When I moved to Ocracoke, part of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, in 1985,one of the things I loved was the presence of joebells, lovely red and yellow flowers that grew wild on the island. I loved the story folks told about a heartbroken man named Joe Bell who lived there in the early part of the 20th century. The legend said that after losing his woman he brought the seeds to the island and scattered them across the village as a token of his love. The flowers flourished and spread. They still grow here.
When I bought my home, Marsh Haven, in 1995, I knew that I wanted to grow joebells in my yard. I had since learned that they were actually a strain of Gaillardia, known in other parts of the country as blanketflowers. I have since planted joebells in my gardens numerous times, either transplanting flowers that I found elsewhere or sowing Gaillardia seeds. I have never had any success, so I finally gave up.
On the morning of September 6, 2019, Hurricane Dorian, having only a few days before wreaked havoc in the Bahamas, swept across Ocracoke Island. In less than an hour, it changed everything; the landscape, the village, the lives of all who called it home.
I wasn’t there. I was staying at my camp in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York where, only three weeks before, I had lost my sister to cancer. I was reeling from the blow and in grief when I heard the news of the hurricane’s approach. I listened with growing apprehension as NPR recounted the track of the storm, following an inexorable path toward the little island of Ocracoke. I was at the museum, where I worked a seasonal job, when it came ashore, and I watched on the computer screen with horror and dread.
News trickled out slowly. There were no reporters on the island when the storm hit, but residents, struggling to dig their way out, began to share their stories. “It was bad,” I was told when I could finally talk to my friends. “Really bad.” No one had been able to get to my cottage but it was sure to have been flooded.
It was true. Weeks later, as I stood in the doorway, I gazed in horror. No words could describe how I felt. Gone were my walls and my floors. Gone my appliances and my propane fireplace. The first floor of my home was a skeleton. The contents of my house had been “gutted” several weeks after the flood, when black mold began oozing its way up the walls. It had been done, with my reluctant consent, by caring volunteers from off the island.
My back yard, I was told, had looked like a war zone, filled with all kinds of debris which had washed in from other parts of the island. It had been removed and the worst of the mess cleaned up by other volunteers. But my flowers, trees, and shrubs were gone, my picket fence in pieces. My yard as I knew it was no more. I vowed that if ever I could return to my home I would not try to garden there again. Several friends offered to share some of their plants, but I shook my head adamantly.
It was not just my place. Ocracoke, the island I had loved for so long, was devastated. Driving through the village, I followed roads lined with abandoned, useless appliances, furniture, and cars. The remains of once verdant trees and shrubs were piled along the roadsides, slowly turning grey. The whole island seems to be grey, even under a blue sky.
Climate change, I told myself. We were seeing the effects of climate change first hand. Ocracoke was the canary in the coal mine, a warning to the rest of the world.
Months passed as I tried to find ways to get my house raised and repaired, but I did nothing in my yard. Then one day last week, my house still in ruins, I went into my backyard to find a plate. I stopped abruptly. I stared in shock and amazement. There, blooming luxuriantly between my house and my fence, grew a whole array of joebells; an extravaganza of brilliant red and yellow.
Hurricane Dorian had planted joebells for me, a token of apology, perhaps, for all the damage. Perhaps of hope. Maybe even of love.