A Week on North Carolina's Crystal Coast


One day we drove to New Berne, to visit Governor Tryon's Palace. (More about that later.) My focus was, of course, on the gardens. In the Mary Kistler Stoney Flower Garden on Pollack Street, the paths were surfaced with oyster shells.

We know what to do with oysters - eat them. Raw on the half shell, in bisques and soups and stews, as fried oysters, in oyster stuffing for poultry. Well, back in 1769, when the Palace was under construction, oysters were also popular. But then, as now, after they're eaten arises the issue of what to do with the shells. The settlers crushed them and used oyster shells for paving roads and paths, burned them for lime, used oyster shells as fill for wharves and lowlands.

Native Americans who lived in coastal areas were eating oysters before the colonists arrived. They dumped the shells back into the sea, making huge jetties of oyster shells. It turns out that this is, ecologically speaking, a very good idea. Oysters start off as microscopic spawn, swimming and drifting with the tidal currents for about three weeks, feeding on plankton and in turn, being fed on. (Since during the four to six week spawning season each female oyster produces 500 million eggs the extremely high mortality rate is not necessarily a bad thing. Only a small fraction of 1 percent of the young larvae reaches the next stage of development.) When the survivors reach the size of a grain of pepper, each larva seeks a suitable, clean, hard surface on which to attach. The little oyster turns on its left side, cements itself to the object, and remains immobile for the rest of its life.

In commercial oyster farming today, the material put out for oysters to attach to is called cuitch, and the process of becoming cemented to the cuitch is termed setting or spatting. After setting, young oysters are named seed or spat. While oyster larvae will attach themselves to many types of cuitch they seem to prefer mollusk shells and materials which contain chalky substances. The best surface for them is oyster shell. The North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries collects used shells for recycling, dumping clean clam and / or oyster shells by the barge-load to create shell reefs in coastal waters

It is still an old island tradition to use oyster shells for paths and driveways, and as garden borders.

Perhaps they got the idea from places like the shell-covered beaches of Cape Lookout.

Another morning we took Calico Jack's ferryboat for the three mile trip

Photograph Credit Wm. P. Woodall 2007. All rights reserved.

from Harkers Island to Cape Lookout.

Once there, we took the "mule train," a pickup truck with wooden benches down each side of the bed for a guided tour of the island.
Joe did just fine on the soft deep sand, no problem with the flooded road where the tide had come in,
(heck, elevation is only about 3 feet.) But when we got onto a small paved area near the coast guard station
the tires kept scrubbing. Strange. Then Paul realized the front and read differentials were locked.
Good for sand and water, not so great for pavement. Not a problem, there's not much pavement on Cape Lookout.

Photograph Credit Paul Glattstein 2007. All rights reserved.

At the coast guard station we got out and looked around. There was a lookout tower,
windowed on all four sides, where observers could watch for ships and sailors in distress.

And there was a picket fence . . .
each picket topped with a large whelk shell.

We went out to the point, one of the few places where both sunrise and sunset
may be seen over the water, from the same spit of land. "Some day,"
said Joe, our amiable and knowledgeable driver, "I'll come here with my wife.
We'll come late in the day for the sunset, camp out, then watch the sunrise."

We couldn't stay for sunset, let alone sunrise. But walking in the water's edge
I found some lovely shells. Several I left at the condo, but a few came home with me,
mementos of a wonderful morning on Cape Lookout.

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