By Tom Poland
Their name belies their beauty, though its definition rings true. “Boneyard, | ˈbōnyärd |Noun, informal, a cemetery.” A cemetery they are, the resting places of maritime forests conquered by the sea. I’ve written about boneyards, now and then spelled bone yards.
“Behold a vanquished maritime woodland where the haul of the moon undercuts trees and tumbles them into the sea. Over time, tides strip and lacquer wood. By day, sun-bleached bones dazzle. By night, they smolder with bioluminescence. Come daybreak, a seascape sublime rises to seduce the shutter.”
These driftwood beaches fire up the senses and they can make a writer a tad flowery but there’s more here than meets the eye. Bone yards such as Jekyll Island’s Driftwood Beach provide firsthand evidence of coastal dynamics. Currents encroach into the maritime forest and tides chew away at roots. Trees tumble into the surf, and salt and sand scour them clean. The sun bleaches them and oaks and other tree species take on the appearance of bones.
To see remnants of a forest stranded in surf is to see death rendered beautiful. The trees resemble statuary and the rootballs of live oaks, loblolly pine, and cabbage palmetto bring to mind seaside tumbleweeds frozen in time. A boneyard looks like a battle scene, and it is—a battle trees lost. The Atlantic’s tides lay waste to maritime woodlands. Toppled trees, their sun-bleached trunk and limbs as white as marble, lie strewn about, monuments to the moon’s tides. Stripped of foliage and bark and smoothed by sand and sea, the trees are about the end of things.
Even death is beautiful in the islands.
No wonder photographers and painters love them. And so do people from all walks of life. Back in June, my sister, Deb, and I got up well before dawn to drive from St. Simons Island to Jekyll Island’s Driftwood Beach. In darkness we parked by the road near a sandy path that leads to the beach. No other vehicles were there. Good. Arriving at Driftwood Beach, however, scads of people walked about taking photos with phones. Bad.
As the sun rose, people left. Before, as, and after the sun came up, I took photos. (I’m an amateur and didn’t do the setting justice. I hope to get better with time.)
South Carolina has boneyards too. You’ll find one on Bull Island in Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, and you’ll find Botany Bay’s boneyard on Edisto Island. People tell me about Botany Bay, but I never hear anyone mention Bulls Island. Too inaccessible. Truth is I seldom hear anyone mention any boneyard. Maybe it’s because such beaches don’t suit sunbathers, swimmers, and those inclined to play games by the seaside. Perhaps there’s no good place to erect tents and umbrellas. Maybe it’s because to best appreciate them you need to get up before sunrise.
But some folks love these natural graveyards. Among those walking the wet packed sands are photographers, artists, and couples seeking a memorable portrait. All arise before dawn to see boneyards bathed in the light of a rising sun. Add this writer to the list. I like old cemeteries and I affix boneyards or bone yards, if you like, to my list.
I hope to go to a boneyard on a full moon night when tides glister and the bones of trees shine a lunar blue and the face of moon looks down on its tides and their unrepentant work. What a scene that will be. Now only if I might photograph it and do it justice.
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