Notes From The Low Country

It doesn’t sound like the right way to describe something – the low country – as though it is less than, below, down there. Here is a place that is under us. But once you’re here, there isn’t really any other way to describe it. I haven’t seen this kind of flat since my days in Texas. Here, the rising and falling sun are met by the break of a horizon, turning pink and yellow with the absolute fire of the day.

Low, flat. Here is something beyond “sea-level.” You are, quite literally, level with the sea. On either side of the highway are the marsh rivers with paths cut by shrimp boats through the tall grasses that grow tall from the riverbed. Yes, shrimp boats. And oysters. Everything dumped from the pot and onto the table at tomorrow night’s crawfish boil will have come from one of these boats. The corn on the cob might come from somewhere else, but the okra is from any of the farmstands along the road.

Yes, shrimp boats. Just off highway 21 is the Gay Fish Company. Try not to chuckle. This is where the BubbaGump aesthetic was born. That shot with all the shrimp getting dumped out of the nets after the hurricane destroyed the competition? All of that shrimp came from right here. This is the dock he stood on while he painted Jenny on the side of his ship. On the next island over, Hunting Island, they shot other pieces of Forrest Gump. All of the scenes in the Vietnam jungle were staged here. It makes sense. One island over, Parris Island, is where the Marines trained recruits who were heading to fight in the Vietnam War. In the thick of August, both places carry the same climate.

Flat, still. Except for the trees. The highest point around here is the crest of the bridge – the long parabola stretching over the river and marsh. High enough for boats to pass under between the marinas and the ocean. Some days, it seems, there’s more traffic under the bridge than over it.

Here, the world is ruled by the ocean. Everywhere else you know, the river flows into the ocean. Here, the ocean flows just as much into the land. The water is just as fresh as it is brackish. The tides can make your day just as easily as they can ruin it – I suppose it all depends on what you’re hoping to have for dinner. The ocean rules life here. And to think that the next few years, or even the rest of their lives, could be decided by an unseasonably sunny day off the west coast of Africa. Hurricanes used to sweep in and upend the economic ladder. Fortunes could just as well reverse once the storm surge recedes and those who could afford to leave come back to see what’s left.

Now, the ladder of the local economy is a set of concrete steps – forever unmoving. Insurance makes some people whole while it wipes out others. The goal is to not get washed out.

There is a referendum of city ordinance up for vote to season. Word is, some Yankee developer from Boston went ahead and bought up 28 million dollars’ worth of land before he realizes it wasn’t zoned for what he wanted to do with it – turn it into a gated community and golf course for his investors and their wealthy friends. One side of the debate wants nothing to do with it – they would rather preserve the culture and the way of life on the island. This is one of the last of the marsh islands that hasn’t been overrun by high-dollar development and tourist residences that sit empty most of the year. The other side would love the tax revenue and the tourism dollars. Some of the retired Marines would love a fancy place to put up their feet.

The Yankee would love to get that 28 million plus interest off his back.

From the map, nothing looks like an island. There is extensive marsh on one side, the Atlantic on the other, and the rest is carved up by slow rivers that don’t seem to go anywhere. The next island could be fifty feet away for all you know. Whatever the result of the ordinance vote, everything is still at the mercy of the ocean.