North Carolina Highway 211 traverses the Southern Coastal Region of the State, from Sandhills in the Southeast, all the way to Candor, a small peach-farming town between Charlotte and Fayetteville. Having turned off of US 17 and onto 211, I head into the Green Swamp Preserve for the first time, armed with a video camera, and some rudimentary knowledge of the geography and ecosystem. My mission is clear: to find Venus Flytraps and to understand why they are disappearing from the wild at an alarming rate.
Venus flytrap populations in the wild had been diminishing for years from habitat loss and lack of natural fire. The only place they grow wild in the world is within a ninety-mile radius of Wilmington, NC. In recent years, however, there has also been a spike in demand for the traps that nurseries cannot supply on their own. This fueled a poaching epidemic and a lucrative black market. Flytraps are disappearing at an alarming rate, primarily from the Green Swamp Preserve, which is one of only three protected areas in the state where they are found, and of the three, it is by far the most significant. All of this fascinates me, and the more I find out about the flytrap itself, the more my interest grows.
My companions for the trip are one of my oldest friends and one of my newest friends. I first met Silas the day he was brought home from the hospital, less than twenty four hours old, swaddled in a freshly carved pumpkin, just a few days before Halloween. Although I don’t remember the day, we have been dear friends ever since. Because our mothers have been close friends since the late seventies, our bond was almost predetermined. Silas easily has ten pounds on me, despite my five-inch advantage in height. He has also had a beard thicker than mine will ever be since he was sixteen. Remarkably, he and I had matriculated to the same small liberal arts college in rural Vermont, and agreed to accompany me on the trip, seeing the same merits in random adventuring that I do. And then there was Scott, a friend I had made relatively recently, whom I had somehow roped into coming on this fool’s errand. Never having been south of the Mason Dixon line, Scott was ready to experience the American South for the first time, most looking forward to the food and hoping a true Southern Belle. Despite these motivations, he was willing to take the spring break of his senior year of college to drive close to one thousand miles with a couple of underclassmen to look at plants. What a commendable guy.
“Green Swamp Preserve, three miles,” Scott exclaims, more excitement in his voice than I would have expected.
It would appear I have been successful in replicating my interest in the mission in my companions. Silas stares out the window, also searching for signs that we have entered the swamp, admiring the longleaf pines that are so distinct this region. The clouds roll in thicker and light rain begins to fall. It is that awkward time in late March where the grass has just started to turn green, but little else shows much sign of life, still slumbering under dead leaves.
As we continue to barrel down the highway at a jaunty sixty miles per hour, I miss the visitor’s entrance and parking lot entirely, which would have led me to a boardwalk and miles of walking trails. Instead I find myself traveling down the highway, going further into the swamp. Looking for a parking lot that I have already missed, I slow when I see two trucks, one with a US forest service logo, the other an electric company. They are pulled off onto the left side of the road, and I slow to examine the scene. Turning my head around briefly, I look down what appears to be an unpaved logging road delving deep into the swamp. The road is covered in deep puddles and appears to be made entirely of compacted sand. The pines seem to ominously crowd thicker along the road. I slow down to the speed limit and proceed another half mile before I find a suitable spot to turn around. I turn into the entrance to another logging road, barred by a rusting, but formidable metal gate. It appears that much of the ground-level foliage has been recently burned in this section of the preserve, soggy and charred, with dark grey streams of water flowing out onto the sandy tract of pseudo-road. Three point turn completed, I head southeast, now driving ten miles per hour under the posted speed limit as opposed to the ten over I had been doing going the opposite direction. I finally pull into the logging road, and slowly slip by the forestry and electric trucks. The blue Subaru draws dubious looks, but once I meander past in first gear, I shift up to second and scoot down the road. This is fun, good ‘ole boy, down south driving. It’s not quite mudding, which my 2005 Outback would be mostly incapable of doing. We’ll call it sanding. Or perhaps puddling. Regardless, it is still a blast, and at least somewhat harkens back to senior year of high school, taking my friend Brian’s wrangler across creeks, and getting stuck in the uncannily red Carolina clay.
I speed down the dirt path, relishing taking on bigger and bigger puddles, covering my car in sand. After a minute or two, my mind returns to the mission. Flytraps. I drove nine hundred miles from college in Middlebury, Vermont to seek out these seemingly unimportant, miniscule, oddities of nature. While my desire to return to North Carolina also had much to do with its familiarity and special place in my heart, as many people’s home states do, most of my reasoning for going can be chalked up to a podcast I listened to back in January.
Having gotten really into podcasts over winter break, a friend recommended the show Criminal, which features various stories relating to crime in one way or another and is produced in a manner familiar to those who listen to This American Life, which makes sense considering all of its producers have NPR ties. Because two of the three producers are based out of North Carolina, the show happens to cover a lot of crime committed in the Tarheel State. One particular episode profiled the poaching epidemic taking place in the area surrounding Wilmington, North Carolina, and ultimately inspired me to take this journey.
We reach a place where a secondary logging road brakes off from the mainline. I step out of the car and put on more suitable shoes while sitting on the lip of the car’s open trunk. Donning rain jackets, Silas, Scott, and I proceed down the road, deeper into the swamp. Scott begins to crack jokes, and Silas joins in.
“Why don’t we just do a documentary about these yellow flowers instead?” Scott
ponders. “We can just poach these instead and make plenty of money.”
It is hard to tell whether my companions are making jokes plainly for their own amusement or to offset uneasiness about our surroundings. While this is certainly no heart of darkness, there is a slight sense of occult mystique about delving deeper into the seemingly endless pines. No birdsong, no wind, the only noises are our breathing, and the faint squelch of our shoes in the wet sand. The canopy of pines is sparse enough to allow light down onto the ground. The longleafs only maintain a top layer of branches and leaves, as those at lower levels die off from lack of sunlight. Beneath lay mosses, pine needles, and an assortment of relatively nondescript weeds. The preserve is home to a fragile ecosystem that formerly consumed the entire Tidewater region of North Carolina. Longleaf pines dominate the canopy, but the ground beneath is populated by a diversity of orchids, carnivorous plants, mosses, and grasses that are found nowhere else in the world. North Carolina receives more lighting strikes than any other state besides Florida, particularly the Tidewater region. These frequent strikes facilitate the fires that are so important to keeping this ecosystem running smoothly. There is little or no brush that extends more than a foot above ground level, because these fires wipe out any possibility of growth. The pines have evolved to be highly fire resistant, even in their early stages, as have ground-dwelling plants, such as the flytraps. I learn all of this information later in the trip, having the pleasure to speak with Angie Carl, the land manager in charge of the Green Swamp Preserve and an employee of the Nature Conservancy, whose primary on-site function is to facilitate controlled burns in order to promote the wellbeing of the swamp ecosystem.
As we continue down the logging road boggy streams on either side surround us, just too far to jump over, we are left without a means to cross. Being that flytraps favor particularly boggy areas, we take our time walking, looking into the gulch for a tiny glimpse of red that might indicate a flytrap’s presence. We press on, looking on either side for the stream to narrow and offer us a spot to jump across, but nothing presents itself. Just as we decide that it may be prudent to return to the car, which by this point is a pinkie-nail-sized speck in the distance, we come across a mostly waterlogged bridge, offering just enough surface area for a relatively dry crossing. As we cross, the mossy, wet, earthy, and lightly salty smell of the swamp enters my nostrils. Walking under the cover of the trees, the silence of the swamp seems to deepen. My feet sink into the mossy earth, and we all head off in separate directions, searching the ground with our eyes, but ultimately come up empty. Growing quickly tired of scouring the ground, we all agree to return to the car and drive on to search another area of the swamp. We repeat the process several times that day but no to avail. It appears that the flytraps will have to wait for another day. Getting back in the car for the last time that day, Silas, Scott, and I head back up US 17, bound for Snead’s Ferry, the sleepy coastal town where we are staying.
On a chilly day in late February, I stepped into McCullough Student Center, on the campus of Middlebury College. I entered the mailroom, picked up a package, and hurriedly proceeded to Peter’s office in Axinn, already a few minutes late for our meeting. Entering his office at a half-jog, I plopped the package down at the desk between us and apologized for my slight tardiness. Upon realizing what was in the package, Professor Lourie’s amusement was hard to miss. Firing up the camera, he looked on as I took a seat and unboxed the tiny flytrap. Despite being warned about just how tiny these traps were I was completely unprepared for just how miniscule this notorious fly eater was. Certainly a far cry from the sentient carnivore portrayed in the 1986 musical Little Shop of Horrors.
Providing the proper environment for a flytrap proved highly problematic. While it could survive on sunlight alone, the little sunlight that crept into my dorm room was less than enough. Additionally, houseflies in Vermont during February are few and far between. So already, it was bound for malnourishment. Additionally, I needed to do as much as I could to reproduce the damp, nutrient-poor soil that the plant was so used to. Nutrient poverty is key to the evolution of all carnivorous plants, which are forced to turn to outside sources of nutrients, such as insects, and even frogs in some cases. Doing my best to recreate this environment, I naturally decided to create terrarium out of a mason jar. Using a blend of peat moss and sand, I attempted to repot the flytrap. The combination of repotting and lack of nutrients had the trap in a very fragile state by the time I was ready to pack up my car and head South.
The rest of my logistical planning for my journey south was primarily concerned with contacting people who could help provide me with more information about the poaching problem, flytraps in general, and who could house my friends and me. The first call was to Linda Bach, an old friend of my mother’s. I was essentially calling in a favor. My mother had babysat Linda’s children for years, and my father had celebrated both her son and stepdaughter’s weddings. I asked her if I could stay at her beach house in Snead’s Ferry, NC, that sleepy coastal town just over an hour from the Green Swamp. Aware of how it would sound, that I was asking if some college friends and myself could stay at her beach house for spring break, I fully expected a no. I was pleasantly surprised when this question prompted Linda to embark on a comprehensive assessment of just how many favors my parents had done for her without being repaid properly. Fair enough. I also contacted the producers of Criminal, who never got back to me. And thus, on a Saturday morning, on March 21st, 2015, Scott, Silas, and I embarked from Vermont and headed south.
Waking up at least partially sick and unpacked, we found our starting particularly slow, largely thanks to me. We pulled out of town around 11:00am, and before we knew it we were on Interstate 87, headed for New York City. With dull skies, slowly melting snow, and temperature just a few degrees above freezing, the beginning of our trip simultaneously made us grateful that we were leaving this dull, cold, and seemingly unchanging landscape, but also combined with my slight sickness to instill me with a deep, chilly exhaustion that I found hard to shake during the trip. This was particularly frustrating and inconvenient, because I happened to be the only person in the car who was able to drive my manual transmission Subaru. Scott had driven stick a few times as a teenager, and Silas even less experience. Somewhere on I-84, as I was struggling mightily to keep my eyes open, I convinced Scott to attempt to drive. We pulled off at a rest stop, and much to everyone’s surprise, he took off smoothly, if a little loudly, and headed straight for the interstate. This was to be one of the only highlights of a relatively dull day of travel. In southern Pennsylvania I took over again and guided us as far down as Fredericksburg, VA. We booked a hotel and turned in for the night, all of us properly exhausted, although despite the exhaustion, I could not help but obsess over the quest ahead of me, finding the flytraps.
Speaking with my mother later the next day, I learned later that Fredericksburg had once been the 1952-1953 home of my Grandparents, Tully and Frances. Tully briefly worked as a foreman in a plastics factory, saving up to pay for graduate school, having used up the extent of what the G.I. Bill would pay for. This relatively insignificant detail actually meant a lot to me. Aside from flytraps, Eastern North Carolina had another particular draw for me. Heritage has always been important to me, but it is only recently that I have begun to explore my American side. I have consistently been fascinated with my Irish heritage, as I have spent so much time there, surrounded by a classically expansive Catholic family. Knowing in the ins and outs of how I am related to each different person was always a fun game to play. Stateside however, the only family I know is my mother’s immediate family, which surely has something to do with my sense that I am so much more Irish than I am American. So, in preparation for this trip I dug through my aunt’s Ancestry.com profile and talked to my mother. I learned that parts of my mother’s family have been in Eastern North Carolina since before the Revolutionary War. Even though I spent the first eighteen years of my life there, I had never even been to most of the places that hold significance to my heritage in the state. Those dilapidated Tidewater towns, which have declined from the centers of culture and commerce that they once were, in the days of the Carolina colony, hold the keys to my family’s history. The prospect of uncovering some history and visiting these places began to really excite me during my preparation for departure. Much of this excitement about this came from knowing how thrilled my own mother would be to know that I am taking an interest in her side of the family, something that has often been a sore spot for her because she feels that she is being overlooked in favor of my Irish side. This is one of the reasons that she has always insisted that I look more like her father than I do my own father, a point that I have stopped contesting, despite the fact that I can walk down a street in Ballinamore and immediately be picked out as a Kelly, despite towering above the rest of the clan.
Yet unaware of the small significance of Fredericksburg at the time, we left the next morning with a sense of purpose, headed southeast toward Elizabeth City, NC. This was a place that held a particularly familial significance for me. Frances Reed, my grandmother, was originally born Frances Scott Joyner on September 11, 1923 in Elizabeth City, NC. Her parents were Elijah Wiley Joyner, an elementary school principal and later superintendent, and Chloe Mae Scott, a schoolteacher. Chloe Mae died in 1929, at the age of 29, when my grandmother was just five years old. Frances remembers little of the event and was told that she died of shock during an operation. Frustratingly, the only detail given on the death certificate is that she died due to complications from an operation regarding “female troubles.” So little was known about Chloe Mae Scott that before a third cousin of ours unearthed her gravestone in 2007, we only knew her as Mae Scott, the name that appeared on the death certificate. She is buried in the Old Hollywood Cemetery in Elizabeth City, in a plot shared by several of her kin. The cousin I mentioned was only able to find her after the cemetery had been cleared out after being overgrown by weeds and shrubbery for decades. Neither my aunt Josie, who is the member of the family most on top of the details of the family tree and pays for the Ancestry.com subscription, nor my mother, have had the chance to visit the site since it was discovered. Even Grandmama hadn’t returned to the site since her mother had been interred back in 1929. After the death of her mother, her father took a job as the superintendent of Beaufort County, living in the small town of Pantego, where the Pungo River empties into Pamlico Sound. Absorbing all of this information from my mother and aunt inspired me to visit these places, and travelling from Fredericksburg down through the entire eastern part of the state, I saw the perfect opportunity to visit.
Before long, we found ourselves nearing the North Carolina border, which is where we encountered our first swamp. The Great Dismal Swamp is one of the largest land preserves in the Eastern United States, stretching from near Norfolk all the way down to Edenton, NC. Unlike the Green Swamp Preserve, the Great Dismal Swamp is federally protected land, classified as a wildlife refuge. Along Route 17, we stretched our legs at the visitor’s center for the swamp. We crossed the Dismal Swamp Canal, completed in 1805, and entered the visitor’s center, looking for information about flytraps, but it appeared that their habitat had never stretched this far north. After a deer sighting or two and a poke around the swamp via boardwalk, we returned to the car, ready for lunch, and excited to continue on to Elizabeth City.
Arriving less than half an hour later, the lunch is our highest priority. Silas and I both crave Cookout, the holiest of holiest, and the crown jewel of North Carolina fast food. Cookouts are primarily drive-thru only, and serve the finest and cheapest of Southern grill food. Think hushpuppies, barbeque, coleslaw, burgers, hot dogs, and fried chicken, just to name a few. Upon pulling out of the drive thru and parking, I sink my teeth into a barbeque sandwich; East Carolina style, with vinegar based sauce, and topped with coleslaw. The styling of barbeque has long been a point of contention that divides the state. The western part of the state, along with the majority of the rest of the country, prefers a thick and sweet, tomato-based sauce, whereas East Carolina sauce is vinegar based and tangy, full of chilies and other spices. Like a true New Englander, Scott, having never even had pulled-pork barbeque, had me order for him, and prepares to enjoy his sandwich for the first time, as well as hushpuppies, another Southern classic. Before he finishes chewing his first bite, it is apparent that this staple of North Carolina cuisine has won over yet another Northerner.
We plug Old Hollywood Cemetery into Google maps on Scott’s phone, and lo and behold it is less that four minutes away. Leaving the main strip in town and turning down a residential road, the uncut lawns and sagging houses rise up on either side of us. An old black man in a decrepit overcoat shuffles down the sidewalk to our right, grey dreadlocks spilling out of a ball cap, pushing a rusty shopping cart full of what appears to be his worldly possessions. We reach an unusual intersection, with five roads meeting at one point, and only one stop sign to speak of. An ancient gas station and mechanic shop sits facing the graveyard, signs miraculously in tact, but rotting from the inside. A new chain-link fence stands out among the decaying homes, encompassing the graveyard.
The Old Hollywood Cemetery is massive. The graveyard is full of massive old trees, providing protection from the elements for some of the gravestones. Parking next to the fence on the grass, my friends and I comb the graveyard, a task of considerably more enormity than any of us were prepared for. Generations of old British and Scottish families, many likely here since the time of the Carolina colony, lie interred beneath us. I have always held a small fascination with headstones, fixated with making up backstories for every name. We continued to troll through row after row, searching for a headstone that we only had a picture of, taken by a distant cousin and posted on Ancestry.com. We initially come up empty. A man swaggs through the graveyard, obviously using it as a cut through to shorten his walk home from picking up his cigarettes for the week. He sips on a tallboy and has already begun smoking. Noticing our filming equipment, he stops to exclaim
“Y’all makin’ a movie up in this bitch?”
“Well sir, we’re looking for my great-grandmother’s gravestone,” I replied
“Well sheeit, I think this cemetery is looked after by Twilford funeral homes if y’all wanna give those folks a holler.”
I take his advice. I Google Twilford and despite it being a Sunday, I am connected to the owner of the funeral home, who has recently digitized the entire record. He asks for a name and gives me a zone. Looking at a map, he is able to give me directions from where I stand all the way down to the other side of the graveyard. Once I find the zone, it is a matter of minutes. I am actually rolling film when we happen upon the grave. I am unprepared for just how powerful this moment is, overcome with a heavy kind of emotion, feeling almost as if I am being hammered into the ground by some great weight that had been dropped into my hands. The headstone has been recently adorned with flowers; meaning that it means something to someone, and that someone has been here in the last month, if not sooner by the condition of the flowers. The old marble is in excellent condition, with four Scott names clearly engraved, two on either side. It sits in the southeast corner of the cemetery, protected by an ancient yew tree, facing into a dense brush forest behind. I begin to document the gravestone, and the moment passes. The weight lifts from my chest and I feel more elated than anything. I call my mother, who is of course overjoyed that I have found a headstone she had expected me to have no luck with. Now she has someone to point it out when she comes down to visit. After spending another twenty minutes or so memorizing every detail of the plot, it is time that we hit the road again. We proceed back onto US 17, the road that will take us all the way down the coast, and head for Snead’s Ferry, a three-hour trip, traversing close to the entirety of the Tidewater region. This brief and emotional foray into my heritage an ancestral history has blurred my quest somewhat, making me hungry for more, but as we leave town my mind returns to flytraps, the swamp, and the days ahead.
We pass through Edenton, Windsor, and Washington, before moving on through New Bern. Many of these towns seem to tell a similar story, at least from the road, but none quite like Maysville. US 17 runs right through Maysville, sitting on the border of Croatan National Forest. As we pass through the outskirts of town coming in, it is immediately clear that there are more abandoned buildings than occupied ones. Tobacco warehouses sit rotting to the point of collapse and many dilapidated bungalows overflow with junk through their broken windows. Storefronts lay abandoned, roofs sag with rusty gutters hanging on by only a few screws, and old signs remind us of just how cheap gas used to be. Even the police cars in Maysville are old and run down, a sheriff lurking in his dirty old Ford Taurus, waiting for someone to ignore the twenty-five mile-per-hour speed limit. He idles in the parking lot of a Piggly Wiggly, a chain of Southern grocery stores that are almost impossible to find these days. The sign appears to be at least fifteen years old. This is also not the Eastern Carolina that my grandparents would have remembered. They grew up here before shipping moved elsewhere and before big tobacco retreated further inland because of reduced demand and more mechanized farming practices. The economic decline of the region has been substantial even in the last two decades with manufacturing jobs being outsourced to Asia and meatpacking and agricultural jobs being filled by the recent influx of immigrants from Latin America. We continue down 17 towards, Jacksonville, already less than an hour from our destination. From Jacksonville all the way down to Snead’s Ferry, a high fence follows us along to our east, marking the boundary of Camp Lejeune, a massive military base where every marine undergoes basic training. We make a couple of turns as we near the end of the day’s travels, turning right before a “go-no-further sign” signifying that the road is imminently becoming military access only. Just a few minutes later, we arrive at the cottage by the water, sheltered a canopy of trees overhung with Spanish moss, growing up alongside the driveway, tendrils dangling so low as to brush the roof of my Subaru.
Stepping out and stretching our legs after our journey, Scott, Silas, and I knock on the door, ready to greet our host. Drew is a curious fellow. Shorter than I remember, he opens the door, but instead of immediately inviting us in, he saunters out to inspect us. Drew stands about 5’7, and confidently leans back when he walks, his substantial belly serving as a counterweight. A faded Hawaiian shirt hangs loosely from his body, secured by a single button, exposing his particularly wooly chest. He had obviously begun drinking for the day, only evident for now by his slight swaying as he walks. Drew married a dear old friend of my mother’s some time back and I reckon that’s how I first got to know him. He knows Silas as well through the same connection. Having spent most of his life as either a fishermen or a boat captain, Drew is full of wild stories. Allegedly, he has brokered trade deals in languages he learned the morning of, and successfully defended his vessels from multiple pirate attacks. Although born on a military base in Tampa, Drew grew up in New Canaan, CT, the son of an army man turned investment banker in the 40s and 50s. He came from old money, his father one of many in a long line to attend Princeton. The only traces he has of his privileged background exist in the savvy investments Drew makes in property anywhere he lives. However, other than that, you could barely find a hint of Drew’s Connecticut origins in the way he carries himself. At 70-something years of age, he is an old sea dog through and through.
Having taken stock of his houseguests for the next week, Drew ushers us across the threshold. The cabin is simple, tastefully decorated, and outfitted with a bare minimum of amenities. The standout luxury in the house is a flatscreen and satellite television, allowing Drew to consume his fill of the history channel, Al Jazeera America, and PBS. We are shown out back to a camper that was once included in a property sale Drew had conducted some years past. Exhausted from the journey, we fall asleep soon after eating a simple dinner, our only companion a massive spider that lives in the airstream’s stove. Our domicile for the week, we predict correctly that it will serve us well.
Up until this point, our mission has gone to plan. We know where we are going to look for flytraps, we know what people to talk to, and we are fresh off the victory of finding my great-grandmother’s gravesite. But it is not until the next evening that the journey is impeded by an unforeseen obstacle.
Returning to the house after our first day in the field, excited but ever so slightly discouraged by our failure to locate the flytraps, we all plop down in front of the TV. That’s when it all starts. My vision blurs, and I find myself unable to focus on the screen. My head soon begins to experience a dull, but ever increasing constant pain. It continues to accelerate, and having never suffered a migraine before, I will admit I am somewhat unnerved. The event culminates with me lying on the floor in a dark room, praying to lose consciousness, before rushing to the bathroom and losing my lunch. I jump in the shower and feel immediate relief in a matter of minutes. The headache precedes some sort of virus, and over the course of the next few days, I barely leave the couch. I feel guilty for the restlessness of my friends, but it is not until our last day in Snead’ Ferry that my symptoms lift.
At this point, we (I) had wasted the majority of the precious time in North Carolina we had to find the flytraps. With the combination of our sluggish start due to my recovery from illness and a dinner I arranged with a friend from high school that evening, the time we have to find the traps seems almost impossibly limited. On our drive down to Wilmington, Scott sets up our appointment with Angie Carl. We stop briefly at a Sonic, the final module of Scott’s southern fast food education. Scott asks me to order for him again, while Silas gets his usual burger and milkshake. After devouring two hot dogs and an order of fried jalapenos, I pull out of the Sonic, and wove through traffic until I finally find the Nature Conservancy offices. We set up the interview, Scott acting as cameraman, and Silas toting the sound equipment. Angie proves to be a goldmine of information, but the most memorable snippet from the interview is the way she pointedly asks us to turn off the camera when she discusses where we could find flytraps, both in the Green Swamp and in the city of Wilmington. Though a little camera-shy, Angie is a joy to speak with. She is insightful, critical, and I never feel that she is holding back. We learn a great deal from her and I am impressed by her passion for her work. I hope to someday display the same love of my profession.
Leaving the Nature Conservancy offices, we need to act relatively quickly. But first we have a substantial decision to make. Two options stand before us: drive an hour to Green Swamp Preserve and spend time searching for flytraps there, definitely a superior option in terms of the satisfaction I could take from it. However, we have just three hours before we’re due to meet Bryan for tacos. Our alternative is finding a much smaller nature park in Wilmington, where a population of flytraps and other carnivorous plants has been relocated. Hard of a decision as it is, we act quickly and find ourselves navigating the town of Wilmington. I feel an unusual combination of expectation and excitement, disappointment at having missed out on seeing them in a truly wild environment, and relief that I am at least going to get to sit face to flower with one of these organisms.
Pulling into an empty parking lot of about ten parking spots, the first thing we notice are all of the trail cameras padlocked to the trees. They are taking no chances here, which makes sense considering Angie had said that every single camera she had ever set up in the preserve has been stolen or vandalized beyond the point of use. We walk down a weathered boardwalk, surrounded on either side by short new growth pines and shrubbery. One hundred yards in, the trees surrounding the boardwalk open up and before us lies a swampy plane, about three basketball courts long and one wide. At first, there seems to be no sign of anything besides a few pitcher plants and swamp grasses, but upon venturing further into the marsh, hopping from stone to stone, I finally behold the flytraps I had spent so long dreaming about. They are tiny! Even having seen the size of the one I ordered in the mail, this was impressive. Despite their size, it cannot be understated how spectacular the Venus Flytrap is. The intensity of the reds and greens is astounding, and the otherworldliness of their structure is breathtaking. Gone were my thoughts of trying to properly capture this moment on film. I instead focus in on the plants with my point and shoot, and am rewarded with beautiful images of the flytraps. We stay as long as we can, given our time constraints, and I am elated, despite not making it back to the Green Swamp. I had built this moment up so much, and although it had not happened in the way I had imagined, I am so thrilled and relieved to have finally seen flytraps growing naturally. I will have to return to the Green Swamp Preserve someday to see them for myself, but my search on that particular visit is finally over.
I don’t quite know what it is about flytraps. Or about Eastern North Carolina. Or about swamps. In a journey that had been so frustrating, I was equally rewarded by the fascination and attachment I developed for flytraps, and the beautiful experience of digging into my family history. This whole time, including my writing on my journey, I have felt as if I am on the brink of an epiphany, a great realization about a grand theme or some focal aspect of my personality or my identity. Perhaps I will discover some central defining truth about America, or just North Carolina. Perhaps I will realize something profound about my relationship with the environment or perhaps I will uncover some deep wisdom within myself, derived from my family. All of these grand realizations are still possible, but they have yet to happen. What I truly took away from this experience was the realization for just how much I love my state and value my heritage, not to mention the intense love and attachment I feel to those strange little plants.