Scott Huler is the author of A Delicious Country: Rediscovering the Carolinas along the Route of John Lawson’s 1700 Expedition, just published this month by UNC Press.
In 1700, a young man named John Lawson left London and landed in Charleston, South Carolina, hoping to make a name for himself. For reasons unknown, he soon undertook a two-month journey through the still-mysterious Carolina backcountry. His travels yielded A New Voyage to Carolina in 1709, one of the most significant early American travel narratives, rich with observations about the region’s environment and Indigenous people. In 2014, Scott Huler made a surprising decision: to leave home and family for his own journey by foot and canoe, faithfully retracing Lawson’s route through the Carolinas. This is the chronicle of that unlikely voyage, revealing what it’s like to rediscover your own home.
A Delicious Country is available now in both print and ebook editions.
Huler sat down with UNC Press publicity director Gina Mahalek recently to discuss the book and the journey behind it.
Q: Who was John Lawson?
SH: John Lawson was a young Englishman who, in 1700, for reasons unknown to this day, left London and sailed to North America. He hung around Charles-town for a few months, then in late 1700 left with a group of traders and Indian guides on a trek that took him through the then-little-known Carolina backcountry (Carolina was still a single colony). He emerged months later on the Pamlico Sound, near what today we would call Little Washington. The notes from his journey formed the foundation for A New Voyage to Carolina (1709), the most important book to emerge from early colonial Carolina. Historians and scientists today still refer to his descriptions of flora, fauna, inhabitants, and geography, and his botanical specimens were part of the collection that created the British Museum, where they still reside. He also helped found and develop both Bath and New Bern, North Carolina’s first two incorporated cities, and was named surveyor general of the colony. He was captured and killed by the Tuscarora in 1711, the very first casualty of the Tuscarora War.
Q: Lawson was a complicated character. Can you talk more about this?
SH: A young man in England in the late 1600s, he appears to have been fascinated by the members of the Royal Society and clearly wanted to leave that kind of mark, somehow. He describes in his book being talked out of a European adventure he considered and being guided instead to Carolina, and I love the sort of “go west, young man” of this moment. Once in North America, he did everything: he went on adventures, gathered botanical specimens for British collectors, met with Indians, bought and developed land, and became part of the political structure. Complicated is right. On one hand, he was very advanced in his thinking: he loved the Indians and saw them as fully human, even advocating intermarriage and describing them as morally superior to the Christian colonists. On the other hand, he was a man of his time and had no trouble acquiring their land to develop for his own purposes. In this way he’s a perfect expression of that moment when European society was emerging into modernity, still carrying some pretty bestial ideas and practices with it, as colonial history powerfully demonstrates.
Q: Lawson seems to be largely forgotten. Would you have rather known more about Lawson, or was not knowing part of the experience?
SH: Ha! It’s funny because I want everyone else to know more about him now, but I loved the feeling of discovery that attended every step of both my research and my journey retracing his. “Wait, he said the Indians were better to the colonists than the colonists were to the Indians? What?” “Wait, you can still see his actual botanical specimens in London?” “Wait — he advocated intermarriage? What?” Apart from his amazing contributions to the historical and scientific record, his profound decency towards the Indians astonished me over and over, and I love having the opportunity to share this with people who should know him better. I think of him as the sort of William Penn of North Carolina: our “first citizen,” whose words and actions affect us to this day, though so many of us don’t know a thing about him.
Q: So what inspired you to take this lengthy journey?
SH: When I was researching my last book, On the Grid, I wanted to get a sense of what my yard would have looked like before the Europeans showed up. Various enterprises in land records both colonial and modern resisted and dispirited me, but as I looked into it, I ran across this Lawson fellow and realized he had walked through the Raleigh area in 1700. I knew about his 1709 book, A New Voyage to Carolina, but wondered: where’s the modern book explaining exactly where he went, and comparing it to what’s there now? Learning that nobody had ever written that book—or in fact even retraced his journey—was one of those moments a writer lives for: “That’s for me!” Lawson walked through these lands as a new observer, and the book he left behind informs us to this day. To have the opportunity, as someone who moved to NC myself, to do the same thing and leave a record that could perhaps be at least comparably valuable was the best work thing that ever happened to me.
Q: Where did the title, A Delicious Country, come from?
SH: Lawson several times described North Carolina as “a delicious country,” meaning it was pleasant and temperate and in all ways delightful to the senses. I loved that unusual sense of the word “delicious,” and it never left my head. Especially as I walked through the North Carolina piedmont, at every turn I seemed to encounter a lovely house in a holler, a bend in a two-lane as it curved behind a hill, a wooden stile in a golden meadow. And I would think, “Yes: This country is just delicious,” and that became my shorthand for this project long before it became a book. Finding a title is one of the hardest jobs in writing a book, so I was glad Lawson did that hard job for me.
Q: Your tone in A Delicious Country strikes me as casual and dryly humorous. Talk about how you found the right voice.
SH: I’m not sure I have another voice, so this was less a matter of finding a voice than of making sure I didn’t come across as too familiar and that I didn’t sacrifice accuracy, understanding, or emotion for cheery readability. But my job as a writer is to be your guide, both to Carolina and to Lawson, and any guide is more pleasant if their voice is pleasant to listen to. My job is to be the guy saying, “Hey, this Lawson guy is amazing: listen to this cool thing about him” or “Here’s who lives where Lawson went 300 years ago; listen to what they had to say.” I’m definitely a “hey you guys, listen to what I found out” writer rather than a “here are some facts from my lofty pedestal” writer. Importantly, Lawson had a wonderful writer’s voice, and I found that a good way to make sure I wasn’t filling the stage with pointless monkeyshines was making sure I used plenty of good and long quotes directly from Lawson’s book. My main job is to bring readers to Lawson.
Q: What is the value of comparing Lawson’s world to our own?
SH: I think at any time we have the job of trying to understand our place in history, and one of the ways we do that is by comparing ourselves with who and what came before. But I told people over and over that I wasn’t trying to slavishly place my feet in Lawson’s footprints step by step; I was trying to do what he did. That is, he took a long walk as a way of finding out who and what was out there, because he was curious. I tried to do the same. The Japanese poet Basho is supposed to have said, “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of men of old; seek what they sought.” I can’t vouch for the quote, but I wholly embrace the idea: it’s always a good idea to look around, assess your world, and try to understand it. Having such a perfect comparison point just makes the whole enterprise better.
Q: Did you find many similarities between Lawson’s Carolina and the Carolina of today—and did this surprise you?
SH: I was totally unprepared for the way I found my journey to perfectly echo Lawson’s. Lawson walked through at a tipping-point moment; he notes that 50 years before him, before smallpox and rum and dispossession, there would have been six times as many Indian people as there currently were. He described seeing empty places where native people had lived and understood that he was seeing his world change completely; a hundred years later, this colony was the United States. As for me, when I walked through the Carolinas, I too walked through a small-town environment changing completely: textile mills closed, family farms sold out to huge agribusinesses, small towns almost emptied. A constant presence in my photo feed was images of abandoned buildings being reabsorbed by the landscape. Native Americans still suffer from the problems that began with European arrival, and many people I visited were direct descendants of people who would have been there when Lawson came through. Overall, I could never avoid the sense that, like Lawson, I was walking through Carolina at a time when the past was utterly gone and the future unimaginable.
Q: Lawson had an outsider’s perspective. What’s the value of this?
SH: The importance of asking stupid questions should never be underestimated for a writer of nonfiction. The more purely you admit your ignorance of what you’re seeing the more clearly people will explain it to you. So being not from around here is always a win when you’re trying to see what’s in front of your face. I moved to Raleigh in 1992, so I’m a longtime Tar Heel, but just the same, I don’t have roots in the soil the way the people I visited do. On the other hand, there’s a long tradition of people not from around here taking a brief journey through the South and then making pronouncements about it that turn out to be embarrassing or absurd, so I hope my insider’s-outsider’s perspective turned out to be just right.
Q: Did you make any surprising connections during your trip?
SH: That’s all I did. I had someone who read about the project send me a note: “Have you left coastal South Carolina? Would you like to meet some descendants of the original Huguenot settlers who welcomed Lawson?” Well, would I. So I had cake and coffee with Huguenot descendants. And I met, for example, with the vice-chief of the Santee Indian tribe in South Carolina, who not only told me some deeply moving stories about her own history but talked about the way she loved Lawson, who wrote about the Indians he met with obvious love and respect. “He gave me my history back,” she said about her feelings when she encountered Lawson in college. Gracious. Interactions like that start to make you feel like maybe your enterprise has a bit of merit.
Q: Tell me about the photographs.
SH: Lawson’s book has a map and a single page of illustrations, and the illustrations border on the absurd: drawings of bears by people who had never seen them but had read descriptions; a drawing of a possum that could be one of the R.O.U.S.s from “The Princess Bride.” As forward-looking as his book and perceptions were, Lawson’s art was medieval. I on the other hand had my phone with me, and lenses that enhanced its capacities, so I kept an Instagram feed going that I was thrilled with. I’m sure if Lawson had had access to these tools he’d have used them, but it meant a lot to me to be able, say, to share a view from a spot Lawson described, or to share a closeup of a plant, whether one Lawson saw or one he’d never heard of. A picture is worth a thousand words, right? The Lawson Trek Instagram feed saved me hundreds of thousands of words and brought people into my journey as though they were standing with me. A couple dozen are in the book, and I love that.
Q: Talk about the journeys themselves. How did yours differ from Lawson’s, and what did you get from yours besides the strictly historical or comparative elements you originally sought?
SH: Lawson took his long walk at age 25, and he pretty much didn’t know anybody on this entire continent; for him to canoe out of Charleston and pop up two months later and 600 miles away was no trouble to anybody. I, on the other hand, had Mini Mites soccer games to attend and Sunday school carpool to manage, so long-term disappearance wasn’t an option. I went out for two, three, four days at a time (seven at most) and came back to organize for the next trip, write up notes, and post descriptions and images on the website blog. On a completely different topic, one of the things I found most bracing about the trip was just being outside for days on end. Even when I wasn’t camping, I spent all day in the sun or rain or wind, walking the byways. I found myself so engaged with the outdoors in a way that was a wonderful reminder that there’s something more than cars, houses, and offices. On the other hand, I did almost get run over a lot.
Q: What’s the story behind your website, www.lawsontrek.com? What can readers find there?
SH: I planned to make a website for this project from the start, and online elements helped it find funding from MIT. In fact, my proposal for the MIT Science Journalism Fellowship included a line item for web design. The fellowship director said, “Since communications tools are part of the story, why not design it yourself?” So I did. It has the blog, which hosts regular updates from the trail (or the publishing process). It has an Instagram feed with images related to the journey and to paying attention to our surroundings. It has an interactive map and all kinds of historical information and links about colonial Carolina and about Lawson, his times, and his book. I constantly tell people: Lawson took a trip and nine years later a book came out, which was about the speed of communication in 1709. I, meanwhile, was updating my Instagram feed from my canoe, writing blog posts from my cell phone on barrier islands during storms and from my sleeping bag on freezing mornings, and people knew what I was up to minutes after I was up to it. I believe Lawson would have done the same had he been able to.
Q: What do you think is the biggest change between what you saw and what Lawson saw?
SH: I thought about this a lot. Obviously cities and electricity and cell phones and plumbing and virtually everything in our modern lives would have stunned Lawson. But when I asked people this question they often answered: the roads. And I think they’re exactly right. Not only do cars and roads completely dominate our landscape, but what kind of culture builds roads that people can’t walk along? I walked along rural two-lanes for a year and spent half my time jumping out of the way of lumber trucks. It was dispiriting to see not only how dominant car culture is but how non-human it is. That’s probably the biggest change.
Scott Huler is the author of six previous books of nonfiction and is based in Raleigh, North Carolina. Follow him on Twitter. Read more about A Delicious Country and the journey behind it at the book website.