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

************

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 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!

Blog at WordPress.com.