Mary Lib’s Puzzle: The Future of Beaufort, SC

Oyster Shuckers. Photo by Lewis Wikes Hines of Maggioni Canning Company, Port Royal, SC 1912, courtesy of the US Library of Congress

“When it hurts, we return to the banks of certain rivers.”  -Czeslaw Milosz

It the summer of 2010, and I recall visiting my mother-in-law, Mary Lib Phillips. After Sunday lunch and good conversation, I note a complex jigsaw puzzle she’s assembling on her card table.  Her puppy is sleeping beneath.  The puzzle features all fifty states, and their state flowers, birds and a perfect frame woven from a tangle of botanical diversity.

“I see you’re almost finished,” I ask her, pointing to the unfilled spots in the Dakotas.  “No, I’m missing a few pieces,” she says, and of course we both look at her puppy.

Driving home, I’m thinking about the patterns and puzzles among these islands and wet spots where I live, the Lowcountry of South Carolina.  We have most of the pieces of the puzzle in place, if we believe the developers that it’s location, location, location. But perhaps it’s duration, duration, duration.  How long can a region sustain the balance between economic expansion and environmental and human health?  Another way to put it that my grandmother would like:  How can we live within our means?  How do we maintain our economy and our ecology?  What is the balance between value and values?  How long can we live here?  Who do we wish to attract?

We have wonderful sunny days, a diverse population depending on diverse sources of income, comparatively low taxes and cost of living, and we tend to be both resilient and kind to our neighbors.  Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t comment on a beautiful sunrise, the moon over the water, or how they enjoyed the company of friends and family. Things that can’t be bought or sold, but that are priceless.  We value people and the environment, peace and quiet.

Communities are sometimes evaluated by how many people are living in them by choice, and the Lowcountry is a retirement area that continues to quickly grow in population.  People choose the Lowcountry as the place to spend their remaining years on the planet, and as a great place for their children, grandchildren and their friends to visit.  Locals tend to stay and their children come back home.  I understand that we define our own happiness, but even here, in one of the southern parts of heaven and like many regions, a few pieces of the puzzle are missing.

Although we are one of the wealthiest countries on earth, here are a few quick facts about human health in South Carolina from the Kaiser Foundation:

Over ten percent of us are diabetics and the number is increasing.

One in ten of our infants dies.

Over a third of our children are overweight or obese.

Teen suicide is increasing.

Twenty percent of us smoke.

Over a third of us report poor mental health.

More children live in poverty here than in our border states to the North and South.

And statistics and our relative economies aside, many share the vague feeling that something is wrong; that we are not what we were.  We are working harder and longer, but making less, and burnout is common.  And in this whirlwind of “getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”  We tend to drink too much, eat too much, and don’t get enough exercise to keep us fit.  Drug use is up, in and out of the workplace, and we are often exhausted and unable to sleep.  We try to do too many things at once, disappointed  with our performance in many of them.  We are covered in information from multiple, conflicting, and often strident voices, yet we seem powerless to take control and change things for others and ourselves.  Sometimes we feel that we’re in a fast car, without the capacity to properly steer.  We feel virtual and somewhat less real.  These are conditions easier to escape than cure, yet a slower pace may help, simple things; good wholesome food, a walk through a natural landscape, connecting with family and friends, and time to reflect upon and learn from our experiences.


The Lowcountry: A Chapbook










Sooner or later most life in the Southeast and well beyond finds its way to the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Water, plants, and animals flow inexorably east to meet and mix with ocean tides, carrying remnant soils that form islands along the coast. Like other places where there exists a confluence of life, wars have ensued. People have been enslaved, armies victorious and defeated, native people extirpated, and the land used and used again for whatever would sustain people and turn a buck. Its natural history is a story of clear cutting, mining, farming, hunting, reconstruction and restoration. Its cultural history has been a stormy ebb and flow, leaving seemingly disparate bits and pieces of humanity from hither and yon. The Lowcountry is home to soldiers, the working sons and daughters of immigrants, the super rich in gated developments, a vibrant Gullah Geechee culture, and expanding thousands of nomads who exit I-95, take off their jackets and remain. Culturally, the Lowcountry is more of a rain forest than a temperate forest, as it contains many species, but few of any one.

The Lowcountry, a chapbook written by writer/producer Bill Pendergraft, captures in poems and photographs a bit of the plot, character and conflict of Lowcountry life. He is the founder of Environmental Media, a company that produces environmental education content.

All profits from the sale of The Lowcountry are donated to the South Carolina Environmental Law Project to celebrate 30 years of service in the public interest,

The Paddle Home

I awake at my normal five AM and settled with a cup of coffee to read the news on my tablet.  I am reading the Times, of course, but also The Guardian and The Economist. Nothing is good that I read. Just more about the little boy in the white house down the street and his fears and sycophants.

The tide is rising in Lucy Creek, and I ready my kayak with tap water and an orange, and launch two hours before high tide.  I am quickly across Lucy Creek, and meander into my favorite little cut through the salt marsh, paddling slowly toward the Morgan River. There is a great blue heron, then one of the last of the loons, then a cormorant who dives and surfaces far ahead. The sun is up and warm, and I strip off my pfd and put it behind my seat. The housing development next door, noticeable because each house has a big dock sticking out into Lucy Creek, is noisy as workers are out repairing the docks, knocked asunder by Hurricane Matthew. Most are now back to their full ugliness, and I note that in this “residential community,” this PUD, there is only one dock that hasn’t been repaired. The shared community dock sits in ruins. Of course I think of how some reward private investment and personal gain over community and its inclusiveness…a journey back to fear and loathing. Breathe.

I do my paddling meditation, focused on breath.  The docks and the sounds of Skil saws fade away, as I turn back east and the sun is on my shoulders like a comforting arm, and I see the eagle’s nest that I’ve been watching for sixteen years; the adults rearing another offspring.

I want this little creek to persist in its beauty and comfort in a time that the latest politicians are about to open the floodgates of development. People will move here to destroy what they think they cherish.  As I speak water and sewer pipes snake out from Beaufort; a harbinger of more intensive development.  I can handle this as I have before, turning my time toward writing, conservation, education and mindfulness, yet I worry about the kids and the grand kids.  Is retreating into mindfulness making the world better, or am I just swimming away from badly needed confrontation?

I paddle home.

After Hurricane Matthew: Love and Blindness

The truth must dazzle gradually, or every man be blind. -Emily Dickinson

Man has lost the capacity to foresee. He will end by destroying the earth –Albert Schweitzer

I don’t know why my tenth grade teacher laid two books on my desk in 1962. She said nothing before or after. I felt an obligation to read them. One was Johnson’s “The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson,” and the other Rachel Carson’s just published “Silent Spring.” How could she have drilled into my naïve heart and intuited that I would read them, and that they would narrow my attention for the next fifty years. Perhaps it was her insight, but more likely it was youth looking for a compass, a heading shaped by whatever parents, friends, and mentors suggested.

Each writer guided me. Dickinson, to understand the potency of language distilled. Carson, that men will create products that murder in exchange for cash, as she herself battled metastatic breast cancer. Both writers proposed truth telling, and wrote so well that their truth found voice and audience. And each helped me define love; the chemistry that wells up within us, that we believe requires blindness.

Hurricane Matthew blew through, killing, rearranging. We rebuild, and as we have endured it together, fall more in love with what we had and have. From Dickinson:

Water is taught by thirst

Land, by the oceans crossed

Transport, by throe

Peace, by its battles told

Love, by memorial mold

Birds, by the snow

The landscape is rearranged by the storm. Almost half of the barrier island’s dunes are gone. Most docks are rubble, boats stacked up on roadways and runways, but there is little harm to the natural world save the release of wastes and poisons into the marsh. It was a pruning, an opening up to more light, a revelation. And among many, a reconnection to the elemental beauty of rolling waves, flat calm, seasonal marsh, oak and each other; transport learned from throe. For many, to live in the wild world requires blindness to the consequence of man’s greed and ignorance. Perhaps love of the natural world and acceptance of people’s faults and flotsam requires a steady blindness or we can’t carry on.

Many years ago, the neighborhood kids were at our house talking and laughing. They talked about a couple who lived in the neighborhood. “The tall guy and the blind woman,” they said. “The blind woman,” I ask quizzically, knowing that there was not a blind woman living in our neighborhood. “Yeah”, they said, “You know, he is always holding her hand and they ride a tandem bike. They are always together.”

In Sickness and in Health: South Carolina’s cordial relationship with dolphins and a virus that is threatening their future

Female dolphin and calf. St. Helena Sound

Few know that South Carolina is the only state in the US that prevents the public display of cetaceans and fewer have heard the true story of Beaufort, South Carolina’s albino dolphin, Carolina Snowball, and her capture by the Miami Seaquarium in St. Helena Sound. The capture rallied the state behind the protection of marine mammals and led to the development of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The state has a long and cordial history with dolphins and other marine mammals and is a pioneer in their protection, yet in the past two years hundreds have been killed along the southeast coast by a virus not fully understood.  A team of scientists, educators and volunteers are working against time and shrinking budgets to learn more.

Look for our new feature and photographs on dolphins in the November-December 2014 issue of South Carolina Wildlife Magazine.  First published in 1954, South Carolina Wildlife Magazine is a premier award-winning publication circulated to over 40,000 readers in the southeast and well beyond.

Gray’s Feet: Art and the South Carolina Lowcountry

Gray's Feet Photo

Gray’s feet hang in my kitchen.  Well, not literally, although the painting of Gray Segars’ bare feet painted by his mother and Beaufort artist Mary Segars is so realistic and plainly connected to life in the Lowcountry that it defines place.  The way the right foot is firmly planted on the wooden dock and the left foot crosses back over the right, we believe that Gray is leaning against the dock railing, and imagine that he’s talking with his friends and family; that any moment they will climb into a skiff and head out into the river.  And there is the way that color, light and shadow make the painting magically three-dimensional, true.  We remember special days here with our children whose sandbox was always beneath their feet; whose water play was among the islets of the Beaufort River. We know that we touch down only lightly by this sea and must return to this place and to those memories; an obsession that has encouraged both our marching out into the world, and our return to heal our wounds.  Imagine a people so caring that they conserve and protect a curative landscape.  Imagine that.

The Lowcountry is the subject of many painters who capture the ways the landscape and its inhabitants makes us feel; its smells and sounds, its days and nights, its tastes, its reflections of those we love and their memories within the landscape.  A slow stroll through the many museums and galleries of Charleston, Beaufort and Savannah offers very diverse interpretations of natural and cultural themes, from Alice Ravenel Huger Smith (1876-1958) to Jonathan Green, to Walterboro outsider artist, Johnnie Griner.

And on any given day in the Lowcountry, a hundred thousand photographs are taken of fauna, flora, landscapes and people, each photographer recording their own response to place.  Contemporary photographers like Eric Horan, Tom Blagden, Paul Keyserling and Jack Leigh are good local eyes.  Beyond our amateur snaps, they somehow capture our connections to place through patience, technical expertise and artistry.

There are essential elements that define place and that evoke a response from locals and visitors.   Here, every day is a natural invitation; fog through the live oaks, a fall marsh, the infinite space between ourselves and the horizon that invite us to visit and to remain.   As we educate ourselves about the Lowcountry, our education leads to the evolution of our personal search pattern, and we begin to find what we’re looking for, and become what we find.   It’s hard to separate ourselves from our place.  We think less about what is mine and more about what is me.

Photo of the painting “Gray’s Feet,” used with permission of the artist, Mary Segars

The Artists

Tom Blagden

Jonathan Green

Johnnie Griner

Eric Horan

Paul Keyserling

Jack Leigh

Mary Segars

Alice Ravenel Huger Smith

The River of Words® Program in Beaufort, SC-Environmental Media

Among Beaufort County, SC schools, and under the direction of Fine Arts Coordinator, Margaret Rushton, students in grades three through seven explore the Port Royal Sound and other coastal areas, publishing their reflections in an annual volume of poetry and art.  River of Worlds® is now three years old and in 2013 involved over 3,000 students, 130 teachers, and was led by classroom teachers and naturalists from the SC Department of Natural Resources.

We wrote a feature on the River of Words® program published this month in South Carolina Wildlife Magazine.  To read the article, click the link below:

Sounding It Out_Copyright SCW magazine 2013 

Ernest F. Hollings ACE Basin National Wildlife Video, “The Sound of Wings.”-Environmental Media

In coastal South Carolina, between Charleston and Beaufort, three rivers flow to the sea. The Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers run through remnant forests and the impoundments of grand rice plantations that occurred in the area in the 19th century.  After the Civil War the plantations decayed, the rice plantations overwashed by storm.

The three rivers gave the area its name, the ACE Basin, and recognizing the need to protect the exceptional natural resources , federal, state and private conservation interests met in 1988 to develop a plan for habitat protection and enhancement. This unprecedented conservation initiative was coordinated by the ACE Basin Task Force, consisting of representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR ), Ducks Unlimited (DU), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and private landowners. The major impetus for this meeting was to respond to the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP) which created regional Joint Ventures made up of government agencies, private conservation groups and individuals whose mutual purpose was to restore migratory bird populations to levels of the 1970’s and to protect 2.4 million hectares (6 million acres) of priority wetlands throughout North America.

We had the honor to produce “The Sound of Wings” an HD video that chronicles the history of the Grove Plantation and documents the cultural and natural resources of the area with a focus on bird life.  You may watch the video on YouTube at the link below, and next time you’re in the area drop into the Refuge