Approaching the shore of the White Oak River in Swansboro, North Carolina, the first thing you notice is the smell—not of water, fish, or gasoline from boat motors, but of mud. It is a salty, yet earthy smell, with sweet undertones that makes you want to take a deep breath of the fresh river air. You smell the mud long before you see the river, and by the time the river is in sight, the smell of the mud has already blended into the aesthetic of the landscape, no longer a distinct feature. The mud is thick and coarse, and squishes between bare toes like beach sand. It is a perplexing and paradoxical mixture of sand and soil—slick on the bottom of the river, but not slippery. When a storm blows in from offshore, the sands from the bottom of the Atlantic wash inland as well, creating sandbars in the river where there was previously open water. Depending on how much sand has washed in from the ocean, the mud can be as dark as a burned biscuit, or as light as a perfectly browned one. Its color is always an indication of previous weather patterns but never the ones to come.
Unless a hurricane is approaching or there is a particularly high tide, the docks in my neighborhood always stand too shallow to launch a boat in the traditional manner. Attempting to back your boat trailer down the ramp into the water results in nothing more than a boat stuck in the mud and a truck filled with water. Instead, your boat has to be moored at the dock, and launched from a different ramp. To maneuver the boat to open water, away from the docks, we jump into the water beside our boat, standing usually waist deep, and walk the boat into deeper water; otherwise the boat hits the bottom and gets stuck in the mud. As we walk, we watch for the flounder beds in the mud, otherwise our feet sink and we will be stuck as well. There are always debates over whether it is easier to walk in the mud with shoes or without; shoes sometimes give you more of a flat surface to spread on the mud, but bare feet give you more agility. I always prefer to walk with bare feet because I like the feeling of the mud between my toes.
Regardless of what we did on this beach or in the river, the mud was a place that we would occupy.
Before Hurricane Isabel destroyed the slight resemblance of a beach on the river in my neighborhood in 2003, my mother and my friend Jake’s mother would take the two of us down to play on the beach. It was not a sandy beach, but a beach made of river mud, slightly hidden by cattails. They would pull us in a little inflatable raft and occasionally it would hit the bottom, getting stuck in the mud. Jake and I would bury each other’s legs, but we had to be careful, because if we got too deep under the mud it would create a suction and we would be just as stuck as our raft. We had two choices at this point: sit in the sun until the mud dried and cracked open, or have somebody dig us out. The legs of the beach chairs that our mothers brought would sink as well, and they either pulled them out with quite a bit of force or got a toy shovel and dug them out. Regardless of what we did on this beach or in the river, the mud was a place that we would occupy. When our boat hit the bottom, we were stuck in the mud; Jake and I buried each other in the mud; the chairs would sink into the mud; even the flounder beds were a result of the flounder making their homes in the mud.
Although we generally occupied the mud through our own free will, sometimes the mud held a real power over us.
A boat stuck in the mud was a fairly displeasing experience, at its least severe. It could cause real damage to the bottom of the boat and motor, and it could mean we were going to be in the same place for a majority of our day, at least until the tide washed back in. This could simply mean that my dad would be casting in the same fishing spot all day, or it could make us late for an appointment later on. My dad always kept a long wooden pole in our boat for the times that we got stuck, and I remember using it on more than one occasion, even as a little girl barely half the height of it. The mud could control your body and boat; if you were stuck, you were at the mercy of the tide.
Mud is often unacknowledged in collective southern memories and southern imaginaries. We forget the mud that clung to the shoes of the southern belles or lined the roads of the once majestic plantations that dotted the southern landscape. Mud is pervasive in the imaginary of the South, though it is often forgotten, and it is very much a part of the memories of the South in which I grew up. The coastal South, one filled with fisherman instead of farmers and cast nets instead of cotton gins, is also filled with mud. The mud works quietly to shape the aesthetic of the coastal South; without it, the essential elements of the coastal South would be lost. It holds the stakes for the fixed gillnets of the tidal fishermen and it holds the anchors of the open water fishermen’s boats. The mud colors the river and gives a home to southern river animals such as alligators, egrets, and blue herons. The imagined coastal South, filled with camps of mullet fishermen and majestic lighthouses, becomes a reality within the mud. Shacks of the mullet fishermen who camped on Bear Island in Brown’s Inlet in Swansboro were built in the mud, and because of the mud, remnants of them still stand on the island today.
Though mullet fishermen no longer build camps, they still use the mud to brace themselves and their nets against the weight of the fish during the mullet blows, the mud still quietly supporting their livelihoods. It is nothing more than mud that holds the lighthouses of the Outer Banks in place during a hurricane; although the mud may shift during the storm, its unwavering hold on the foundation of the lighthouse means that the lighthouse will shift with it. These lighthouses have become symbolic of the coastal South, especially the coastal North Carolina where I grew up, and they have become an essential part of the coastal southern imaginary. More than anything, however, the imaginary of the coastal South is overwhelmingly filled with the scent of the coast—what is largely the smell of mud. The mud is the quotidian detail, always there but never acknowledged.
By inhabiting the mud as both a place to be filled with our bodies and a space to be filled with our interactions, the mud subtly inhabits a collective coastal southern memory. The lighthouses still stand in the Outer Banks as a warning to boats offshore and a reminder of the storms through which they stood. We remember the old fishing camps when we see the old shacks, and we remember the fishing techniques that were born in them. Those of us from Swansboro remember how to launch our boats from certain docks, and we remember to avoid flounder beds. Some remember to put shoes on before they step into the river and others remember to take them off. We remember to check the tides before we let our boats sit in one spot for too long, and we remember to keep a long pole in the boat just in case we do. We remember these things because of the mud.