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 beach

 

When we traveled with our daughter and her partner to South 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.

   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.

“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.

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