Mystery and Beauty: Messages from Jekyll Island’s Driftwood Beach

Author Jessica Handler reflects on stories told by nature

Illustration by Oli Winward

I stumbled onto Jekyll Island’s Driftwood Beach for the first time nearly a decade ago. This was, not coincidentally, the same week that a spider wrote me a note.

My husband and I were seeking a pristine, untroubled place to clear our heads before immersing ourselves in deadlines and obligations. I’d been touring with my memoir, a story of family trouble. Mickey was drafting a novel about a dystopian society. Need I say we were deep in darkness? In a torrential rain, we left Atlanta for a rented Jekyll Island beach house on a street named for paradise. When we arrived, the sun shone.

We rented bikes and rode north along the main thoroughfare, heading for the tourist standards—the pier and a historic cemetery. Pedaling the wooden bike path across a marsh, I glimpsed a deserted beach and an expanse of open water. This, I thought. Here is what we’d come for. I called out to Mickey, biking ahead of me, for a detour. We circled back and crossed sand and scrub on foot.

What we found on the beach was a weird kind of vision, the final resting place of what seemed to be scores of sea-washed trees, some entirely horizontal to the sand, others arched, their limbs reaching skyward. Each trunk and branch shone as glossy silver-gray as an oyster’s flesh, each as smooth to the touch as sun-warmed skin.

My bike map identified this as Driftwood Beach and marked the spot with a cluster of cartoony purple trees. Driftwood to me meant sticks to toss on a campfire. Here, we walked among massive relics, a story of time and tide.

Some people see shapes in clouds. I saw shapes in the drift-trees: a sheep’s head bowed for petting, a fallen column from an architectural ruin. Some trunks were wider around than my embrace, others longer than my husband is tall—we measured them with our swimsuited bodies. Deep ripples imprinted the trees like messages in an alphabet gone extinct. The St. Simons lighthouse sparkled across the sound, but we were rooted in time.

Every morning, we wrote in the house on the street named for paradise. Each afternoon, we biked the two miles up-island to walk among downed oak and pine. With colored pencils, I tried and failed to capture their tales. This cemetery of trees, I learned later, was evidence of erosion: Soil washes away, trees fall.

I was hanging our wet towels and swimsuits on the clothesline when I saw the yellow and black spider. She had built her web between two spiky yucca plants. A zigzag of thick white silk disrupted the symmetry of her delicate spokes. Surely this golden orb weaver, the writer-spider, had crafted a message for me.

Listen for the world’s quiet, was what I read in her web. There are mysterious, beautiful stories here, if only you stop to find them.

Jessica Handler is the author of the novel The Magnetic Girl, winner of the 2020 Southern Book Prize, a Wall Street Journal Spring 2019 pick, and a Bitter Southerner Summer 2019 selection. Her other books include Invisible Sisters: A Memoir and Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss. Her nonfiction has appeared on NPR and in Newsweek and the Washington Post. She teaches creative writing at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta and lectures internationally on writing.

This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Southbound.