Simpatico and Shifting Sands
From art and architecture to wildlife rehabilitation, Linda and Lou Browning have crafted a life that’s in harmony with Hatteras Island.
Linda and Lou Browning live in a world of their own design. Like gaillardia blooming red amid prickly brush, they flourish within a stark landscape.
Drawing from micro- and macrocosms in the physical world, the Frisco couple finds balance in creating, caretaking and compatibility.
A visual and recording artist, Linda is taken by Hatteras Island’s expansive vistas. A keen observer, she channels light, color and motion to paint luminous watercolors of sand, sea, sky and wildlife. Hers are not snapshots of dune or wave, but of pulsing ecosystems.
Color is a seductress and affects not only her painting but also her songwriting. She revels in sun-induced hues. In “Day’s Journey,” her singing and guitar playing express the sun’s daily trek across the sky. Brushing swaths of color east to west, the lyrics pay homage to its awakening color through light: “She pauses over the open fields, kissing them awake, dropping pearls of purple beside the old great lake.”
Linda has rhythm in her veins; she’s descended from aunts, great-aunts and a grandmother who were members of an all-women band at the turn of the century. “I can hear melodies in drumbeats,” she says. The rhythm turns into songs and also creates fluid visual compositions in art of a different ilk.
Just as she is powered by expanse, she also embraces the infinitesimal to create nature-inspired composite art. Working with countless digital photographs, she forms a single composition on the computer. Myriad miniature butterflies unite to create a towering tree. Thousands of tiny scallop shells join forces to produce a fiery sea star. Duplicated dolphins synchronize to shape a cascading wave. While the process is tedious, Linda masterfully conducts the components, as with her lyrics and melodies, to unleash vitality across the canvas plain.
“It blocked everything else that was going on,” he says of the creative process. “You may forget to eat. You may forget to bathe. You just create. And that for a period of time can be your world.”
“Your existence,” adds Linda.
To prepare for crafting his insects, including beetles, ants and praying mantises, he examined electron-microscope images of bugs, to study their textures and construction. “At different powers, you see different kinds of patterns,” he says. “I like details, and I like small things.”
“In a big way,” Linda adds; his passion for wildlife led him to swim with alligators, disentangle whales and rescue sea turtles stunned by cold.
He had become a wildlife rehabilitator after seeing injured wildlife and wishing he could help, and he discovered his knack for rehabilitation during an upsetting early-morning encounter.
Alarmed by a commotion, Lou and Linda raced outdoors to find a half a dozen raccoons in their turkey enclosure, which also housed one chicken. “There were bodies on the ground,” she says. “The rooster had gotten bitten on the neck.”
As a trained and federally licensed wildlife rehabilitator, Lou chose to specialize in animals that interested him — reptiles, amphibians and migratory and non-migratory birds. “There are other people here who rehabilitate mammals and are good at it,” he says.
Animal rehabilitation work balances patience, experience, and trial and error. Creativity also plays a role. Lou once figured out how to secure a turtle’s damaged shell with epoxy, nuts and bolts to help it grow back together.
Creatures come to Lou and Linda’s habitat for a variety of reasons. Animals can need help because of dehydration, starvation, parasites, viruses and contact with predators, vehicles and debris, such as nets and fishing line. Depending on their hardship, some of Lou’s animals leave within a week; others may take a year to heal.
Atlas, a Giant African Dewlap goose, came to the Brownings with pelvis and leg problems. “A Muscovy was trying to breed with him,” says Lou. “Sharp toenails ripped up his back and wings. When I got him back here I didn’t know if he would ever stand again.” Atlas received a combination of acupuncture and tender loving care.
The aging and arthritic bird didn’t stand or walk for three months. He wouldn’t swim in the pond or scavenge in the yard. Then Lou had the idea to pair Atlas with their Chinese goslings.
“They identified Atlas as their mom,” says Linda. “Before you knew it, Atlas was walking and bathing in the pond.” Two years later, he’s still with them.
The duck pond, rustic outbuildings, and pens for Leghorn chickens, Red Golden pheasants and Indian Blue peacocks line the secluded dirt road to the Browning haven of healing. An osprey nest rests atop a tower complete with The peacocks make their presence known through distinctive calls. When indoors, Linda and Lou are kept company by four cats and two Senegal parrots. Birds and squirrels flock to feeding stations behind the house visible from the windows of their home.
Scooped out of Frisco marshland, the Brownings’ physical footprint is large enough to support their passions yet small enough to be mindful of their place in the universe. Two domed structures surrounded by trees and scrub take up just enough space for living quarters and a separate art studio, where Linda gives painting lessons and displays her work and that of her mother-in-law, Dixie Browning, a watercolorist and successful writer of romance novels. Wooden walkways connect the curved cement structures that rise above the marsh. Linda designed the floor plans. “And then Lou told me what was possible,” she says. The design was sent to a manufacturing company, and the resulting kit sent back to them for construction. Putting together the pieces and lifting 300-pound slabs in the middle of a swamp was challenging.
“Lou had to build a crane,” says Linda. “We couldn’t rent a crane because you would have to drive it around and it would sink in the ground.”
They finished building their home 10 years later, just before Hurricane Irene hit. One benefit of the thick insulated walls, a contribution to living green, became immediately apparent. “You wouldn’t even know there was a storm raging outside,” she says.
This year the Brownings are celebrating their 32nd wedding anniversary. Linda remembers their first conversations, at a natural foods store where she worked. “We both had this really broad curiosity about the world, not just human relationships,” she says. “We would converse about so many different things, lightning, astrophysics, things like that.”
“I’m curious about most things,” he says, “except humans.”
“Fortunately he was curious about me,” she says.
The couple independently formed connections to Hatteras Island before migrating there separately more than three decades ago. “I visited here from day one,” says Lou, whose mother’s Hatteras roots go back centuries. Lou’s paternal grandfather, an avid sportsman, built a fishing shack on the island in the ’50s.
Lou grew up in Winston-Salem. Like Linda, he was artistically talented and considered attending art school. Instead he enrolled at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro as a radio, television and motion picture major. “I wasn’t much on following their curriculum, and I ended up taking more physics and math than anything else,” he says. He changed schools to study electrical engineering.
He completed his studies at Forsyth Technical School in Winston-Salem and was offered a job at Sandia Labs in New Mexico. At about the same time, his parents suggested he build them a cottage in Hatteras. Putting his career on hold, Lou headed to the beach and lived a typical island-style life that included working at marine electronics and repairs, commercial fishing, welding, boat repairs and building houses.
“You fish when the fishing is good,” he says. “If not, you do carpentry. You do whatever you need to do.”
Linda’s path to the Outer Banks was more circuitous. She grew up in Salamanca, New York, a town on the Seneca Indian reservation. Her parents supported her love of art by supplying her with plenty of paints and brushes. “I was pretty skilled in that area,” she says. Following the death of her father, a pianist and piano tuner and restorer, her mother moved the family to Olean, New York.
Linda later joined a friend heading for California and worked there as an advertising artist. “But California was very strange in the late ’60s,” says Linda, who quickly returned east to settle in Morgantown, West Virginia, where she had friends.
Working full time for the chair of the psychology department at West Virginia University, Linda took classes in psychology, philosophy and English. She relocated to Chapel Hill and worked as a medical artist. “I moved around a lot,” she says; “I was trying to find my place in the world. Even as a kid I wanted to see the world and to experience life.”
Little by little Linda inched closer to making the Outer Banks her permanent home, taking jobs as an artist and copywriter in the Norfolk, Virginia, area. She escaped the city after being mugged, seeking refuge on Hatteras Island. “I knew I’d live here one day,” she says.
“The greatest thing here is,” says Lou, “you really understand you are part of nature, not dominating it, because you don’t know when you can get off the island and get back on.”
For Linda, it’s also the aesthetics: “Being able to stand down there and turn one way to see the sunrise and turn the other way and see the sunset, to see almost as far as eternity.”
The two of them are an integral part of the Hatteras Island community, contributing what they can where help is needed. Most recently they’ve shared their skills and talents with Radio Hatteras; Lou provided educational guidance and technical support to get the station on the air, and Linda is channeling her love of music into a radio show, “The Folk Way,” a biweekly show on Wednesdays at 8 p.m.
Bound by their curiosity, creativity and compassion, the Brownings founded their relationship on mutual respect. Just as they work to live in harmony with the environment, they support each other’s goals and allow plenty of room for individualism. Their isolated island world with rustling trees, splashing ducks and creative endeavors is just right, and where they plan to grow old, together.
To follow Lou Browning’s wildlife rehabilitation work, search for Hatteras Island Wildlife Rehabilitation on Facebook or go to HIWR.us and follow the link. The Facebook page has information on how to make donations to his nonprofit rehabilitation organization.
story by MARY ELLEN RIDDLE photographs by DANIEL PULLEN