My Lifelong Voyage In A Paper Canoe


“I remember crawling on the dirt, crawling because I am unable to stand unassisted. I am underneath a structure, in its shadow, while all around there is bright sunshine on weedy grass. I feel energized and curious, not fearful, perhaps even excited. I am determined to reach the far edge of the shadow cast by the structure looming just above my head, the place I have just escaped, the place that defines the very limits of my existence.”William A. Balk, Jr.

Epicurus’ Porch

By William A. Balk, Jr.

The author, aged about a year and a half, and his father.

The author, aged about a year and a half, and his father.

William A. Balk, Jr.

ELKO South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—2/1/2016—It is a persistent memory, somewhat disjunct, but an absolutely clear image. I remember crawling on the dirt, crawling because I am unable to stand unassisted. I am underneath a structure, in its shadow, while all around there is bright sunshine on weedy grass. I feel energized and curious, not fearful, perhaps even excited. I am determined to reach the far edge of the shadow cast by the structure looming just above my head, the place I have just escaped, the place that defines the very limits of my existence.

All this is very concrete and visual. It is the oldest of my memories, one I have turned back to all my life, an adventure undertaken when I was a year old. My parents were living in a trailer for married students at the University of Georgia while my father finished his engineering degree.

I have no memory of the trailer itself, except for a large picture window at the front which looked out upon an entire world—a world unimaginably large to my searching eyes when I was barely able to peer over the sill. There are other details—the texture of the dirt; a telephone on a shelf visible in the neighbor’s window, the first time I’d ever seen such an instrument. None matches my recall of the exuberant act of going out, of discovery, of seeing and touching new things.

I was safely retrieved by my panicked mother, it appears, although I have no such recollection. An observant neighbor called out to my mother, whose attention doubtless had been drawn to tasks other than paying constant attention to me.

There are memories of my developing life which follow this first embedded one, later images which most often seem to be exterior settings for ambling wanders and constant discoveries. Odd, that so much of my bank of vivid, persistent recollections is of the outside, and not interior images of home. To be sure, there are countless memories, often visual, of incidents, of exchanges, of relationships among my large family; these I can retrieve from memory by conversations and photographs. Few, however, recur in any discernible pattern, and even fewer appear related in any thematic way, as do the adventures and quests and aimless perambulations of my youth. Of course, such ventures did not stop as youth passed me by.

Several years after this first iteration of my lifelong search for new places and new experiences, the family moved to a small town near where my father worked doing research. Our little house was only a few blocks from the center of town, and my memories—I was still a few years too young for first grade—are of digging a tunnel in the back yard for us boys to play in, of chasing from the yard the scavenging guinea fowl and chickens which daily escaped the fenced yard across the street, and of flying a huge kite in the empty lot down the street.

The kite was a special one, far taller than I, a star-shaped frame made of bamboo chopped from a neighbor’s yard. The kite was covered in a sumptuous, dense white fabric cut from the pure silk of a parachute my father had kept from his naval aviator days in the Pacific. I remember running as fast as I could with the kite, trying to catch enough air to lift it aloft. And I remember that same empty lot burning fearsomely as the neighbors’ son, a few years older than I, tried striking matches in that grassy autumn-dried field.

By the time I was ready to begin school, we had moved yet again, to the research station nearby where my father was working. “Home” had grown from that toddler’s trailer park to an adventurous young child’s several-thousand-acre reserve, peopled with perhaps a hundred people of all ages, divided in the way of the sharply-segregated South of that time, but intimately connected in all the peculiar realities of work and daily life.

From that time before first grade until after graduating high school, this vast setting was home to me and my four siblings, presenting a landscape bound only by a highway we were forbidden to cross, a landscape full of farm animals and farm machinery, microscopes and laboratories, streams and swamps, woodlands and croplands. Great depressions in the landscape, some a hundred acres in size, held unusual ecosystems with rare plants and huge trees. I would trek along massive drainage ditches, twice as deep as I was tall, finding peculiar frogs and salamanders, mosses and ferns, wild plums and blackberries. We would find snakes on almost every outing, and the majestic and frightening diamondback rattlers—some six feet long and thick as a man’s calf—were not so rare then as they are now.

By Nathaniel Bishop, from The Voyage of the Paper Canoe.

By Nathaniel Bishop, from “The Voyage of the Paper Canoe.”

Mr. Fox was the beekeeper, and I would be allowed to tag along when it came time to rob the hives. The bees were resident, essential to the research in new and more productive varieties of food crops being developed by the scientists and engineers there. Our neighbor, Mr. Hughes, had bred particularly productive varieties of cantaloupe, plum, sweet potato, watermelon, and other crops, several of which had become the standard varieties for commercial production. His domain included three huge heated greenhouses which were just a few steps from our house, and the processes of propagation, transplanting, and growing on became second nature to me.

The scientists and engineers must surely have been irritated by the constant presence of curious children while they were doing their work, but they never chased me away. My brother has observed that few children on this earth can possibly have experienced the rare gift we enjoyed: two-and-a-half-thousand acres to roam at will, completely on our own, it seemed, while always under invisible but watchful observation by adults.

There were many wetland sites on the station, some below sand ridges which provided panoramic views. These had been, in the distant past, villages or encampments for the native peoples of the area. The evidence of their occupation was plentiful. The fields yielded great quantities of stone points, both small and large, and other tools. Shards of a yellow-toned clay pottery often turned up as well. In recent years, some miles to the west on the Savannah River, archaeologists have been uncovering the site of a chert quarry which provided the material for points, cutting tools, and other materials for eastern native people throughout the region during the Clovis period and even thousands of years before that.

As a teenager, I was expected to work in the summers, and many of those summers were spent working alongside the field researchers or providing support work for their studies. I picked cotton some years; plowed acreage with powerful tractors other years. I raised fresh strawberries and convinced the school lunch program to buy my entire crop, while my siblings raised beef calves for market.

My grandfather was a knowledgeable and encouraging companion on walks around the woods on his farm. An inquisitive grandchild would be filled with new information after a stroll among native gingers, wood violets, and wild geraniums. We would learn to identify trees from their bark, birds by their call, animals by their tracks. Each of us, regardless of gender, was presented with a full-sized fly-fishing rig by the time he or she was old enough to use it, and we were patiently taught how to fish with it.

My grandparents, mother, and siblings going fishing.

My grandparents, mother, and siblings going fishing.

As I approached manhood, however ineptly, my parents felt it would perhaps do me good to send me off to summer camp. I suspect now they were frightened that whatever path to manhood I was taking in those years, I might not reach their lofty vision of my manly potential. A two-week stint among other boys in a woodland setting might set me aright.

The camp provided an ample range of activities, but most were the sorts of things I did every day at home. There was canoeing, however, which was easy for me to learn since I was accustomed to paddling a boat, and I was rather good at it. Thus, I was selected to be one of six boys, all about 13, to canoe the nearly 200 miles of the Savannah River from Augusta, Georgia, to Savannah, under the guidance of three 18-year-old boys. It was an excellent way to learn the confusing ways of river currents, of sandbars and submerged snags; and the experience of watching the night sky, so unbelievably full of stars, while paddling silently through the moonless night is another of those un-erasable memories I keep close.

I don’t know whether my track toward manhood was righted by this experience, but I was sent back to camp the next year for a kind of booster shot. And once again, I was chosen for the canoe trip, this time as an experienced leader—albeit a much younger one than the 18-year-olds assigned to the task.

By the time I finished high school and was preparing to go off to college, this idyllic life had begun to feel confining and I was anxious to go beyond the lines I’d lived within—not unlike the toddler I had once been, ready to see what was out there.

There is the notion that once one has left, home is forever lost, but I have not found that to be the case, just as Thomas Wolfe’s George Webber seemed finally to make his own way home.

Having traveled long distances and spent long times away from my Edenic childhood haunts, I’ve found often that it is those remembered experiences and those learned lessons which give me homely comfort whenever and wherever I need it. New bounds continue to appear, new limits and new limitations ever arise, even while a life richly lived continues to offer expansive opportunity and unexpected experience. Those earliest of life’s experiences—approaching new boundaries with confidence, breaching borders with curiosity—are my ongoing preparation: I bring home with me whenever I venture forth.

And now I have returned to that original place—not the trailer park at UGa, of course, but the land of my upbringing and the South Carolina Lowcountry that has supported twelve generations of my family. In one way, at least, I have been able to go home again.

Our elderly neighbor, his mule, and a load of pine straw, driving to the garden he continues to tend.

Our elderly neighbor, his mule, and a load of pine straw, driving to the garden he continues to tend.

It is not, however, the same as when I left. Nor am I. But, still, home remains the source of constancy, encouragement, and impetus to go to the edge repeatedly and find new discoveries and new directions to draw me beyond. Home is also where I take it.

Note: The image of the author and his father is from family snapshots, as are the image of his family going fishing and the image of the mule wagon. The print of the canoe and the alligator on a Georgia river is taken from Nathaniel Bishop’s The Voyage of the Paper Canoe, published in 1878 and now in the public domain through Wikimedia Commons.

About William A. Balk, Jr.

Born and reared in the Coastal Plain of South Carolina, William A. Balk, Jr. was educated at the state’s namesake university, became an activist confronting the power of the modern State and its military, and spent two years in a radical gay commune in the nation’s capital. He has taught textile construction and design for the Smithsonian and Textile Museum in Washington, collected modern porcelain masters, and has submitted to a peculiar affinity for independent book stores. Balk returned to the South Carolina Low Country in middle age, as well as to his extended family, and a literary life lived largely out of doors. Book stores and gardening remain his perennial passions, as does writing. He has been a regular columnist for “The Lowcountry Weekly” newspaper for seven years; he is included in the award-winning book, Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy. He has assumed several new roles in recent years, including caregiver for his near-centenarian mother, advisor to the Pat Conroy Literary Center, and member of the Board of Directors for South Carolina Humanities. Like one of his heroes, Epicurus, whose philosophical school was called “The Garden,” Balk’s aim has long been “to attain a happy, tranquil life, characterized by ataraxia—peace and freedom from fear—and aponia—the absence of pain—and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends.”
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4 Responses to My Lifelong Voyage In A Paper Canoe

  1. Anita Sullivan says:

    Will, this is a most satisfying piece to read. The healthiest part of it is the opportunity to explore, and to be outdoors as much as possible. I did the same thing as a child, missing out (sadly) on learning the names of the plants. What a gift your childhood was, thanks for sharing it!

  2. Mary Laura Jones says:

    So good to hear “your voice”, as always. Mary Laura

  3. Will says:

    Mary Laura, I’m surprised sometimes to hear YOUR voice, that twenty-something gleeful siren’s beckoning toward another adventure, piercing the cacophony of calls to boredom all around. I’m ever grateful for that voice then – and, especially, now. Thank you!

  4. Will says:

    Lovely Anita, I’m so pleased this little piece has personal resonance for you – that experience, of growing up seeing and wandering and learning and experimenting, must somehow be sort of universal. Yet, the depth of immersive experience, of truly self-directed experience, that I (and you!) was given seems to be enormously rare. In some ways, I think it’s more akin to the process of childhood and growing up from one or two generations before even my own, something already almost extinct by the time I and my siblings came along. We are so blessed with such a gift. I suspect, by the way, that lacking a guide like my grandfather to name the plants for you, you were moved to provide names yourself, and to perceive full stories behind the smallest observance – like a falling leaf dancing for joy. I thank you, too, for your sharing of the gifts you have gleaned along your wanderings, as well.

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