I’ll never forget an argument I had one afternoon with my sister-in-law’s husband. During their visit, we drove to an Italian deli on Topsail Beach. On the drive we passed gorgeous multilevel houses speckled across the shoreline. Some were finished, and their pastel colors sparkled in the sun, almost inviting us in for a glass of sweet tea. Further down, more were under development. While I admit it did seem as though they were built on top of one another, they were still beautiful, and I still dreamed out loud about owning one. This dream sparked a very uncomfortable debate inside the car. My sister in-law’s husband was appalled and irritated that I even fathomed the idea of living here.
“It’s stupid,” he said flatly. “Residents bitch and moan, and act shocked when a hurricane comes and blows it all away. What did they expect? It’s their own fault for building on a changing coastline. And they rebuild! Rich people and their money… ”
He judged. I was stunned at his aggression toward me, but he has his masters in geology so I suppose he feels entitled to his pejorative decrees.
Without argument, the continuous assault of nature makes the fragile barrier islands of our coastal regions some of the most rapidly changing locations in not only North Carolina but the country and the world. The issue does get confounded when human activity and development contributes to the mix. But can there be a balance? Can one maintain a goal to enjoy the NC coast and its beauty while respecting its space as well? According to author and professor, Jeffrey Pompe, the answer is, yes.
In his new book, “Altered Environments: The Outer Banks of North Carolina,” Pompe explores the intricate and difficult interactions between nature and human habitation on our irrepressible and gentle Outer Banks. With help from his wife, Kathleen Pompe, together they engage modern and historic snapshots, maps and illustrations of geographic and ecological changes that have taken place over centuries, all while evaluating efforts available to help preserve these lands. By conveying well-spoken narrative that considers communal, environmental and economic issues that are imperative to populaces of the shore, Pompe keeps the human desire to live by the water in mind without being condescending.
“My wife and I have done a lot of traveling, and we were traveling the Outer Banks’ lighthouses and enjoying the seashore,” he says. “We found it fascinating. The Outer Banks are particularly one of the most interesting topics in the country.”
Though my sister-in-law’s husband was right about the constant changing shorelines and influx of development and erratic power of Mother Nature, some folks consider it as much a part of the allure of our coastline as anything. “When we talk about altered environments it’s not just the natural environment,” Pompe explains, “but the human environment as well.”
A Pittsburgh native, Pompe now lives moments from the openness of the water and has been teaching as a professor of economics at Francis Marion University in Florence, South Carolina, for over 20 years. It took half of his career to put together this educational read.
“Humanity and nature are more intertwined than we think,” he explains. Environmental derogation, climate change, run-off and pollution are a double-edged sword to living within their confines. “There’s an interrelationship. There’s also a certain amount of courage to be on the Outer Banks. They are susceptible to the worst hurricanes. There’s uncertainty, but more importantly there’s a hearty type of people that enjoy the challenge that shouldn’t be judged for it.”
When it comes to truly building a home and life near the shore, Pompe says one must endure more planning. It’s not just about taking in the area’s beauty; it’s about understanding its infrastructure, history, community and developing a level of respect for it all.
“For better or worse people are encouraged to build and to develop [in the Outer Banks],” Pompe continues.
“I love the shoreline myself. The vastness of the ocean is amazing. There’s a lot of activity that’s desirable. It’s an interesting issue, because before the 1970s, you wouldn’t see these houses, because you couldn’t get flood insurance. Now, it’s available.”
Certainly, “Altered Environments: The Outer Banks of North Carolina” is the perfect tool to utilize and gain appreciation for coastal living. The best part: One doesn’t have to have a masters in geology to understand it.
“So many want to live by the water, especially in the summer, and I don’t blame them,” Pompe shares, “but once this is accomplished, many don’t want anyone else to move there.”
The reality is: Growth on our coast is inevitable. With it comes the hand of human pollution, but according to Pompe, “environmental issues have higher potential to get more hazardous when it comes to maintaining a sustainable community.” Thus, he hopes readers approach “Altered Environments” not just for enjoyment but education.
“Blackbeard the pirate or the Wright Brothers—there’s a unique history in the beauty that’s available to us,” he says. “And we should love it. We should want to be near it. Mostly, I hope people develop a level of respect for the issues coastal communities must deal with.”
To order Pompe’s book, visit the University of the South Carolina Press at http://www.uscpress.com.