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“There’s just something about wood,” Devers says. “When you’re in a wood boat, you’re not in something foreign or unnatural—a wood boat is from the river. You’re part of the river.” A wooden boat offers the paddler a number of advantages in the small waters of the Pee Dee or Waccamaw, not least among them the fact of a wooden boat’s sonic difference from metal. Most of the fishing on the upper Waccamaw is done on the banks, close in and casting toward and among cypress knees. In the river swamps, an angler will inevitably be forced to move in and through clusters of cypress, and the warm, muffled thud of a cypress-on-cypress collision is far less alarming—and far more pleasant—than the clang of aluminum. For Devers, that metal clang is as ill-fitting on the river as snapping Velcro or a cell phone jingle.
The indelible softness of cypress, the quality that provides for the muffling of sound, also renders cypress boats easily marked or scarred by branches, rocks, or the scrape of a truck bed.
The boats remember impact. To fortify the outside of the boats, Devers, like most cypress strip boat builders, applies a layer of fiberglass cloth and epoxy resin to the entirety of the boat. This provides an outer layer of protection, ostensibly preserving the boat against time and physical deterioration.
Fiberglass cloth, however, like all things, is not immune to time. With exposure to weather and sunlight, the boat’s shiny, glossy fiberglassing begins to crack and rise, separating from the wood and flaking off in scar-like rivulets. Weather-resistant epoxies now common in such processes were not available at an appropriate price point during the construction of Lumber River’s boats; furthermore, a boat that is regularly paddled will retain moisture and fend off deterioration for decades. For many who own wooden boats, the process of patching, reglassing, or taping problem areas becomes an active participation in the life of the vessel. My grandfather’s boat is periodically marked with duct tape, peeling in spots and cracking in others. The maintenance of the boat becomes a relational one between its owner and the vessel that extends well beyond its crafting, roping another being into the negotiation of the object’s life.
The same process of glassing had been applied to my grandfather’s plywood Carolina boats. It had not been used for some years even before my grandfather’s death, and a few years after his passing, we burnt the boat to make space and get rid of an old, unusable thing. In the ashes of the burn pile lay the fiberglass cloth, indestructible even after decades of wear and tear, sunlight, and a Carolina boat’s funeral pyre. Looking at the cloth, I felt the same feeling I’d felt looking at the site of my grandfather’s garden—a somber acceptance of the passage of time and the knowledge that something someone had so treasured was gone, with no possibility for it to be enjoyed in the way it had been enjoyed in its own time. Efforts at restoration stave off decay for some period, but for all that fiberglass can repel, it cannot stop time.
Raymond Williams’s novel Border Country tells the story of a young man, a university lecturer in London, returning to the Welsh village of his birth after his father suffers a stroke. The story is a novelization of Williams’s struggles over the definition of culture in his more academic writing. What is culture? Who decides? What does time and generational change mean for culture, particularly in terms of the “rural” and those who inherit the weight of that particular cultural signifier?
The protagonist, Matthew, wrestles with these same questions, constantly beset by the fear that he has abandoned whatever was “real” of his life and being by moving to London. In one of the last extended discussions with his father before he passes, Matthew asks his father whether the changes in him since leaving are a symptom of his “growing away from what used to be real.” The father, in response, asks the question: “How many, ever, live just like their fathers? None at all like their grandfathers. If they’re doing the same work, still they’re quite different.”
The cypress strip boat offers an alluring metaphor: it is the unilateral symbol of an old and dying rural culture of a region; it is a marker of something that was once real and is now commodified and overgrown by subdivision and strip mall and “rural development.” It is wood as opposed to plastic, “organic” as opposed to “inorganic,” and offers a sense of locality and regional specificity that manufactured plastic does not offer to anyone or any place on earth. It is a salve for a settler’s unease amid a landscape that bears reminders of displacement, a shaky shibboleth of belonging.
Read this way, the cypress strip boat feels like an answer to some corrosive image of modernity, an increasingly commodified and corporatized new South, but in the light of history it does not hold. Pictured against the log boats made by Spivey around the same time period or the wobbly wooden vessel manned by Billy Watson in Franklin Burroughs’s memories, the Lumber River Boat Company appears as “newfangled gimcrackery,” as Burroughs describes his canoe in the face of Spivey’s foot adze and howel. Absolute heralding of yonder golden age falls flat, yet another voice in an eternal chorus of the good old days.10
This chorus forgets. It elides place and time. It doesn’t recall that Spivey is not the originator of a method of aquatic travel in the border country of the eastern Carolinas. The Waccamaw River derives its namesake from the Waccamaw Indian People, today headquartered in Aynor, South Carolina. Waccamaw communities historically ranged from Lake Waccamaw in North Carolina to Winyah Bay in Georgetown, South Carolina, the entirety of the river’s run. Methods of navigating the river are central to the Waccamaw’s history, and their canoes serve to predate the presentation of the strip boat as an authorial arbiter of locality in the Waccamaw watershed.
These canoes, which today periodically appear on the shores of Lake Waccamaw after flooding from hurricanes like Matthew and Florence, are themselves technological innovations of their time; the carving, the pitch, the hollowed-out burn all structurated to negotiate a particular landscape. The fetish for the authentic turtles all the way down, as it so often does in American landscapes, to origins within local Indigenous practice. Anxious settler-colonial attempts to locate the authentic elide this history, continuity being the enemy of a selective narrative of belonging in a place so marked by displacement.
Objects are imbued with the life of a region—this object is of, from, and for the eastern Carolinas and gestures us toward a history of both Indigeneity and settlerism in that place. The object becomes entangled in an array of negotiations over history, authenticity, and place-making that complicate a singular narrative of belonging in rural southern space. These negotiations are not finished; today, manufactured boats made to mimic the one-man strip boat in form and function are constructed from plastic molds. The insertion of plastic for wood poses a problem for the fashioning of the object as local and authentic, so boat makers locate other methods of articulation. The most commonly found models of these boats today are made by three companies: Eagle Plastics, manufacturer of the Crow Boat; Warrior Manufacturing; and Creek Boats.