Friday, September 04, 2015

Post Office Boxes

Last week our island post office, and our postmaster Celeste, came up in casual conversation. My neighbor, Tom, shared this story: 

One afternoon he was in the post office lobby when a young couple came in with a large stack of wedding invitations to mail. "Celeste," the young lady said sheepishly, "we're sorry, but we don't know most of these people's post office box numbers. Can we mail them anyway?" 

Celeste rolled her eyes, gave a sigh, and asked, "What's the first name?" After hearing the name she said, "51." Sorting through the envelopes, the young lady read off the rest of the names. Immediately after each name came another number: 265, 97, 832, 587, 316, 14, 1238, .... 

After some time Celeste hesitated. 

It was then that Tom piped up from across the lobby. "A hah," he chortled, "I was waiting for you you to stumble!" 

Celeste just cut her eyes at Tom, and explained calmly, "That person has two post office boxes. I was trying to decide which one was best to use!"

Chastened, Tom walked over and gave her a congratulatory "high five."

Some of Ocracoke's more than 1,700 PO Boxes

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is the story of whale and porpoise fishing on  the Outer Banks. You can read the story here:

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Figs & Fig Wasps

One of the most interesting stories in biology is the relationship between figs and tiny, almost microscopic, fig wasps. I have addressed this topic before, about 3 1/2 years ago, but it is worth repeating. The story is told in Chapter 10 ("A Garden Inclosed") of Richard Dawkins' 1996 book, Climbing Mount Improbable.

Dawkins, an articulate science writer, introduces this final chapter by writing that he is "finally ready to return to the most difficult and complicated of all my stories." I have read that chapter several times (it is absolutely fascinating). I always think I've understood it, but then realize I don't really, because I become thoroughly confused trying to explain it to anyone else!

Although I have no doubt that Professor Dawkins understands figs & fig wasps, and that he has explained the relationship accurately, I began to wonder if Ocracoke Island figs are actually pollinated by fig wasps. Fig trees on Ocracoke seem always to start as cuttings (or branches that bend down and root). I've never known of a fig tree to sprout from a seed.

So I did a little research and discovered this: "[Figs that have been fertilized] are more likely [to come] from Turkey or other locations in the Middle East. This is because the fig wasp, which is needed for fertilization, is native to these countries, and will have, more than likely, fertilized the figs you purchase." (

Upon further reading I learned that, unlike figs that require pollination by the fig wasp,...Common figs do not need pollination; they have all female flowers, and the "fruit" develops through parthenocarpic means (production of fruit without fertilization of ovules). This includes the varieties of figs commonly grown on Ocracoke, e.g. Brown Turkey and Celeste. (see and enjoy Dr. Dawkins' chapter on figs and fig wasps, but don't hesitate to enjoy Ocracoke fig products. They won't contain wasp larvae!

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is the story of whale and porpoise fishing on  the Outer Banks. You can read the story here:

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

A Stormy School Trip, 1981

In the Spring of 1981 Ocracoke students in grades  3 - 4 made a field trip to Winston-Salem. They spent the first night at Reynolda House, the mansion built by R. J. Reynolds, where they enjoyed viewing art...and playing billiards, bowling, and racketball. The next day they toured Old Salem, then spent the night in Chapel Hill. In Chapel Hill they enjoyed lunch at the Rathskeller (sad to say, this popular eatery closed in 2007), then visited the Morehead Planetarium. That evening the students were treated to a magic show.

On the way home they stopped in Raleigh to tour the Museum of Natural History and the Old Capital Building.

As much as everyone enjoyed the tours and the sights, it is probably the ferry ride leaving Ocracoke that most of us remember best (I accompanied the group as a chaperone). This is Ray Waller's account, as published June 10, 1981, in the Ocracoke Island News:

"The trip started out badly. The ferry ride across to Swan Quarter was a little rough [definitely an understatement!, but then this was written by a native islander] due to a storm, and almost everyone got seasick. There were times when the boat rocked so much that the sky was all that could be seen out of one window while the water was all you could see from the other.... The children had hoped to have a picnic lunch on the way and had packed lunches, but this was made impossible due to the weather."

I spent most of my time helping one student or another to the bathroom, where the doors to the stalls were often swinging violently from one side to the other. In time, when there was nothing left in most of the student's (and most of the teacher's and chaperone's) stomachs, nearly everyone stretched out on the seats and fell asleep.

It was a memorable trip!

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is the story of whale and porpoise fishing on  the Outer Banks. You can read the story here:

Tuesday, September 01, 2015


In the past I have written about the first paved road between Ocracoke Village and Hatteras Inlet. Eleven miles of what was to become NC Highway 12 was paved in 1957. The last three miles (at the north end of the island) was a single lane of WWII metal landing mats (with "pullovers" every half mile for passing oncoming vehicles). Unfortunately, I never had a good photograph of that early highway.

A few days ago my daughter, Amy, was given the following picture from the NPS archives via John Havel. The photo was taken by Verde Watson (1903-1978), first chief park naturalist at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, between 1955-1961.

Please keep in mind that this road was a great improvement. Prior to 1957 travelers arriving on Frazier Peele's 3 or 4 car ferry had to drive on the beach (between high and low water marks) to get to the village. Getting to Ocracoke in those days was quite an adventure!

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is the story of whale and porpoise fishing on  the Outer Banks. You can read the story here:

Monday, August 31, 2015


Within living memory, Ocracoke Island supported a variety of free-ranging livestock. Not only horses, but also cattle, goats, and sheep roamed the island. Charles T. Williams, in his book The Kinnakeeter, writes about sheep and sheep penning on Hatteras Island. The situation on Ocracoke was similar, and I quote from Williams' account:

"Hundreds of sheep roamed this free range.... There were...large sheep pens and during the early days the word was passed 'sheep penning today' and everybody left their work and helped the sheep owners corral their sheep. [On Ocracoke the sheep pen was 'down below,' about midway of the island, so the day of sheep penning was announced days ahead. That gave everyone enough time to plan ahead, and to make their way to the pen, often by sail skiff.)

"This was the day to mark the lambs and shear the sheep. The wool was shipped to wool markets in Elizabeth City, or Norfolk, Virginia. The sheep owners reaped a handsome profit from the sale of their wool.

"Many families owned no sheep and had no wool. During the night, sheep roamed and nipped the tender leaves from low bushes and shrubbery, and would leave a large quantity of wool entangled in the shrubbery. In the early morning, the families that had no sheep would send their children through the woods picking wool from the bushes that the sheep had left during the night.

"Some older women owned old-fashioned spinning wheels. They would card and spin this wool into yarn thread on a fifty per cent basis."

Ocracoke Spinning Wheel at OPS museum

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is the story of whale and porpoise fishing on  the Outer Banks. You can read the story here:

Friday, August 28, 2015

Jim Baughm

A hand-made wooden cross rests on the altar in the sanctuary of the Ocracoke Methodist Church.  The cross was constructed by Homer Howard, and painted gold by his wife, Aliph.  The cross was made out of salvage from the ship on which island native, James Baughm Gaskill (1919-1942), served and lost his life. The cross stands today as a memorial to James Baughm Gaskill, 3rd mate in the  USS Maritime service.

Jim Baughm's ship, the Caribsea, was torpedoed and sunk off shore by a German U-boat on March 11, 1942.  Shortly after the sinking, Christopher Farrow, James Baughm's cousin, found his  framed license cast up on the ocean beach. Later, the ship's nameplate and other debris washed up at his family's dock, at the old Pamlico Inn.   

Ship's Nameplate in NPS Visitors Center

Although Jim Baughm was lost at sea, and his body never recovered, his family erected a marker in the family cemetery behind the lighthouse.

The epitaph is a quotation from Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem, "Crossing the Bar."

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep,
Turns again home.

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is the story of whale and porpoise fishing on  the Outer Banks. You can read the story here:

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Watering Holes

Last month I mentioned the Outer Banks wild ponies. Visitors to the island often wonder how these small horses traditionally found water to drink. After all, there are no fresh water streams, ponds, or springs on Ocracoke. Besides, marsh ponies eat great quantities of salt marsh grass, so they need to drink water about every three hours.

Photo by Charlie F on Yelp

Sometimes, of course, rain puddles provide fresh water for the ponies. When that source of water is not available the horses have learned to dig drinking holes by pawing at the sand with their hooves. They tap into the rainwater runoff that is stored in a shallow "freshwater lens" that floats above brackish underground water.

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is the story of whale and porpoise fishing on  the Outer Banks. You can read the story here: