Monday, May 2, 2016

Writing "Alsoomse and Wanchese" -- Trees, Birds, and Fish
I have never been to North Carolina.  Here I am writing a historical novel that takes place almost entirely outdoors.  The Algonquians of Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds in 1583 depended on plants, trees, birds, fish, crustaceans, and beasts to survive.  I spent more than a year researching the trees, birds, and fish of eastern Carolina before I felt comfortable enough to write my first five chapters.  Here is a brief sample of some of the interesting information I learned and how in excerpts from one chapter I used it.
Bald cypress is a long-lived, pyramidal conifer (cone-bearing tree) which grows 50-70' tall (less frequently to 125'). Although it looks like a needled evergreen (same family as redwoods) in summer, it is deciduous ("bald" as the common name suggests).    In the deep South, it is a familiar sight growing directly in swampy water, often in large strands, with its branches heavily draped with Spanish moss.    Trunks are buttressed (flared or fluted) at the base, and when growing in water, often develop distinctive, knobby root growths ("knees") which protrude above the water surface around the tree. Soft, feathery, yellowish-green foliage (1/4" long, flat needles in two ranks) turns an attractive orange/cinnamon-brown in fall. Rounded, wrinkled, 1 inch diameter, purplish-green cones mature to brown.  It is found along the banks of Albemarle Sound and tributary rivers and creeks where movement of water is sluggish and the terrain is nearly flat.  Picture:
Seldom found far from brackish water, the snowy egret is a fairly common breeder along the coast of North Carolina.  The snowy egret has been described as the “most charming of all our marsh birds.” Whether displaying its gorgeous breeding plumage or racing about in pursuit of small fish in shallow water, it is an exquisite sight, with gleaming white plumage, jet black beak and legs, and bright yellow feet.  In North Carolina, the snowy egret breeds from Currituck Sound to the mouth of the Cape Fear River. It also winters in North Carolina, but in reduced numbers.  Picture:
Spotted seatrout linger around river mouths throughout the summer and then bunch up in September before traveling upriver to chase baitfish and overwinter.  The spotted seatrout has a long, slender body with a dark bluish-silvery-gray back and silvery sides. Its body is marked by round, black spots on the back, upper sides and extending into the second dorsal fin and the caudal fin. The upper jaw has two large, curved, canine-like teeth.  Spotted seatrout, on average, are 15 to 25 inches in length and 2 to 4 pounds, but they grow to as large as 40 inches and 12 pounds.  The fish is found in rivers, estuaries and shallow coastal waters over sandy bottoms. It is often associated with seagrass beds, as well as salt marshes and tidal pools of high salinity.  Picture:
White catfish will typically found in slower meandering creeks, streams, canals and small rivers. They are occasionally found in brackish waters which drain into and mix with saltwater. Large specimens rarely exceed 10 pounds and average 2 to 4 pounds in most parts of the country.  The sides are blue-gray to blue-black and may be mottled. The tail is moderately forked.  They have a blunt, more-rounded head, and they lack black spots on their body.  Although fish are their major food, whites also eat larval aquatic insects, small crustaceans, fish eggs and aquatic plants. They may feed at night, but are not as nocturnal as other catfish.  An excellent food fish, whites are prized for their firm, white flesh.   Picture:
The American black duck, along with the wood duck, mallard, teal and others, is a member of the group of ducks called dabbling ducks. Dabbling ducks are recognized by their ability to “jump” vertically from the water when taking flight and by their dabbling” method of feeding in which they tip up, exposing their rump, when feeding in shallow water.  While in flight, the white underwings provide a striking contrast to the overall black appearance.  In winter, black ducks are visible in North Carolina’s coastal marshes.  Picture:
Ospreys are large birds, standing 21 to 24 in. tall and having a wing span of up to approximately 6 ft. This species is always found around water, the larger the water body the better. It is most common along the coast, foraging in sounds, bays, and even in the near-shore ocean. They are dark brown above with white stomach and legs below. The head is white with dark speckles on the crown and a dark brown line through the eye. Two of the best field marks of the osprey are that it flies with crooked or “M”—shaped wings and has dark carpal patches on the under wing. It is the only raptor that actually plunges into the water, entering feet first to catch fish with its talons. The soles of the feet have sharp spiny projections, an adaptation that allows a firm grip on slippery fish.  The osprey is almost always found near water containing abundant fish populations and can be seen along rivers, lakes and the coast. Ospreys are excellent hunters of fish. They usually hover over the water until a fish nears the surface and then dive feet first, grasping the fish with their talons. Ospreys can dive at 30 miles per hour and have been clocked at 50 miles per hour by the time they hit the water. They are able to take off from the water and can be seen shaking vigorously to remove water after they are airborne. Captured fish are almost always carried with head forward for the best aerodynamics.  Ospreys build large, bulky nests of sticks in dead trees, on stumps.  Picture:
Prior to 1965, the Bald Eagle was a widespread and not uncommon breeding bird along the coast and in the Tidewater areas.  Bald Eagles almost always forage near water, both coastally and inland. They are most numerous at large freshwater lakes, both natural ones (such as Lake Mattamuskeet) and reservoirs (such as Jordan Lake). They also forage at large tidal rivers and bays, but are less numerous in salt water areas such as the ocean or tidal channels. Nest sites are typically in large living pines or cypresses, especially close to water and where the birds have a commanding view of their surroundings.  This magnificent bird has a wing span that reaches approximately eight feet as an adult, and it can weigh more than 15 pounds.  The bald eagle prefers to live in areas near a source of water because it feeds primarily on fish. The American bald eagle forms life-long pair bonds and will usually return to the same nesting area every year. With a relatively long
life span of up to 40 years, the bald eagle does not need to produce very many offspring per year—a female bald eagle will lay one to three eggs a year.
Excerpts from Chapter 6
Askook’s canoe sent widening v’s -- the water within them smoother, less sparkling -- back to Wanchese’s canoe some fifty feet behind. To Wanchese’s left stood tall water tupelo and bald cypress and no discernable embankment [], entryways of water for inquiry, havens, he recalled, for young boys to idle away time. Looking over his right shoulder, Wanchese could see yet the northern tip of Roanoke Island, where the previous afternoon Alsoomse had insisted that she accompany him. His intuition had told him that she knew that her words were useless but showing a combative attitude was essential, a characteristic of hers he resented and respected. Pity the unfortunate brave so foolish as to take her for his squaw. Yet if he, Wanchese, ever decided upon a young woman to court, she would have to be as nearly strong-minded.
They had left Dasemunkepeuc at midday; little time had passed; Wanchese’s knees and shoulder muscles had not yet begun to hurt. They would do so, however -- notwithstanding the absence of waves -- after they had passed the great egret island that marked their entrance into the long waters. He was hoping to see one or two egrets dash across the shallow surface while others waded, stirring the water with their long black legs and yellow feet. (  As a young boy, he had enjoyed watching egrets. He imagined they would be catching spotted trout now – it being between the seasons Taquitock (fall) and Popanow (winter) – trout, perch, white catfish, sunfish, and black crappie being yet plentiful. ( Menatonon would surely serve them something special – white catfish he hoped -- when they reached the great Choanoc leader’s village the following day. Something special to look forward to, while he suffered the inevitable pain.
In the back of Andacon’s canoe, wrapped in soft deer hide, were many shell beads and two strings of nearly translucent pearls. Five turtle shells lay exposed, as did fifteen shell-tempered, creatively-stamped pottery bowls. From the forests and waters where the mountains rose and where the sun each day disappeared, through Menatonon mostly, came the essential rocks and stones, thinly rolled wassador (copper), which the elite of Wingina’s followers wore for decoration, red puccoon for medical use and the production of red dye, and antimony, an important ingredient in the making a silver-colored dye.
Wanchese had watched Askook’s canoe agitate a flock of black duck tipping for grub, their rumps bobbing in the previously undisturbed water. (
He had counted six of them jump from the water’s surface to take immediate flight. Rapid quaking had commenced. He had admired their white underwings, salient contrast to their black heads and bodies, as they had curved inland toward the marshes adjacent to the village.
They were nearing the dead brothers.
“Ah, yes! We do not want to disturb them.”
Wanchese had passed the isolated trees twice. [Here is a picture similar to the picture of the trees I describe.  I am not able to find on the internet the original picture.]
 He had marveled at their stark beauty. They were not dead but they should have been, standing always in water well off the shoreline. Their many thick roots, half a bow’s length above the waterline, reached deep for the estuary’s muddy nutrients. This passing would present different imagery that he would add to his recollection.
“Ah! Look! The twin brothers have an occupant!” Osacan pointed.
An osprey? Not now. Not for another three moons, Wanchese thought.  He had passed these bald cypresses with Tetepano and the others during their trip to Mequopen during the second earing of the corn. They had watched an osprey dive forty feet from its nest feet-first into the water, reemerge, leap, and rise above the water’s large, rippling circles, huge black and white wings beating, a large fish --  white perch or bluefish -- clutched in its fierce talons.
“Bald eagle,” Andacon determined.
“That will make the osprey and his mate happy, if they …” Osacan laughed.  “It would be a fight worth seeing!”
At the top of the twin trees, where their branches intermingled thickly, inside the large mound of broken apart stick, the eagle perched. Its large downy-white head turned toward them. Yellow talons, yellow beak, scaly-appearing dark brown breast feathers, longer, darker wing feathers: here observed the king of the all creatures that soared! This would not be the eagle’s breeding place, just one convenient stop during his day of hunting. Osacan was wrong. Bald eagles and ospreys rarely fought.
They paddled past, every brave’s head turned until he could no longer do so. Wanchese had imprinted the stark beauty: the enlarged base of trunk; the exposed, grasping roots dark brown just above the water; the stiff, sparse, short horizontal branches, longer and more frequent near the top; the spider web-like branch extensions that gave the trees shape; each tree’s rich brown reflection painted on the light blue, still water.
How Alsoomse would have enjoyed this, Wanchese thought. Perhaps some day he could take her, and her friends Nana and Odina and Nana’s brother Machk, and, yes, the boy Tihkoosue, and one other paddler here – if ever there was a time when responsibility could wait.