Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Make a Wish

  We took a walk at Vereen Gardens one fine spring Sunday where a mile-long boardwalk extends over many acres of salt marsh and along the Intercoastal Waterway. It is near Little River and the North Carolina- South Carolina border. 

  The park was the site of the pre-Revolutionary War plantation of the Vereen family but nothing is left of that except the old graveyard. 

 When the boardwalk ends, the trail meanders off into the woods and leads to a surprise. 

Apparently it is a tradition for visitors to pick up an oyster shell from the beach, make a wish, and hang the shell in a tree. There is a large area of woods where shells are dangling from the trees on both sides of the trail.

We had no knowledge of the tradition and nothing to hang a shell with but we enjoyed seeing others’ efforts.

  I think if I had a pen and string to hang a shell, the wish I would have made is that Covid would soon be conquered everywhere so that the whole world could return to moving freely wherever we want to go!


  In the distance behind me you can see the boardwalk.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

The Last of the Fire Towers

  A photo of an old abandoned fire tower on a South Carolina history Facebook post caught my attention. It’s near our home and we never knew it was there! Reading the comments on the post was fun, too, as many descendants of the fire wardens shared their memories.
  On a cold and cloudy Saturday, we set out to find that tower and any others.

  The first one, Winyah Tower, we have driven by at least a hundred times and never noticed it. And once the leaves are back it will retreat into the trees and be invisible again.

  This is what is barely seen from the highway in winter. 

 Easy to miss when you are whizzing by at 65 mph. 

  Tommy C. “My grandma ran the Winyah Tower. I loved going there and getting scolded for throwing paper planes all over the ground.”


  The first fire tower in the state was built in 1930 by the South Carolina Forestry Commission. An operator was hired for the princely sum of $2 an hour, not to exceed $50 a month, plus lodging. Included was a year-around home on 10 acres of land for his family to grow their own food, most often vegetables, milk cow, pigs, and chickens. They were called “firefighter families” and often the job was handed down from parents to children, becoming a family tradition. 

  The Sampit Tower was the only one where we could find evidence of the house and farm. On the right above, the yellow dots are daffodils, and in the center is a planting of crepe Myrtle. This would have been the yard of the house. In the forest there is debris from the buildings that once stood there.

  Ross L. “My grandparents lived and worked there. I remember playing under the tower and in the barn, feeding Grandpa’s mule Little Hunkey. The house is gone but the tower is still there, bringing a memory of my past every time we go to town.”

  Many towers followed across the state, 55 to 120 feet high above the trees, from the mountains to the coast. Each had a 7 by 7-foot observation cab at the top. Hours the operator spent in the cab depended on the danger of fires. When danger was high he would spend as many as 10 hours on duty searching the horizon for smoke. 

  A network of telephone lines was built to link the tower operators to firefighters on the ground. These lines became the first phone service available to most of rural South Carolina.

  The Honey Hill Tower is now part of a campground in the Francis Marion National Forest. Most of the towers have fences around them and the steps have been removed on the first flight of stairs to discourage climbers.

  Ross L. “My dad was a forester in the 40s and 50s. As a boy it was always a treat to climb those stairs. I think about it when I pass it today at the age of 80.”

  In the early days the firefighters on the ground were paid fire wardens who arrived at the fire in their own vehicle. 

They carried hand tools and, if necessary, enlisted volunteer helpers. The tools included backpack hand pumps to distribute water on the flames. It doesn’t look like that backpack pump would hold much water!

(Photo from the Forestry Commission archives)

  Ann B. “Daddy started as a smoke chaser. I broke my baby bottle on one of the concrete posts. Got whipped for trying to climb the tower.”

 From the 1960s on, most tower operators were women and their husbands were employed as the firefighters on the ground. 

 Minnie T. “I used to stay with Grandma and Grandad and sometimes she would send me up the tower to watch for fires for her. I enjoyed every minute of it!”

  As satellite technology made the human eye obsolete, the towers and their operators were phased out in the 1990s. Today only 30 (out of hundreds) are still standing. We were lucky to find four of them within 20 miles of us. 

  The final tower we found is the McClellanville Tower, which miraculously survived a direct hit from Hurricane Hugo that wiped out much of McClellanville and a 400-mile wide swath of South Carolina forests in 1989. 

  Climb the tower to the cab in your imagination, then look out over the shrimp boats on Jeremy Creek, across Cape Romain, and all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

  On a day like this, what a fine job to have! 

(This post is especially for one of my most faithful readers who began his forestry career with a stint in a fire tower, not in South Carolina but in Idaho: The Writer’s big brother. 
 Big hugs from us, Marty!)

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Come For a Hike With Us

  Some trails at Santee Coastal Preserve close to humans for three months of the winter.  Last weekend it was so wonderful to return to one of our favorites, the Cape Trail.  

  This trail follows a system of dikes built by slave labor in the 1700s to create the rice fields that brought great wealth to the white planters of South Carolina. 

While a walker is high and dry, on either side of the trail, water fills marshes through a system of rice gates, technology invented in Africa centuries ago and carried by the enslaved workers to America.

 Beyond the rice fields that line the coast, on the horizon lie the coastal barrier islands and beyond them, the Atlantic Ocean. 


   We enter this watery world, passing along a path lined with gnarled old cedars and live oaks. The trees lean in unison to the west, permanently bowed by the many hurricanes they have survived, their trunks reminiscent of old hands that have completed many years of work. 



We walk on and soon the trees give way, ushering us to a vista of miles of marsh.

  Spanish cane, also brought by the enslaved workers from Africa to keep the dikes from eroding away, still autumn-brown and taller than our heads, shelters red-winged blackbirds. The birds greet us, calling out their spring song: Conk-a-Reeeee, conk-a-reeeeeee.  

  Stopping to admire the open view, we quickly locate fishing egrets and herons, a flock of white ibises in flight along the far tree line, their bright orange curved bills making them identifiable from a great distance.  Above us, vultures glide the thermals, tilting their wings this way and that, skillfully grabbing free rides on updrafts of air. 
  Yellow-rumped and pine warblers chase each other in and out of the foliage of the water oaks at the edge. “Now-you-see-‘em, now-you-don’t” as they nab newly-woken insects on the fly. 

  From the bright sun of the open marsh we move into the dampness of a cypress swamp — the Forest Primevil, a dark place that seems to emit its own light. 

  The trees, covered with lichens, glow yellow and red and white, appear as if lit from within. 

The clear fresh water of the swamp displays a carpet of flat-leafed green circles and moss, 
a whole world just below its surface.

  Santee Coastal Preserve has “preserved” our sanity during this year of lockdowns, sheltering in, and avoiding people during the Covid pandemic. We are so grateful to live where we could get out of the house often and still be safe. 

  We will finally get our first shot of the vaccine tomorrow! Hopefully the world will open up to us soon and we will be able to venture farther when the second dose is administered and takes effect. 

  I find myself musing about what I most want to be able to do when the world is safer again and I surprised myself by realizing that what I want most is to go INSIDE  a grocery store and pick out my OWN produce! No more brown lettuce! No more shriveled oranges the size of pingpong balls! No more moldy onions! Of course the biggest thing really will be to see family again, but it’s surprising how important (and missed) the little things have been as well.