The Raleigh Naturalist

January 28, 2020

Scott Huler Takes the Measure of the Piedmont

Filed under: Book Reviews — Tags: , — raleighnaturalist @ 3:32 pm

A Delicious Country: Rediscovering the Carolinas along the route of John Lawson’s 1700 expedition.

Scott Huler. UNC Press. 2019.

Scott Huler, in his admirable list of creative non-fiction books, takes us on journeys. His journeys include a mental as well as a geographic pathway and destination. In No Man’s Lands, he retraces the sea route of Homer’s Ulysses through the Mediterranean, observing the present and “trying to make modern sense of the oldest story we tell ourselves.” On the Grid, a book featured on this blog’s bibliography, explores the network of infrastructures that enable urban and suburban residents to live comfortably. Scott is a Raleigh resident, and an investigative writer willing to hop on a trash truck or tour a sewer plant, so that book was a nice resource for connecting the city of Raleigh to its natural setting. Scott’s new book offers a grand tour of the Carolina Piedmont, and urges us to see, to really look at, the often grim reality of rural life in the South and recognize patterns that echo today from as far away as the beginning of the 18th century.

A Delicious Country chronicles not one but two journeys – first the historically invaluable trip of John Lawson in 1700, and that one framed within the arduous but segmented trek of Scott Huler to replicate Lawson’s path and also replicate his endeavor – to see what he could see and meet and learn about all the people he encountered. Reviewers call Huler’s books “adventure memoirs,” and this one fits the bill times two – but Scott’s honest hard look at the current landscape of terrain and people is nuanced by the parallels he finds in Lawson’s own account, and his balanced portrait of Lawson as a young adventurer and aspiring developer, a friendly describer of the natives and a seedpod of their demise, rings true and is very thought-provoking.

What a cartographic tale this is, full of wonderful descriptions of the ancient paths whose traces or modern versions cross and connect the Carolinas. The thousand year old River Trail becomes the Catawba Path or Waxhaw Path. The Great Trading Path of the Native Americans became The Great Wagon Road, stretching from Philadelphia to Georgia. In the Triangle area, “I-85 follows the railroads, which follow the Old Hillsborough Road, which follows our old friend the Trading Path.” Scott provides rigorous description of his trek, and points out that Lawson, a gentleman and so treated with respect to daily duties on his trip, exhibited admirable practicality with his skill at surveying and gained much information as one of the first Englishmen to visit the area.

The Raleigh Naturalist found much excellent information about South Carolina’s coastal transition zones, the swamps of the lower Santee River, and the upper Catawba watershed in the North Carolina Piedmont that feeds it. This book offers many downright delicious leads for further investigations, and I fell down the rabbit hole a bit in using inter-library loan to obtain and read River of the Carolinas: The Santee, which Scott uses well and refers to as “a love letter to the Santee River.” Henry Savage’s 1956 title provides detailed descriptions of the river and an insightfully dated view of the relevant Southern history. The latter included a fascinating account of the French Huguenot immigration to South Carolina, some of whom hosted Lawson, and whose descendants hosted Scott Huler. Both of these books mourned the ecological impact of the damming and especially the major diversion of the Santee River away from its natural bed and toward Charleston. As Scott Huler traverses several different major ecosystems, his daily observations offer tangible warning signals regarding our waterways, our vanishing insects, and the rapid disappearance of open natural spaces.

The highlight of A Delicious Country for me was the thorough consideration of Native Americans in the historical and the current context. Scott was surprised in his research to realize the truly stunning level of Native American enslavement in Lawson’s time: in some respects equal to the trade in Africans. Laws and logistics simply led to the Native Americans being sent to faraway islands where their fate has gone relatively unrecognized. Scott met many Native Americans on his trek, and his rich description of joining a meeting of local tribal chiefs at the Native American Studies Center in Lancaster, SC lends a strong personal flavor to the issues of recognition, reparation and protection of heritage. It was a gift to be able to use Scott’s narrative to generate a decently broad sense of Indian presence in the Carolinas. The large Catawba group, of the Siouan language group, includes the coastal Sewees, and the Santees, Waterees and Congarees – all with a namesake river. The Sugarees and Waxhaws lived near present day Charlotte, the Sapona on the Yadkin River, the Keyawee in the Uharries, the Sissapahaws on the Haw, and of course the Occaneechi in the Hillsborough area. Far pre-dating all of these were tribes of the Mississipian mound-building culture, whose easternmost reach is marked by the Santee Indian Mound, part of a wildlife refuge on the shores of Lake Marion, SC. Last but certainly not least in this tale are the Tuscaroras of Lost Colony fame, who moved southward into eastern North Carolina from their Iroquoian roots and were mistreated by the emerging English coastal colonies to such an extent that in 1711 they ended up capturing and executing John Lawson, who was indeed a leader in the intrusive settlement but who had befriended and sympathetically described so many tribes across the area.

John Lawson’s book, A New Voyage To Carolina, was published in London in 1709. Scott describes its value: “in one of the most important early books to emerge from the colonial South, Lawson vividly describes the region’s flora, fauna, landscape and native inhabitants according to the emerging discipline we now call science…Lawson’s descriptions of Native American cultures are some of the best and most sensitive we have…” Scott Huler’s book integrates the best bits of Lawson into a fine contemporary exploration of the same territory 320 years later. With all its commentary on topics from NASCAR country to the Percy Flowers Plantation development, his tale perhaps most strongly reminds us of the great value in getting outside, actually going to places on our own power, and keeping a sense of discovery alive. Paraphrasing a book promo for Lawson’s work, Scott says it best: “One hopes that Original Voyages will always have due Encouragement.”

The Trek from Charleston to Bath

Postscript

Scott Huler built a really nice website to support and document this project. This site helped him connect in real time with people who lived along his route, and his interactions with those folks is a great side story in the book. John Lawson’s book is available in a slightly pricey edition from UNC Press, but I was delighted with my cheap e-scanned print edition from Amazon. Scott describes the important natural collections Lawson amassed and sent to London – and took his family there to visit them! A great guy – buy his books!

June 29, 2008

Ranging the Piedmont

Filed under: About & reflection, Exotica, Nature Lore — Tags: , , — raleighnaturalist @ 11:20 pm

This post was originally published on June 21, 2008

Haven’t posted, haven’t been on the greenway. Been furiously finishing up my school year, doing some arts writing, and starting a new personal blog. And now I’m off for 5 days to the mountains. Doing a big environmental education workshop at the Pisgah Forest Institute in Brevard. Once I get back, I’ll be posting more often.

On my way to the mountains, I will traverse this widest section of the eastern U.S. Piedmont, which stretches 225 miles from Raleigh to the scarp of the Blue Ridge Mountains. At Morganton, I will travel just north of the South Mountains, which are significant, “real” mountains but not part of the Blue Ridge system at all. They are monadnocks, outcrops of rock even more ancient than the Appalachians, which have withstood the millions of years of erosion and flattening that produced the Piedmont. They look decidedly odd in the midst of the Piedmont’s gentle swells, as I hope you will get some idea of, below.

These are from south of the South Mountains, off the 64 route rather than 40. Below is the development just beginning within sight of this peak. My drive on State Road 10 and 64 reminded me that it is not just near the big cities that Piedmont vistas are filling up with homes and shopping centers.

Below is a scene from South Mountain State Park, which was closed due to being completely filled the Memorial Day Monday I went. Another trip we will explore the unique granite faces associated with these Piedmont mountains.

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The Continental Divide at Interstate 40

After the South Mountains, I will drive through the Piedmont watershed of the Catawba River, then begin the climb up to the valley of the Swannanoah River, which runs from Black Mountain to Asheville. At Ridgecrest, I will cross the Continental Divide. Water falling to the east goes to the Catawba and eventually to the Atlantic Ocean. Water falling west of the crest will go north via the French Broad, find the Little Tennessee, and eventually flow into the Gulf of Mexico. As a child at Camp Ridgecrest, a summer facility of the Baptist Conference there, I learned this fact standing on a mountain ridge, where we were invited to spit in alternate directions and imagine the geographic adventures of our saliva. It was, truly, an unforgettable moment, and one of many that shaped me into a naturalist.

The state-published geological guide to Interstate 40, using mileposts, instructs you to look at this dark rock at the top of the incline, which is part of the Blue Ridge, and compare it to the lighter rockfaces in the roadcuts at the botttom. I tried – safely – but pictures of those lighter rocks will have to wait for a safer scenario than Memorial Day weekend!

I’ll see you again before July 4th! Have a great one!

 

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