The path was scraped clear of palmetto and limb. Shark teeth and shell dredged from the river held it fast against the forest’s approach. Crabs scuttled toward the trees and out of my shadow. The woods moved and sounded. The give of the grey sand reminded me of all that these islands have shared with me. It was hard for me to take steps without falling low. But those waking besides me knew not what surged through me. And so I forced my feet along.
I thought of the other islands that I had walked. Sea Island is just north by ferry. It is a small place of polished silver and golden people who live and vacation among themselves. People I rarely know, but often know of, live there. The hotel is garish, Lily Pulitzer’s doing…pinks and greens, as is the entire island. It is filled full of bright-colored summer homes, built nearly next to one another, storied high against the tides. Golf courses with fairways as manicured as greens fill the remainder. The island is nearly eclipsed by man’s glory and the names that perhaps only here, in this safe company, grace the mailboxes.
Jekyll lies west and north, visible from Cumberland’s northern most shore. It was the home of kings- American style, the play land of the rich and famous – ancestral cottages and a fleet of submarines purchased to guard its waters from enemy attack. For me, Jekyll is about family. It is the first place I remember riding waves with my Daddy. I had this red and white, smooth, but thick, plastic float. We road for days and it never leaked air. Jekyll is where Rob and I went on our honeymoon. Jekyll is where our dear family friends’ daughter married and my children and their cousins danced the night away.
St. Simons is something altogether different. It is where God gathered a generation of us together, came and moved between us, and sealed something which I cannot explain. It is where the Spirit wove me into His family. It holds the genesis of my faith, where it first came to my land and where I first came to it. My heart pounds every time I cross the Marsh Bridge. There is a bittersweetness that hangs in my throat. I go and stand where Wesley first stood and where he lies, and reckon myself dead as well.
Cumberland is like none of these…it is more primal, more beautiful, more glorious. The island is large, larger than the others. The beach is longer and wider, the trees greater in circumference, the wildlife more wonderful. Since it was bought from an Indian tribe, it has been owned by one family or another. It has been farmed for indigo and cotton, harvested for european ships’ timbers, and has served as a playground for American aristocracy.
First the Greens, specifically Nathaniel Greene, held the island. When the Revolutionary War hero died, his wife did not leave for the city’s life, she held the island. Their sons left, selling off their share, the daughters married and remained. That process has repeated in many generations through many family names like Foster and Carnegie and now Ferguson, daughters and granddaughters holding the land. The grandchildren of the last Ferguson daughter now hold the island. She, unwilling to allow the island to ever be consumed in commerce, deeded the island and all its holdings to the National Park Service upon the death of her last grandchild. The island is, therefore, hers forever and her children’s forever and their grandchildren’s forever and ours forever. It cannot be sold or purchased. Her gift makes it ours, the seashore is already so. But soon, all of it, every step of it, will be all of ours as well. No one will be able to take it or buy it or put a McDonald’s on it, ever.
When you see this island place, when you walk on it, tears come. It is an overwhelming beauty. The delight of this island is not spa treatment or imported specialties or servants standing to take your order. There is none of that. You sleep in the beds the owners slept in. You sit in their furnishings, you eat from their gardens and their rivers and estuaries. You walk or pedal everywhere. You are close. You can hear the land shift, its animals run and scurry and fly. There are no locks nor hours of opening. You take what you need from the plenty.
The owners’ family members live in various homes all over the island. Some remain full-time. Some come and go. Some work; some do not. Obviously, the family members have means – most beyond anything we could ever amass. Some are owners of businesses and lands and heirs to fortunes. Others have only the island, and it is enough. Some fly about from country to country; some rarely leave Cumberland. Are they different, these sons and daughters, from us that visit? In only one way, they already have a fullness of fellowship. They have daily what we can only come near occasionally.
A hundred or so people a day are allowed on the island. They can bring a pack and walk the trails, enjoy the beach, or explore the ruins. A very few, incredibly blessed, can stay the night or week in one of the family homes now open for such. I think they do so, not for the funds, but to insure that those who might try or be able to purchase property on an island never do anything to try and make Cumberland that island. It is too beautiful to spoil, to sell. “Developing“ Cumberland would be like selling indulgences – obscene.
As I have shared, God called so many of us together, to Him at St. Simons. He marked us there, set us apart there. Here is what I think the Holy Spirit showed me about you all, this generation called out for God, at Cumberland.
Everyone in our country owns the seashore of Cumberland. Soon, in a few fifty or so years, we, the citizens, will own it all. But for now, it is held by sons and daughters, whose responsibility is to hold it in trust for us, to protect it from attack, to spend their fortunes and lives in its upkeep, to share what is theirs freely with those who will seek it out.
I talked with the Lord on the boat motoring down the river, toward the mainland. “God, my family, my friends love each other, I see them reach toward you, they do more than I to reach toward You, and yet they seem frustrated in their efforts. You seem to elude them, you seem just out of their reach. I don’t understand why it is so easy for me. Why do you bring me so near to You? Why do you speak so to me.? Why are you so tangible and real and moving about me? about us? and not about them?
I thought about last year – Laura being so very sick. These people with us this weekend did the things I did not, was not asked to do, was not to allowed to do. I might have struggled to do what they so willingly did. Shannon drove back and forth from Atlanta to be with Laura weeks at a time and washed Laura’s hair and dressed her wounds. Berkely organized Laura’s family’s life and made sure everyone was always where they were to be and went to everything in Laura’s stead. She came early and stayed late to everything Laura would allow. I saw people who loved their friend with passion and commitment I have rarely shown. The men amongst us gave their wives over for her care, washed and fed and carted their children while their wives did so for Laura’s. I ate with these men who teach Sunday school to 5th grade boys and yet whose countenance betray an unknowingness as to this God that they declare to them.
I laughed this weekend as I have never have – in joy that I still had my baby sister who has always so made me laugh – in thanks for these people who so took care of her in faith. And I wondered about the so little I was asked, even allowed to do in her care. The only time she let me near was the night of the surgery. Then it was I, not the faithful, faithful friends or our parents who would have died for Laura to live one more day, who she asked to stay with her. I had fought off rejection the whole battle. I was again and again reminded, “It’s not about you. Do what she needs you to do.” So I prayed. I fought a battle I could physically feel at times, over a little spit of sand, of earth, that I would not, could not cede. My only job was to hold the land.