Barrier Island: Book Review

Review of Barrier Island by Linda Armstrong and Pattie Belle Hastings (Ice House Press )
Art Papers, January/February 1996

In this shingle-sized (4-1/2 x 11-1/4 inches) book, Atlanta artists Armstrong (a painter and photographer) and Hastings (a graphic designer) present a multi-layered evocation of Cumberland Island, a sliver of land off the Georgia coast just north of the Florida border. Like the island itself, the book yields its secrets only to the patient, persistent visitor, and then only gradually.

The word barrier in the title refers not only to Cumberland Island’s literal role as a huge sandbar shielding the shore from waves and winds, but also to its embodiment of various barriers and conflicts, both physical and metaphorical: uneasy relationships between people and nature, bureaucracy and science, feral and indigenous species, fresh and salt water, past and present, the well-to-do and the not-so-privileged.

The book poses as many questions as it answers. After all, it’s an art book—a beautiful and skillfully produced one—not a reference source. But the reader who sifts through its pages will discover within this attractive volume a wealth of information about the history, ecology, and politics of Cumberland Island, which has officially been protected as a National Seashore since 1972.

Like most visitors, in my three trips to the island I’ve avoided both the expense of the hotel and the strain of backpacking into the wilderness and camped at Sea Camp, near the southern end of Cumberland. This is the more “civilized” part, where visitors encounter the majority of the island’s architectural landmarks, park rangers, and tourists. It’s also closer to other signs of civilization: the paper mills at St. Marys and Fernandina Beach, and the Kings Bay Naval Base, home to Trident submarines carrying more than a hundred nuclear warheads.

Each time I’ve been there, the encroachment of humanity is more evident. Last March, campers and human-fed raccoons seemed more aggressive and obnoxious, armadillos and horses more skittish. A gazebo with a red awning appeared on the beach like an angry blemish. Now a proposed artist colony at Plum Orchard, backed by celebrities and socialites, threatens to double the island’s resident population. (This late-breaking news was not mentioned in Barrier Island.)

The book conveys a sensibility with which we wilderness lovers can identify—a concern first for the island and its wildlife, and second (distantly) for the comfort of the human inhabitants and visitors.

The choice and presentation of images is the first clue to this sensibility. The bands of wind-sculpted sand in the opening spread resemble the ribs of a skeleton. Beneath these ribs, on the heart side, we find the title page and its aerial view of Cumberland.

In one diptych, a photograph of unspoiled sand dunes makes another of a pile of bottles illegally dumped in the island’s northern wilderness area look particularly ugly by comparison. Dead and living animals, live oak trees and placid backwaters, charred woods and thriving salt marshes, buildings both stately and humble—these images, each individually strong, work together to form a picture of an evolving ecosystem teeming with many contradictions.

The text presents these contradictions in a different way, deepening and shading the impressions conveyed by the images. In interviews/conversations conducted by Linda Armstrong over a two-year period, the reader hears from several people who have lived and worked on the island.

Each interview gets a different typographic treatment. Together they compose a drama of differing viewpoints about the island. The interviews are broken up and sprinkled throughout the book, inviting the reader to meander and investigate randomly, as a beachcomber might, or to jump ahead and follow the same path, more in the manner of an archaeologist or historian.

A heavy, almost ponderous, bold expanded sans serif represents Rolland Swain, the National Park Service (NPS) official overseeing Cumberland Island National Seashore. The font is appropriate for the careful statements of a stolid government worker.

Oceanographer Stephen Cofer-Shabica, who locked horns with Swain a few times before being forced out of his position as NPS Resource Manager for the island, makes his case in insistent large and small caps.

In a light, loosely leaded roman font, we hear the refreshing, direct voice of Stacia Hendricks, a biologist, nature guide, and potter from the Greyfield Inn (the island’s hotel).

Island resident and naturalist Carol Ruckdeschel, University of Rhode Island Professor of Zoology C. Robert Shoop, and film grip Marivee Cade participate in a group interview that is highly critical of the wildlife management practices, or lack thereof, on the island. Unfortunately, this interview’s font closely resembles that used for Stacia Hendricks, making it difficult for the reader to distinguish between them.

A timeline, appearing on translucent pages spread throughout the book, covers island highlights from 10,000 B.C. to the present. Most of these pages mix photographs and text; some of the images are perhaps 10 percent too dark, challenging the reader to read the type.

In the timeline we discover many interesting facts, not only about the island’s Candlers, Carnegies, and other industrialists—and their descendants, who live there still—but also the plantation owners, their slaves and descendants, the English, the Spanish, the French, and the Timucua and Tacatacuru people who were there before them.

The last line of the timeline reads “1995: As yet there is no Wilderness Management Plan for Cumberland Island.” Below there is a blank space, inviting the reader to speculate about—or perhaps to try to influence—the next stage in the island’s development.

Ultimately, whether they wander randomly through the book or pursue it with focused determination, readers concerned about the natural environment and its manipulation will find Barrier Island worth the trip.

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