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.