Casting about the Carolina coastal flats, outdoorsman Douglas Cutting ponders life, love, and the legacies we leave behind in this excerpt from his forthcoming book, Undertones: Gifts of a Southern Tide (Joggling Board Press)
To live is to gather the big cast net up off the boat floor, feel the shoulder burn, flip lead weights over and over your left wrist, take one piece of the net apron to your eyeteeth, another in your hand, then hook a third chunk with your right thumb in a pattern so often repeated it becomes a salt-slime, wet-dog, shirt-soaked metronomic dance; the muscle fire and heavy mud stink of it engrained in your waking and your sleeping so much that the release, the cast, the throw is just a soul blooming overboard. An extension of everything you were and are and will be.
Phragmites smells like wet grain on the southwest wind, hot and fermenting with the salt, sweet honeysuckle, and living dying things that breathe and rot all at once as you blur by—engine and wind blending into one long roar. Out across the fallow rice fields, a pair of ducks banks against cumulonimbus building to the west, a black wall with white patches telling us that the wind is in it.
You wait the thunderclouds out on a river hummock where shards of colonial china are blue and bone among the oyster-shell tide lines, the egg sacks of whelks, a shark’s tooth, rubberized jellyfish, mud lines slick as crude and dark as the storm upriver, finally moving on.
Every blink is a shutter click in the boat-driven wind. This is my playground, you say to the quorum of birds. A feathered dais. Today you’re muttering to the birds and to no one, whispering out across the salty marsh and breathing it back in.
Black ducks, nesting here and wild as the new shoots of Spartina, rasp on the wind when they flush. You’re all here, standing on the shell-mud table as the tide shifts: oystercatcher, skimmer, black-necked stilt. Snowy egret, laughing gull, tricolored heron. Droves of ibis grazing, curved bills snipping. And the prey: mullet, fiddler crab, razor clam, snail. Acres of food and feeding.
The grass is bright green turning brown, dotted by clumps of gray needlerush. The table is firm, walkable, and you’re out in shin boots jogging across, kicking up seeds and snails, weaving through pink flowers that survive the salt. The birds lift as wind-tossed rags, white, off-white, streaked colors of the grass.
A pile of salt-bleached wood is out in the middle of things. The tide floods here, fills the puzzle of potholes, and recedes, leaving stagnant pools. This is where the redfish nose for crabs and show their tails, where blue-winged teal dive down to rest on their way to Mexico, where marsh hawks hover slow in the wind, where the ghosts of old waterfowlers sit in their broken blinds, where you are connected and you are young.
The 1979 McKee Craft is 15 feet long, which is barely enough space to contain the ring in your pocket, the homemade fish salad, yellowfin sashimi, cold bottled beer, and you and her. You know she must know something about the ride—not that you haven’t done this before, but just that this time it’s a random night, and your shirt has buttons, and she can surely see the jitters in your chest.
But this makes sense, this one more ride together in her dad’s old boat as two kids with nothing in front of them but a clay-banked creek and the flooding tide. Someone on a dock offers to take a photo of you, and you say okay, and the lady gets your e-mail address to send it. Little does she realize her prescience, given the circumstance.
At the last second, you hold off, because you’re scared that one of you will drop the ring overboard, and because of a greater thing harder to explain. This last ride needs to be just that—an unencumbered moment in the salt for each of you. Somehow you know that the marsh will never be completely the same. That it will be shared and altered, in all the best possible ways. That your conversation with this place will soon shift to a conversation about this place, relative to something and someone else, forever.
Later, through tears and over a dead-giveaway formal dinner, she says, “Yes.”
Hunter is three, going on four; and it’s just the two of you today in the skiff. You move in a different rhythm now, patterning the boat launch around a new routine. Hunter stays buckled in while you ease the trailer down, unclip the strap, fire up the outboard, back the boat away from the trailer, tie off, and come back to the driver’s seat. You park the truck, unbuckle your buddy, and his small hand grabs yours on the way back down to the landing.
The creek ramp is barely a mile from your house, and Hunter already knows the names of things because of your frequent adventures.
“Dares Eggy,” he says, cracking himself up and pointing to the stark white bird. “Eggy the egret, Dada.”
“That’s right bubba.”
“And fibbler crabs, too, Dada.”
You ease away from the dock in the low-slung light, early evening settling down as the moon tide comes up. Kayaks and flats boats dot the covering grass, but you remember a pothole nearby and nose the boat into the long Spartina. Questions abound:
“What are we doing, Dada?”
“Looking for treasure,” you whisper.
“Like Jake and the Neverland Pirates?”
“Look at all dese snails, Dada.”
“I know, they’re everywhere.”
“Can I catch them?”
“Sure you can, buddy,” you say, scanning a nervous spot in the little pond in front of you as Hunter plucks periwinkles off the stalks.
It’s nothing more than a sub-surface shudder, but you know a tail or back will show there, so you pull on some old running shoes, slip over the rail into waist-deep water, put the boy on your shoulders, and grab the one fishing rod leaning on the gunnel. The questions are rapid-firing now, and your conversation with the marsh has returned in the form of those answers.
“Dad, why are we walking in the water?”
“You’ll see, buddy. Redfish are in this pond up here.”
“Why are they up there?”
“They’re eating fiddler crabs.”
“Why are they eating fibbler crabs?”
“They like them.”
“Oh. Can I swim in that pond?”
“Sure buddy, in just a sec. Look for a fish’s tail sticking out of the water.”
Like clockwork, the fish tips up and goes to work, rooting around, cutting the water with tail and dorsal. Hunter sees it, and you can tell by the way he grips your shoulders with his legs and lets go of your ears to point.
“I know it buddy, that’s a tailing redfish.”
“A tailing wedfish?!”
“I’m putting you down so we can catch him.”
“No, no! I want to stay up here!”
“Oh okay, hold on,” and you make the unbalanced, underhand flip, holding son with your left hand and rod with right, not accounting for what happens if the fish eats the bait, which it immediately does.
Followed by: fish realizes bait is plastic, you have no reeling hand, fish spits bait, fish spooks. Then Hunter begs to get down in “the pond,” tromps around in his Crocs, does a half-jump into a life-jacket bob, blows out another fish, and laughs hysterically at whatever it is in the world we’re doing….
To live is to lift him from your shoulders, dripping with mud and salt slime, back into the skiff and hear him cackle like a clapper rail and ask on the way back to the ramp why the marsh hens and the laughing gulls laugh the way they do; and to find fresh explanations for things you thought you knew.
To live here, now, is to pick up the big cast net again and lay it over your wrist and arms, in the same rhythm as before but for entertainment instead of bait, loading its weight behind you and flaring it overboard, reaching yourself out into the creek to harvest something real for him to see.
An outdoorsman, journalist, and land broker, Douglas Cutting lives on Daniel Island with his wife, Jeni; son, Hunter; and daughter, Adelaide. Undertones: Gifts of a Southern Tide is a collaboration with his mother, fine-art photographer Nan Young Carey. The book may be preordered at jogglingboardpress.com. To reserve an autographed copy signed by both author and photographer, reference this article.