An unlikely band of partners works to preserve one of South Carolina's greatest natural treasures and its remarkable web of life.
A NOTE TO OUR READERS:
"Love of the Lowcountry" is from the October 2005 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.
Every day, each in a special way, they are all out here minding the birds, these men and women who live in the ACE Basin in the South Carolina Lowcountry. They burn fields, mend trunk gates, plant longleaf pine, and rebuild rice dikes--all to make life a little better for birds and for all who love the woods, waters, and roads of this great, green place.
In a minimalist fall that comes late to the Lowcountry, they work for the coming winter when waterfowl will wing onto relic ricefields. They toil for the dove and quail in the open sedge, for the songbirds in forests, for nesting bald eagles, whose young return unerringly to this land of their birth and blood.
Just where is this place? Driving along U.S. 17, I feel it as much as find it between the fevered development of Beaufort and Charleston. The ACE Basin--a new name for an old land in rural Colleton, Charleston, Beaufort, and Hampton Counties--stretches out like a long, green sigh of deep forests; seas of golden spartina; and three tannic, tidal rivers that provide its acronym--the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto. The rivers drain through 350,000 acres of woods and swamps before mingling with marsh and tidal surge from St. Helena Sound.
Left: The ACE Basin Task Force hopes to preserve the traditional ways of life on the land as well as its natural beauty.
Although The Nature Conservancy named it among its original 12 Last Great Places, the ACE Basin is no wilderness preserve. As they have done for generations, families shrimp and crab, hunt game, cut timber, and farm fields. Birds thrive, but so do the traditional Lowcountry ways of work and life, thanks largely to the ACE Basin Task Force.
These men and women gather today at Nemours Plantation in the mid-20th-century home of the late Eugene duPont III. "We have no charter and no rules, other than all egos are left out on the highway," quips Mike McShane, chairman of both the task force and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Board. He watches as the group assembles around a tall fireplace for a fried chicken lunch and twice-monthly meeting.
Local landowners founded the task force in 1988 to halt encroaching development. They have since invited representatives of the Lowcountry Open Land Trust; South Carolina Nature Conservancy; Ducks Unlimited; Nemours Wildlife Foundation; MeadWestvaco Corporation, a paper company; South Carolina Department of Natural Resources; and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to sit with them.
The individuals may seem as opposite as lions and lambs on land-use issues, but they speak the words "timbering" and "hunting" as respectfully as "refuge," "environment," "habitat," and a deed called a "conservation easement." This group urges neighbors, whether their landholdings are large or small, to enter into voluntary easements with one of the above organizations. Owners and their descendants retain titles but agree to maintain the land in its natural state and for traditional uses. Today, 164,000 acres of the ACE Basin, about half through conservation easements, are now protected.
Left: The ACE Basin ends (and begins) at sea's edge. On wild Botany Bay Island, volunteers watch over nests of loggerhead turtles
and make sure the young find their way into the surf.
"We saw what was coming, and that wasn't acceptable," recalls Charles Lane, a founding member of the task force whose family home here dates to the mid-19th century. "The ACE Basin is loved. It's nurtured. It's full of endangered species, but man is part of the landscape. This is our culture, our way of life."
Visitors quickly notice how the region's lived-in look fits comfortably among great swells of greenspaces, even in town. On its northern end, in the middle of Walterboro, the Great Swamp Sanctuary sidles alongside the headwaters of the Ashepoo, one exit off I-95. Far to the south, loggerhead turtles love the other color of the wild--black. With no lights blazing from seaside condos, they lay their eggs at night on Botany Bay Island, one of the largest nesting areas in the state.
Many folks come to paddle rivers such as the Edisto, with its banks of fall-reddened cypress. Others drive the small roads that breeze past plantations, duck into swamps and dark woodlands, and pause at country churches and crossroad stores. State 21, with pillars of live oaks lining its two lanes, gives new meaning to the words "Sunday drive." High limbs arch above the pavement like ecclesiastical gables of a long, green nave.
Left: Ricefield trunks, a feature unique to the Lowcountry, regulate the flow of water on the fields. Only a few craftspeople still
make these gatelike structures.
Only photographer Gary Clark, flying somewhere high above, sees the area's whole story, written in the watermarks of dikes and canals across autumn's parchment far below. Over decades, with axes, shovels, and mules, African slaves and indentured Irishmen cleared cypress swamps, drained and diked the new fields, cut canals, and built trunk gates that regulated a river's flow on rice crops.
With water, seed, and soil, they grew a golden kingdom like none other in antebellum America, spreading a seasonal buffet for birds. As rice moved west in the late 19th century, wealthy Northerners saved the old estates and redefined plantations as winter residences for escaping the cold and hunting waterfowl.
"A big misconception of the ACE Basin is that it's pristine. It's not," emphasizes Dean Harrigal, a wildlife biologist and ACE Basin project coordinator for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. "This place has seen the ax, fire, the whole thing. There are trees getting cut right now. This is a living, breathing, working landscape.
Left: Birdlife, so indicative of nature's health, abounds in the ACE Basin.
All this timbering, hunting, fishing, and farming, he indicates, seems not to bother endangered species. The wood stork, for example, migrated up from Florida, liked the neighborhood, and passed along the word to wintering whooping cranes. Bald eagles have built some 30 nests here. Today, we see only two of them across a wide marsh. Leaving Dean's headquarters, however, I spot an eagle perched just above the sand lane, with a smart smirk on his beak for catching me without a camera.
He seemed as near as the hummingbirds that flit outside the windows of the 1828 Grove Plantation House. This artifact of late-Federal architecture now serves as headquarters of the ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge. Like the home's first owner, task force member and refuge manager Jane Griess peers through the same wavy glass and sees the same forests and fields that were there in the early 19th century.
"The ACE Basin looked like this 200 years ago. It's neat to think it's going to look the same in another century," she muses.
Left: Kayakers pause to admire the scenery as they paddle through an autumn day on the glassy waters of the Edisto River.
People come to the refuge for special events such as an annual fall hunt sponsored by the South Carolina Disabled Sportsmen. Visitors also fish, bird, study nature, and, Jane hopes, gain new respect for the relationship of land, humanity, and wildlife.
South Carolina governor Mark Sanford wants to reconnect his own youngsters to his ACE Basin boyhood home, Coosaw Plantation. "We called it a farm," he recalls with a smile. "There wasn't any sipping of juleps on that place. You were handed a paintbrush or a hammer instead."
He hopes the same soil that stains his hands in work and play will also seep into the souls of his children. "All my life's lessons came from that place," he remarks wistfully of his childhood. "I think to really bond children to the land, you've got to have them work it. Beautiful land, as in the ACE Basin, creates that much deeper a bond."
Left: Crabbers harvest a bountiful catch of blue crabs.
That same bond tugged at Horace Pinkney while he spent most of his life in New York City, after leaving his homeplace here. "I wanted to see home, home, home," says this soft-spoken man of his yearn to return.
Blood and toil tie him to this land, where, as a child, he helped his mother and grandmother in the ricefields. "Every morning, the kids had to go mind the birds off the rice," he recalls. "We'd sit in the field and see them come in droves, and we'd whoop and holler and throw things at them."
Now, Horace maintains the plots of his family and friends at Pine Cemetery and serves as an elder at St. Mary AME Church. He also patiently counsels younger neighbors. Perhaps he advises them to build futures here, where there is a fullness of the earth and a life lived close to it.
"There's no way you can go hungry in this country," he says, referring to the seasons for deer, duck, and quail. "Food is all around. I'm going to do my best to live here until God calls me."
So will Charles Lane, who hopes the ACE Basin remains a place apart--neither an empty environmental Eden, where all species are welcome except man, nor a new land of leisure that redefines "plantation" as a seaside golf community.
"If we don't keep our land, it won't be 'Southern living.' It will be 'temperate climate living,' " he comments with a smile. " 'Southern' is about something. If we lose this, we have lost who we are."
Hopefully in an autumn dusk of the next century, an ACE Basin resident named Sanford, Pinkney, or Lane will cross the Combahee after a long journey, watch a moving script of wings above a golden spartina sea, and feel in the heart the soar of home.
SEEING THE ACE BASIN