale oil or, later, kerosene wicks. Those jobs disappeared years ago when electric lamps and, after that, photocells were installed. The fully automated "light tower" that sat 13 miles out beyond Hatteras at Diamond Shoals has been inactive since its light failed in 2001. With GPS, lighthouses are all but extinct, given over to technology that works more exactly if less evocatively.

"It will rain," he remembered his father saying. "You won't be able to go to the Lighthouse."

The Lighthouse was then a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye, that opened suddenly, and softly in the evening. Now--

James looked at the Lighthouse. He could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry. So that was the Lighthouse, was it?

No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too. It was sometimes hardly to be seen across the bay. In the evening one looked up and saw the eye opening and shutting and the light seemed to reach them in that airy garden where they sat.

It is hard to resist the pull of lighthouses, for, as Woolf knew, they are not simply one thing. At sunset we reached Ocracoke village and took in the reassuring sight of its modest white tower, commanding the skyline across Silver Lake. Later, we saw it from a new perspective. The base of the Ocracoke lighthouse is now open to visitors. You can't climb up, but you can look up to the top of the metal spiral staircase that, decades ago, replaced the worn out wooden stairs that hugged the brick interior (today, the wooden ones would have been painstakingly replicated).

The federal government is still in charge of the lighthouses, but since the National Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, they are steadily being "excessed" by the Coast Guard, given up to the management of the National Park Service or other preservation interests. Pleas for private donations are being made all around (that's what this questionable replica at the base of Bodie Island is about). No longer utilitarian, the lighthouses can't live on our dreams alone.

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