Cumberland Island is one of the last (and the largest) undeveloped barrier islands on the East Coast, long the playground of the Carnegie and Candler families. Cumberland’s beach is now a protected National Seashore, and much of the northern end is protected as a federal National Wilderness Area. The only way to the island is by ferry, and only 300 people are allowed on Cumberland per day.
The most famous modern-day Cumberland Island resident is Carol Ruckdeschel, an Atlanta native who is known as the Jane Goodall of sea turtles. She was the subject of John McPhee’s celebrated New Yorker story in 1974 about “the wild woman from Georgia” who ate roadkill and convinced then-Governor Jimmy Carter to protect the Chattahoochee River after she took him on a canoe trip and showed him the pollution pouring into the river. She’s also been the subject of a book: Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island by Will Harlan.
In 1976, Ruckdeschel moved into a modest house on Cumberland Island that she rebuilt with scavenged wood (her house is a few feet away from the tiny church where John Kennedy Jr. married Carolyn Bessette). Cumberland is a major nesting area for sea turtles, and after she moved there, Ruckdeschel began to study them and is now considered perhaps the world’s foremost expert on them.
Ruckdeschel, 75, has lived on Cumberland 46 years and knows the island better than anyone alive. Her knowledge is now shared in a new book: A Natural History of Cumberland Island (Mercer University Press). The book is long on science, but also written to appeal to the general public with plenty of sly asides such as the observation that the alligator is a solidly built reptile with “an intimidating disposition.”
Photographer Ariel Wise and I visited Ruckdeschel at her home on Cumberland to talk about her book and her life on the island. She is charming, plainspoken and passionate about protecting the island, with a website devoted to that mission. After taking us on a hike along Cumberland’s river beach, Ruckdeschel sat down to talk about her life on the island, her new book, the problem with wild horses and the constant threat of development that faces Cumberland.
Yes, she still eats roadkill (armadillo pâté is one of her specialties) and mostly lives off the land. For dinner, she fed us spaghetti with alligator and wild pig (roasted wood stork was her backup plan). It was delicious.
ArtsATL: You know more about this island than anybody in the world. One of the unique things about your book is when someone typically writes a natural history, it’s a professor who visits maybe two months a year during summer break, whereas, this has been your backyard for 46 years and what comes with that is a knowledge that’s impossible to attain any other way.
Carol Ruckdeschel: Right. It’s very different than people coming for a short time. I get to see trends that you’d miss normally. It may not happen over five years or 10 years or 20 years. But when you stay longer, you start to say, “Wow, I wish I’d been paying attention to this when I first came.”
ArtsATL: I can hear a lot of people asking, “How could she live on that island by herself all that time?”
Ruckdeschel: People do. They kind of look at me like there’s got to be something wrong with me. Every day here is so exciting, I mean just so exciting. Being a biologist, everywhere I look there’s something to study and something to learn. Every day is exceptional. One of the people at the Candlers said, “I can come down for two weeks and l love it and I can go fishing, but I don’t know how you do it. I don’t know how you could stay here for so long.” It’s just where your interests are, I guess. He’s interested in making money, and there’s not a lot of money to be made here. Which is just fine, it’ll keep the people away. In fact, I wouldn’t care if we didn’t have electricity. You’d catch more fish, and dry and smoke more fish and hog and deer and all that, and then there wouldn’t be so many people.
ArtsATL: What first attracted you to Cumberland Island?
Ruckdeschel: It was so remote, it was so uninhabited. There weren’t many people when I first came in the sixties with one of my professors. It was an island, and I immediately wanted to know all about it and, of course, I couldn’t. We were there for a long weekend. It was a whole new experience. I really liked it, and then I thought, wow, I could learn so much here; you know, I could live here. I just convinced myself I could live here if I could get on as a caretaker somewhere. I was pretty much footloose and fancy free at the time. So that’s what I did.
ArtsATL: You are often referred to as the “Jane Goodall of sea turtles.” But your book is not that. It barely mentions sea turtles.
Ruckdeschel: I did a sea turtle book a few years ago [Sea Turtles of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of the United States], so if you want to know about sea turtles, it’s there. This book is more about the ecology of the whole island. That’s what really fascinates me, how everything works together. I’m always sort of amazed when people come up and always focus on the sea turtles. And I have to remind myself, that’s because your new book isn’t out yet. They don’t know. They think you do nothing but check on sea turtles.
And for many years, sea turtles consumed my life. I was out there all night then coming in and going to work as a caretaker — that was three and a half years. And I’d always stay out on the beach two weeks after they quit laying eggs because I hated to go back to bed [laughs]. But I did love them, and then I worked the dead ones [to determine cause of death] forever and ever. I did that, number one, because no one else was doing it. I started the stranding network [tracking sea turtles] because no one else knew about dead sea turtles and what was happening to them. It was a big part of my life, but then the park service put me out to pasture. In the long run, I think that was a favor because it allowed me to focus on this book full-time.
ArtsATL: How did the idea to do a book on the island’s natural history come about?
Ruckdeschel: Bob [her late husband, Bob Shoop, a herpetologist from the University of Rhode Island who joined her on the island] and I thought that’s what we really ought to do because there’s nothing on the natural history of the island. You’ll find little snitches here and there, but nothing really serious about the ecology. I thought this would be a piece of cake. I’ll just do reference work and come up with things to add on. But there is nothing. There’s all these little single species things, but nothing on the general ecology of each island. There’s nothing available like that.
ArtsATL: Why do we need that?
Ruckdeschel: Well, we need to understand as much as we can before we eliminate them. That’s the way I look at it. We get this god complex where we think we can do it better or certainly equally as well as nature. And we just can’t. We need to pay attention and learn what’s here. We’ve gone molecular, and all those cell pickers took over everything. Nobody can identify a snake now without doing its DNA sequence. Nobody can look at it and tell what it is. It’s just another way of divorcing us from reality.
ArtsATL: Reading your book, there was one part where you described the mating dance of a black racer snake. I almost get this image of Dr. Livingston walking around with a magnifying glass observing all these plants and animals. How did you compile your observational details?
Ruckdeschel: Over time. I’ve been here long enough. You couldn’t do this in two years — you’d miss it. I go out walking. One day I was walking the river beach and coming back on the trail and saw a black snake. I stopped, and he didn’t see me. So I just stood there and watched him do that funny little neck shimmy kind of thing. I came back and tried to read about it and found it in one place. I was really excited that I saw it. But then I’ve seen other things that people haven’t reported. That’s the kind of thing that really makes me happy, when I can come home and look something up or identify a mushroom. That’s a great day when I find a species that’s new to me.
ArtsATL: In our culture, there’s the belief that if we destroy a species, it doesn’t matter. But your book talks about how there’s an interconnection between species and if one is eliminated, then there’s an effect in nature. A balance is shifted.
Ruckdeschel: It’s our arrogance, that we feel like we don’t need this species. But there’s been an analogy to a car. Yeah, you can throw away the rearview mirror, you can throw away something under the hood, the horn or something, and the car will run just fine. But if you keep just throwing things away, pretty soon it’s going to stop running. That’s exactly what we’re doing. It’s just a roulette. If we don’t care about things, which we don’t — we have contempt for other forms of life, almost. I lost faith in people a long time ago, but now that there are more and more and more of them, it just gets worse and worse.
ArtsATL: Your book seems almost like your gift to Cumberland Island.
Ruckdeschel: That’s a good way to think about it. People ask about my book, and I have to remind them that my book is not juicy. I know that’s what they’re thinking, that it’s going to be about all these personal things and what goes on here and buzz, buzz, buzz stuff. And I can’t write that kind of thing. I can write how I got this place.
ArtsATL: Or what it’s like to be on the beach at three in the morning watching sea turtles.
Ruckdeschel: Yes, that’s pretty awesome. Great stuff. I’ve got animal stories I want to do at some point, which will be fun. That would be a fun thing. I’ve got some great animal stories. I actually held hands with an eight-foot alligator. Unconfined.
But how do you tell all you know about a place? You just can’t. And the book is something I felt I had to do. I’d done so much work learning it that it seemed like it needed to be available to people. The park, even, they don’t know what’s here and they haven’t got any scientific people. They never will. It seemed like that was my duty. I felt kind of obligated. I learned about it just for me, but now I really need to share it. Then I can do fun things, writing about getting the house and animals. But the book is serious. So I don’t want people to go, I can’t wait to get it and then go, wait, there’s nothing here but animals and plants [laughs].
I knew I had to do that first, once I got on that track, that I did need to make it into a book because that’s the only way it’d be available.
ArtsATL: There’s a lot in the book about the feral animals here, the wild horses in particular, which are a tourist draw. The park service wants to give the male horses vasectomies and eventually let the population die off. But there’s a lot of public resistance to that.
Ruckdeschel: To me, the most important things conservation-wise and for the health of the island are fire suppression and feral animals. At least now the park service wants to get rid of the horses. When I first came here, I thought, oh wow, when we get rid of the horses, it’ll be so great. There’ll be a natural fire regime and I’ll get to watch the island recover. I was naive. The horses are bad for the island, and the island is bad for the horses. It’s going to be a matter of educating the public. That’s what’s going to hook the public, that it’s bad for the horses. If you tell them, almost inevitably they go, “Oh, I see what you mean, that’s awful.” And it truly is. We’ve just got to get more people to see it.
ArtsATL: Why is the island bad for the horses? They’re wild and they’re free and they’re happy. Right?
Ruckdeschel: Yeah? You think so? Ask them if they want to leave [laughs]. They’re grassland animals. It’s an inhospitable terrain, it’s an alien place. It’s very hard. Alligators eat them. They bog down in the marsh and get covered by the tide. They get snake-bit. They get tangled and caught in vines. I’ve seen so many adult animals caught dead in the tangle of vines; they can’t eat or drink, and so there they are.
The poor mares, they can conceive in a year. We usually wait until they’re three years old to breed them, just for size. Like a 12-year-old girl, you don’t want her to get pregnant even though she might be able to. Then two weeks after they drop a foal, they can conceive again. So she’s eating for three then, for her whole life, after that. She’s eating for herself, for her foal and for the one growing inside her. So she goes down pretty fast. When you see a good-looking horse, a dollar to a doughnut, it’s going to be a male. There’s going to be some younger females that look good, but for the most part they aren’t.
It’s really, really sad for them. I feel so bad. The public needs to see it. I told you the story of the tourist coming up and taking pictures of a little foal about to die right there in front of us and saying, “Isn’t it beautiful?” No, it’s not beautiful. It’s about to die. But they just don’t know.
The park service has a hard row to hoe because the residents, they don’t want anything to change. They just want the island run like they want it run. And of course they have the money to see that it happens. That puts the park service between a rock and hard place.
ArtsATL: It seems on a regular basis there’s some threat to the island. Explain the latest.
Ruckdeschel: They’re proposing to develop 87 acres for a subdivision. In Camden County, you can’t put in a subdivision unless it’s on a paved road. So they had to have a hardship variance because there are no paved roads here.
Then everyone got word of it and it started mushrooming. They realized there’s a thousand more acres in fee simple. Are we going to have to do this every time somebody wants to build a house? So the county decided, let’s just rezone it all at once and have it done. But rezoning it from conservation/preservation, which is what it is, to development, the only question right now is how many houses per acre do you want?
I’m a taxpayer in this county, and I don’t see how forfeiting a national seashore, which is a pretty big calling card for tourism for the county, is worth a few houses over here. I just don’t see how they could give up on the park service like that. It’s the golden egg, the goose.
It’s all about money, no matter where it is . . . that’s why moving to the Okefenokee Swamp looks good to me. Because nobody wants to be around the swamp. I mean, what’s there? Here, you’ve got the beach. That’s attractive to everybody — we’re just innately drawn to the beach and all its resources. And there are many resources here. It’s easy to live here.
ArtsATL: You’ve been here 46 years. What keeps you here?
Ruckdeschel: Oh gosh, my heart’s here now. The thing is, I always wanted to get to know a place really well. Once I had a foundation of knowledge, I just want to keep building on it. That’s what keeps me here now. I’d love to move to the swamp, but I realize, oh, I’d have to start over there. I know a lot of the plants and animals there, but I don’t know where they live and where this happens and where that happens. I know all that here. So I’ll probably stay here for as long as I can.