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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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!

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