This story appears in the November 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine.
When I was growing up in South Carolina, the oldest places I knew were also the wildest places. History and natural history cohabited in the antebellum rice-field country and the barrier islands, which began 35 miles south of Conway, where we lived, and stretched past Georgetown and Charleston and on to the Georgia line. History had populated these places, then depopulated them. Their sense of vanished human presence and their teeming life—fish, flesh, and fowl, to say nothing of snakes, sea turtles, and alligators—gave rise to two rumors. One was that cougars still lurked in the deepest swamps. The other was that ghosts hung around particular plantations. Reliable people saw unaccountable things. That is what other reliable people told you, and what you secretly wished to believe.
I left South Carolina more than 50 years ago. Since then, history has repopulated much of that old country. There is a new prosperity, a new and glittering worldliness. Before I left, I’d heard about Kiawah Island, a big, history-haunted place I dreamed of getting to. Its sea island cotton plantations were long gone, and by my standards, it seemed a sort of paradise—miles of empty beach on one side, miles of salt marsh and tidal creek on the other, separated by a jungle of second-growth maritime forest.
A few years ago I got to see Kiawah for the first time. I chartered a plane to fly me from Charleston 20 miles south to the ACE Basin, a relatively intact and exceptionally rich ecosystem fed by the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto Rivers. We passed over Charleston Harbor—Fort Sumter, ugly as a wart, just below us; to the west the skyline of the old city—and soon had Kiawah in sight.
“They had the Ryder Cup there in 1991,” the pilot told me, gesturing toward a golf course at the north end. “I watched some of it and got to look around Kiawah. Man, that place is paradise, if you’re rich enough.”
The golf course, the nicely landscaped neighborhoods of the interior, and the long, wide beach truly were beautiful, lying quietly in the soft light of a spring morning. But this was a different fantasy of paradise. No hope of seeing a cougar here, though Tiger Woods was a possibility, I supposed.
After a long history of comparative neglect, during which nature reclaimed much of the island, Kiawah now has 3,500 housing units, two luxury hotels, an international clientele, and a new identity based on tourism and residential development. What happened to it has happened all along the Atlantic coast to places I have unconsciously considered sacred, like churchyards or battlefields, places protected by their history from history itself.
As waterfront property has grown ever scarcer and more valuable, and strip malls, housing developments, and upscale Elysiums like Kiawah stretch southward from Charleston, the ACE Basin has grown ever more anachronistic economically and ever more indispensable biologically. The effort to protect it began 25 years ago, when crucial habitats were identified, their owners approached. An alphabet soup of agencies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations—some national, some local—was enlisted. As currently delineated, the ACE Basin consists of roughly 1.1 million acres of upland, marsh, diked wetland, and coastal islands. Approximately 200,000 acres are protected—some sold or donated to public agencies, and some remaining private but with conservation easements that preclude subdivision and development.
The basin is an archipelago of low islands, separated and veined by a maze of winding creeks, rivers, marshlands, and swamps. Flying over the region, I saw just two-lane roads, many of them unpaved and visible only when they emerged from the canopy of the woods to cross marshes or rivers on causeways or bridges. A few modest houses were scattered along the roads, and there was a dock with a couple of trawlers tied up to it and a public boat launch near the mouth of the Ashepoo. It looked more like the South Carolina I had heard my father describe than the one I had rummaged around in half a century earlier.
This landscape took shape well before the American Revolution, molded by the history of rice cultivation in the region. The earliest method of rice planting involved damming narrow swamps and using the impoundments, called reserves, to flood the fields below them at the appropriate time. A later, more elaborate system depended on tidal fresh water; it worked only in the narrow region that was far enough upriver to be beyond the reach of salt water but far enough downriver to have significant tides. Swamps were diked off from the river and cleared. Then ingenious, double-gated spillways called trunks were installed in the dikes. These were used to exclude the tides for plowing and planting, then flood the fields to precisely regulated levels as the rice grew. In September the fields would be drained for harvesting. This system allowed for cultivation on a vast scale and generated great wealth for many of the planters.
Even by South Carolina standards, the Lowcountry planters were ardently secessionist, and they paid for it in the Civil War. Federal troops quickly gained control of several barrier islands. The planters lit out for the interior, leaving their plantations to be burned and their slaves to be emancipated by Federal gunboat crews and raiding parties. After the war one planter returned to find what he described as a “howling wilderness”—the dikes broken down, the ditches clogged and overgrown. Cordgrass, cattails, needlerushes, and bulrushes completed the conversion of tillage land into marsh. Wildlife flourished in these disimproved places, and wealthy sportsmen, many of them Yankees, bought up the old plantations. To the extent that they maintained the rice fields and the uplands, these new owners did so for the sake of deer, quail, turkeys, doves, and especially ducks. They spent their winters pursuing those creatures, living sometimes in plantation houses that had managed to survive the war, sometimes in houses they themselves built, often on the site of the original house.
Decades have passed, and the new prosperity has established itself, leaving the ACE Basin as a functioning historical landscape. Hunters, fishermen, and bird-watchers avail themselves of its four state-owned wildlife management areas. One, at Bear Island, is predominantly restored rice fields; another, Donnelley, is primarily upland, although it includes several hundred acres of old rice fields and a beautiful reserve. On this March day most of the fields across the basin had been drained, and tractors were at work on several. Corn is the primary crop. The fields remain dry all summer and are flooded in the fall, with the unharvested corn still standing. Ducks harvest the corn; hunters harvest the ducks.
Dean Harrigal, who oversees the ACE for South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources, took me to Otter Island, one of its many gems. He spoke of the Civil War fortifications that lay somewhere in the dense growth of the interior: a battery established by the Confederates in 1861, seized by Federal forces the same year, and turned into a signal station. A colony of self-emancipated slaves grew up around it. No sign of these things, or of any other human enterprise, remained, but we did see whimbrels, godwits, willets, oystercatchers, red knots, dunlins, and plovers. Their cries, the thumping and sighing of the surf, the rattling of the wind in the palmettos, and the squeak of sand underfoot were the only sounds. The place could have been waiting for Robinson Crusoe to stagger ashore and for its history to begin.
Back in the woods, on a slight knoll overlooking the Chehaw River, a tributary of the Combahee, were several low burial vaults under an ancient, collapsing live oak. The surrounding trees were big and widely spaced—a magnolia, a beech, a holly, a walnut. “Those trees were planted,” Harrigal said. “You don’t find them growing in the same spot like that naturally. Somebody wanted this to be like an arboretum. And that little ditch along the edge of the marsh? I think it was a small canal, big enough to float the crops down to the river. There was a whole life here.”
Farther down the Chehaw, another vault, quite a fine one, dating from before the Revolution, stood in front of the overgrown earthworks of a Confederate battery, built to protect a bridge on the Charleston & Savannah Railroad a little farther upriver. Behind the earthworks, scattered in low woods, were the tombstones of slaves, former slaves, and their descendants; a spare cinder-block church, still in use, was half a mile away. “Whenever we sign an easement or a property transfer,” Harrigal said, “I tell people that with one stroke of the pen we’re preserving our heritage and our environment. It’s a good line. And it’s the truth.”
You can stand on one of the dikes in the Bear Island Wildlife Management Area and imagine that a chunk of Holland had been set down in the New World. There is only one decrepit windmill here and not many people, but there is a greater variety, abundance, and obviousness of animal life than I have seen anywhere else in North America. In one canal beside a dike I counted over a hundred alligators, most of them still as stumps. Black skimmers, flying low and straight, their lower mandibles shearing the water, lifted over the motionless heads as casually as a man stepping over a log. About 500 storks, ibis, egrets, and white pelicans stood along the bank, as though waiting for a parade to start.
Driving by a small, diked, mostly drained former rice field in the Donnelley Wildlife Management Area, Harrigal stopped the truck and handed me his binoculars. “Look out there and tell me what you see,” he said. I glanced and saw the usual suspects—herons, a glossy ibis, and even an immature eagle standing on the mud. Close to the eagle were two big white birds. They walked with a stoop, but they weren’t storks. Or egrets. Or ibis. I raised the binoculars and stared, then handed them back to Harrigal and said I did not believe it. A pair of whooping cranes.
When I was a boy, there were fewer than two dozen of them on Earth. Now there are five or six hundred. The last time one had been seen in South Carolina was 1850. Then this pair appeared. Seeing them in this place suggested natural possibilities that seemed almost supernatural.
But Harrigal was adamant about one of those possibilities, and so was every other wildlife biologist I met down there. “I don’t care what you hear or who you hear it from,” he said. “There are no cougars in the ACE Basin. Elvis? Maybe. UFOs? I wouldn’t rule it out. But cougars? No. No way.”
So sure enough, back home in the deep North, I’m chatting with a friend. He’s originally from Charleston, knows the ACE Basin. He’s a reliable, skeptical fellow, and a wildlife biologist himself.
It wasn’t him. It was his cousin, whom he’d vouch for, even though it happened late at night and the cousin was tired. He was slowly driving down an oak-lined avenue that led into one of the plantations, where he was visiting. The thing materialized out of the woods, loped down the road ahead of him, in no great hurry. He knew what bobcats look like. Also what dogs, foxes, coyotes look like. This animal was big, very long tailed, and about the color and consistency of smoke. It turned, eyes glittering in the headlights, then bounded into the shadows.
The evidence of one kind of faith is the evidence of things not seen or half seen.
The evidence of another kind of faith is fact: the ACE Basin itself.