A moss-hung cypress keeps watch over the placid waters of the ACE Basin, named for three rivers that run through it: the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto.
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.