The Raleigh Naturalist

August 10, 2021

Edisto Island seems 1,000 Miles From Nag’s Head

Filed under: About & reflection, climate change, Exotica, Nature Lore — Tags: , , — raleighnaturalist @ 6:25 pm

Edisto Island back road – 2 miles from the ocean

When we traveled with our daughter and her partner to South Carolina Carolina for a week at the beach, I knew we would have nature adventures. After all, Lily was the 2019 Environmental Educator of the Year, and Collin is a bonsai artist and expert botanist who looks for new plant experiences at every opportunity. Sure enough, the back porch of our beach house in Edisto Beach looked out on a vast prairie-sized marsh of cordgrass (spartina) slowly oozing fresh water toward the ocean, crisscrossed by freshwater creeks and a river, (though pushed backward twice daily by the tides),and edged on the other side by a heavily forested state park. Our house was surrounded by beautifully formed live oaks and other hardwoods, which were inhabited by cardinals, blue birds and several kinds of wrens. Thing is, we were two blocks from the beach. All week, I pondered: “How and why is this so different from the North Carolina beaches I grew up visiting?”

Edisto is an example of a Carolina Sea Island, of which there are over 100 between the Santee in SC and St John’s River in Florida. They are a special kind of barrier island that usually faces somewhat southward. These islands are the historic and present home of the Gullah people and culture, of which we saw evidence at the historic museum and in the basket weavers making and selling sweetgrass baskets at the craft market. The accents of the basketmakers and indeed many of the African American folks working all over, sounded Creole. Their history as the dominant population in this land of rice plantations is a wonderful story itself. But my first love in this situation is topography, and I found myself in one of the wettest topographies to be found.

Young greater egret hunts freshwater creek 2 blocks from ocean

Edisto barely qualifies as an island because at its northern tip, the Edisto River sends part of its flow on a different path toward the ocean, forming the North Edisto. The larger area of which it is part is called the ACE basin, for the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers that flow through it. The 350,000 acres are about half wetland, and comprise one of the largest wetland natural areas on the East coast. Our beach house stood at 4 meters above sea level. Ten miles back up Highway 174 toward 17, the marshes beside the road are at 5 meters and the high point at the middle of the area has a wooded rise that is just 18 meters above the sea. That’s flat=wet! This is one of the main reasons excessive development has not reached the area , because very few through roads connect the necks of the woods, which are everywhere fragmented by marshes. The tide pushes back such that even inland where the waterways are not brackish the fresh water rises and falls with the tidal rhythm that allowed rice to be grown and harvested.

HIghway 174 leading from 17 to Edisto Beach

   The other reasons for the lack of massive development are a fascinating human history. The rice planters made large fortunes using slave labor to clear and dike the wetlands for planting. As the Industrial Revolution produced a new class of wealth in the north, some of those men developed a passion for waterfowl hunting and purchased many of the plantations after the Civil War, maintaining the dikes and managing the landscape for hunting. Alongside these developments, the black residents, who predominated the population and acquired significant land holdings in the aftermath of the Civil War, developed a strong and somewhat isolating local culture that helped maintain the Gullah language, crafts and outlook that permeate the area to this day.

Boat channel beside Spanish Mount, a large shell midden

In the 1980’s duck-hunting organizations joined with the federal government and conservation groups to place permanent protections on well over 100,000 acres in the ACE basin, which has become a premiere legacy of South Carolina’s Low Country and its unique ecosystems. From 250 bird species to loggerhead turtles to shortnose sturgeon, the area’s success at what amounts to ecotourism represents a boon to wildlife and local residents and treasured experiences for the many visitors.

A live oak in the Botany Bay Nature Preserve about 3 miles from the beach

Edisto Beach jetty built to reduce beach erosion. One is at each public access point (verboten in NC!!)

Edisto Beach is full of beach houses, but the look and feel is retro – that is the beach towns of my childhood. There is one small Food Lion, with a Subway next door. Otherwise, all the shops and businesses are local. There are no high-rise motels. The only four story building is a residential hotel that is part of the large marina. A Wyndam villa resort shares the interior of the town with civic facilities and a small golf course. Bike sharrows edge all the roads, and the ubiquitous bike and golf cart rentals minimize car traffic. The edge road on which we stayed was so quiet a five year old would be safe bicycling on it (we can’t wait for that – our grandson is three). The beach houses get grander and less rental looking as you travel from the main island out to the point. Many of the sound side houses have boat docks.

The larger area is filled with wonderful naturalist destinations. The Botany Bay Plantation Heritage Preserve contains the most popular and dramatic: Driftwood Beach, a remote stretch of sand that is inundated with the bleached skeletons of oak, palmetto and pine trees which were washed out of existence by severe erosion over the last 100 years (the shoreline has moved a mile landward in that time), but have persisted in death to create a surreal and quite beautiful tableaux.

2 Roseate Spoonbills hunting the marsh at Botany Bay

On the half-mile walk to the beach from the parking area, we had the great luck to encounter two Roseate Spoonbills hunting in a marsh creek. When we got to the beach, we wandered among the trees, some toppled, some partly submerged, a few eking their way back up the beach with each tide after being torn out by the roots by a hurricane.

Soil profile created by ongoing erosion at Driftwood Beach

“It was erosion that formed Botany Bay in the first place. One hundred years ago, the shoreline was nearly a mile out to sea, and the area where the beach now stands was a saltwater marsh.  This is evidenced by large strips of slick mud deposits that line areas of the beach called “marsh relicts” which mark the foundations of where the marsh once stood.  Over time, erosion caused by longshore drift currents formed a twomile beach along one of the wooded barrier islands.  The saltwater poisoned the trees, and the sun turned them white.

The erosion that created Botany Bay is now wearing away at the current beach, accelerated by the passing of hurricanes. It was closed for nine months after Hurricane Matthew ripped away the causeway bridge. The beach took a beating again when Hurricane Irma swept through, carving a large, impassible inlet towards one end of the beach, and sweeping almost all the sand away for a period of time.” Kristina Rackley in the Carolina News & Reporter

 

Mother and baby egret below our back porch

The huge salt marshes that predominate the visual and road landscape are richly populated with species that need patience to observe. The denizens are mostly hidden by the tall cordgrass, but every few minutes, a greater white egret or two will rise up and cruise around looking for a new spot to disappear.Gulls come twisting through, swooping closer to the plants and then resuming long distance flights. Popping shrimp sound like percolating bubbles in the mud, reminding one of all the invisible creatures that depend on and enrich this homogeneous and thus also specialized ecosystem. The cordgrass provides no food for wildlife during its life cycle, which confused early developers into undervaluing and destroying it, but the previous year’s rotting cordgrass is the base of the entire rich field of nutrients that nurture so many ocean and shoreline species.

Since the 1980’s, he ACE Basin preservation efforts have protected over 200,000 acres and is one of the most successful campaigns in the country. The acquisition of Botany Bay through a deeded agreement with the private owner was a highlight. We will be returning to this unique area for further exploration of its natural and human history.

black vultures have at a dead armadillo

Book resource

The Ace Basin  A Lowcountry Legacy

Websites

Ace Basin description

Nature Conservancy page

Fish & Wildlife visitation info

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The Raleigh Naturalist, formerly called Raleigh Nature, has taken on a statewide perspective following the publication of a book based on this blog. Check it out here.

January 3, 2020

Environmental Issues Part of New State-wide Focus Here

Filed under: About & reflection, Gems & Surprises, green initiatives, Raleigh History, Western NC — Tags: — raleighnaturalist @ 6:38 pm

The picture above is about half of the subscription to Environment I ordered in 1971 as a senior at Enloe High School. I had formed an Ecology Club at Enloe and started several initiatives through that to raise awareness of environmental issues. 49 years ago the destruction of our natural environment and the senselessness of a carbon-based energy economy was big news and actually led to many important reforms. I am proud to have been a tiny part of that and grateful to all my Enloe friends who supported and participated in the club.

The tiny ink price on the top magazine tells us what happened to the other half of the subscription: sometime in the ten years I was a bookseller in the 1980’s, I put up the whole batch for sale at 25 cents each. When I became an environmental educator in the 90’s, these issues were rescued from the bookstore remains as a historical resource. This blog has always been a promoter of green initiatives, especially conservation of natural areas. But with my retirement and now the wonderful success of my new book, The Natural History of Raleigh, which was the whole reason for the existence of the blog, I am ready to take this site to a state-wide perspective that allows full rein for my explorations of western North Carolina. Along with that, I will be addressing more overtly and more loudly the massive environmental challenges we face as we enter 2020 and beyond.

A long-planned signal of these changes is the change in name of the weblog from Raleigh Nature to The Raleigh Naturalist. My heart will always be in Raleigh, and many future posts will continue to be devoted to my native city. Many others, such as my cherished dream of writing a decent article on Highway 64, will connect Raleigh to the whole state and beyond. Happy New Year and cheers to sustainable living and honest connections to the land that nurtures us.

Yearbook portrait of the Enloe Ecology Club, 1971

Green Resources

The Natural History of Raleigh

November 15, 2019

The Natural History of Raleigh Is One Year Old

Filed under: About & reflection, Greenways & Parks — Tags: , — raleighnaturalist @ 5:27 pm

atamasco lily on Buckeye Trail in East Raleigh

My book about greenways, natural areas and wildlife lore in central Raleigh is one year old! I am over half-way through with making hand-laid paper covers and letterpress printing them for the edition of one thousand. Many have sold through Quail Ridge Books in North Hills, but I am also grateful to So&So Books in Oakwood, The Concern Newsstand in Chapel Hill, The Mordecai House gift shop and especially all my friends and others who ordered directly or through Amazon. I hope all readers of Raleigh Nature will want to obtain and read the book based on this blog.

It was also lovely to have the News and Observer do a nice feature on the book and to have the current issue of Walter Magazine run an excerpt of the tree chapter dedicated to the huge oak we just lost across from The Berkeley Cafe.

Nash Square oak tree by N&O

Thanks to all the readers of this blog, which helped make the book a reality. Raleigh rules! When it comes to greenways, anyway.

The Natural History of Raleigh

January 10, 2019

Lassiter Mill – Most Searched and Commented Post

Lassiter Mill illustration from John Dancy-Jones’ book The Natural History of Raleigh

Lassiter Mill and Raleigh Mill History is by far the most popular post on this blog, with “Lassiter Mill” the biggest search term. That early post has served as a magnet for people looking for information and stories about Raleigh Nature. And the comments on that post, found here, are an amazing collection of memories, from jumping off the bridge to family picnics, from shad runs to visiting Mary Lassiter at her store beside the old mill. Plus local history from a descendant of Issac Hunter! The comments are featured in my newly published book, and have helped it become quite popular at Quail Ridge Books, which is now located just a mile up the hill from Lassiter Mill.

The Natural History of Raleigh

16 chapters, 30 illustrations conveying the sights, nature lore and history of Raleigh’s natural areas and greenways

November 15, 2018

The Natural History of Raleigh is published!!

Filed under: About & reflection, Gems & Surprises, Nature Lore — Tags: , , — raleighnaturalist @ 5:06 pm

I am so proud to share that the book I have been working on for over a decade, for which I started this blog, is in print at last. Published by my own press The Paper Plant, it is an 80 page book with 16 chapters and 30 illustrations that captures the best of what i have learned and seen concerning Raleigh NC’s wonderful greenway system, parks, and other natural areas. This blog has been crucial in developing the book, and several features relate directly to the blog, especially the fantastic comments on Lassiter Mill and it’s history posted on the blog. Thanks to all my Raleigh Nature readers and I hope you obtain and enjoy the book.

cover is hand-laid paper with block print

select illustrations

order through The Paper Plant

order through Amazon

Also available at Quail Ridge Books and So&So Books in Raleigh

May 20, 2015

Raleigh Nature Starts a Shift Westward With Lake Lynn Residency

Filed under: About & reflection, Nature Lore, Rural Raleigh, waterways, West Raleigh — Tags: , , , , , — raleighnaturalist @ 7:25 pm

A red-throated loon shows his Springtime stuff at Lake Lynn  in northwest Raleigh

A cormorant shows his Springtime stuff at Lake Lynn in northwest Raleigh

Blog News June 2015
This blog always centered on a book project: The Natural History of Raleigh, which now exists as a finished manuscript of 25,000 words I am working to get published. Having retired from over twenty years as a special educator, my wife Cara and I are selling our Oakwood home and moving to Asheville, setting up book arts studios as well as a big garden and small greenhouse to grow food, papermaking fibers, and flowers. For Cara’s final year of teaching, we are renting a small apartment that overlooks Lake Lynn. The blog will eventually take on a state-wide perspective, but will always focus on urban natural areas and have plenty of posts about Raleigh. For now, enjoy the Lake Lynn and Falls Lake areas I will pop into when in Raleigh, while I explore and document what to show you up in Baird Cove.  Best,  John

Sliders at Lake Lynn

Many kinds of wildlife inhabit Lake Lynn, but (for enthusiasts) it has a citywide reputation for its turtles.

Lake Lynn, along with Shelley Lake, was created to provide flood protection to Crabtree Valley Mall, which was constructed in a former muddy cow pasture and flooded soon after it was built. Hare Snipe Creek, which feeds Lake Lynn, runs from the back of Tabernacle Church on Leesville nearly due south all the way to Crabtree by the Golden Corral headquarters on Glenwood Avenue. Lake Lynn has a gigantic earthen dam but is normally quite shallow, and its edges are dissected by the numerous small creeks and freshets that formerly found their way to Hare Snipe Creek. A popular greenway with long boardwalks encircles the Lake, and a spur follows the soggy wetlands of its headwaters up to a public park. At uncrowded times (and I’m talking people driving and parking at my apartment complex just to walk here) it’s an opportunity for some remarkable encounters with nature.

ducks

Some of the more interesting  birds to watch are naturalized escapees – dark, red-wattled Muscovy ducks and aggressive white barnyard geese. Lake Lynn itself is a mixture of native and natural features blended with the man-made lake and the surrounding (relatively wooded) apartments and houses. The Canada geese, well described in an earlier post, are so numerous and boisterous as to evoke aquatic chickens as they honk out the rising day outside our windows each morning.

 An Enticing Nearby Area

Cypress trees on the southwestern shore of Falls Lake

Cypress trees on the southwestern shore of Falls Lake

Just a few miles north of Lake Lynn I can cross over the highest spot in Wake County – Crestmont off Leesville Road – and travel out of Crabtree Creek’s watershed into that of the Neuse, inundated by Falls Lake. North of 98, off Baptist Road, is an access point for the Mountain-to-Sea Trail, which traces the southern shore of Fall Lake. Here a juncture of powerline cuts and shallow lobes of the lake provide wide open views and a nifty look at a population of cypress. There is a stunning serpentine boardwalk that serves the trail, and a raised bridge over Lick Creek with gorgeous views. More to come, as well as more on the whole stretch from here to the Rollingview Marina.

Lick Creek footbridge

cypress in Falls Lake

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