This summer, in Beaufort, North Carolina we loaded into a motorboat headed to an island home only to unbroken horses, crabs, and whatever else can make a living in the wind blown sands and forests. On the ride out I asked the boat driver where the horses came from. He told me no one knew, but they probably dated from the 1600s and were abandoned by Spanish ships. He mentioned that these horses have genetics that are found only in Spain and one part of Wyoming. He told us where to find their favorite watering hole.
We hustled our children along the beach to see if we might get lucky. We got a good sand blasting, as the wind tore over the Atlantic with nothing to break it’s speed. After marching through the sand, which our littlest ones only had so much patience for, I saw staggered brown shapes along the horizon. When we got close enough to realize we’d found them, we started rushing, trying to contain our excitement so we wouldn’t startle them. I had no idea if they’d stampede or something.
It turned out they were pretty used to people. Though they had no intention of letting a human touch them, but we were able to creep to within a few paces as they stood hock-deep in a back water chomping grass and bursting into occasional scary battles. A lone male stood apart, moving with the herd at a distance. As one mare moved to dry wooded land the rest galloped through the water to meet up with her. There were several more fights to establish order, and the vulnerable feeling of being exposed with young children so close to these battling beasts. We stood in the wild grasses watching for as long as we could, hypnotized by them.
People followed herds- of mammoths, cattle, horses, buffalo- for as long as there have been people. Here, with no sound but the ocean, trotting hooves and buzzing flies, it was easy to feel confused about what epoch we were in. Until a sunburned old man with white hair and a beach chair wandered by.
On our walk back I found a wild plant I’ve known about for years, but had never sampled. Glasswort grows from the south all the way into Canada. In the old days, people used the ashes of a related plant in England in glassmaking. It’s a salt tolerant succulent, a rough-n-tumble survivor of a plant. I harvested a few handfuls and later sauteed them. I was surprised at how delicious they were- soft like asparagus. Occasionally some had a tougher little core inside, like Queen Anne’s Lace roots. But no matter, it was easy to strip off the soft flesh with my teeth. It was actually a viable vegetable that could make an entree. Here’s my word of caution though: these come pre-salted with good old fashioned sea salt (infused in their flesh), so cook them in unsalted butter, or steam them, adding no salt.
As always, so no one gets hurt and I don’t lose my shirt, don’t identify and eat this plant based on these photos. Do the research and get a 100% positive ID before sampling Glasswort.
After returning from the island, I glanced at a brochure and read that the horses were introduced to the island in the 1940s by a local doctor, and are managed with vaccinations and birth control annually. Maybe our motorboat captain could smell a hopeless romantic when I boarded his craft. I don’t know which story to believe, the abandoned Spanish horses living free in balance for 400 years, or the recent managed arrivals, wild for sure, but an intentional human undertaking. Maybe there’s truth in both somehow…a doctor with horses of Spanish decent, related to some long lost abandoned herd? It’s not so important to me.
We watched them roam without halters, wherever they wish, forming the ancient social structures encoded in their blood. Everything alive wants to be free just to be itself. We’ve been involved in a ten thousand year experiment of engineering animals and plants to work for us. It’s both the cause of, and the only way now to feed, our teeming numbers. But there’s a ground of truth in wildness, a rightness. Wild things whisper of how things always were and how they will be long after our project of forming the world to suit ourselves is blown away with the sands.