Sept/Oct 2014My Nature: Telling You Trueby Roger Pinckney
Rich man, poor man, we all have a place to hunt.
"To ride, to shoot, to tell the truth, this was the ancient law of youth," says the poet. I got schooled early; Lowcountry to the bone. My daddy grew up driving mules, hard scratching back then. This was after General Sherman came through and the country hereabouts was laid waste for generations. Wages were a seat at the table, field peas, grits and gravy every morning, bacon and biscuits, maybe hoecakes with black-strap molasses on Sundays. Lunch might be a big split dill pickle with a ladle of clabber on top, garnished with a forkful of canned salmon or sardines when they had it. He never said nothing 'bout supper, likely possum or coon.
Daddy drove mules for his fare, but he wouldn't climb on a horse for a salary. So I had to learn that all by myself, and I got three crooked fingers to prove it. But he put granddaddy's double-barreled twelve gauge in my hands, a hateful mail-order contraption fondly remembered now that I don't shoot it anymore. Long barreled and short stocked, it would knuckle your jaw 'till you wearied of pulling the trigger.
And he taught me to tell the truth. "There is great satisfaction in it," he often said, "you can aggravate hell out of some people with a clear conscience. And besides, you will never have to remember what you said."
And so I will tell you true.
The hounds bayed way off in the bottomland, the cry rolling up through the cypress, soft maple and pond pine. The cry came and went on the sliding sea breeze, south one minute, southwest the next. Double-ought in both barrels, I was sixteen and on the stand. Spring Island, South Carolina, 1963. Beaufort County; just south of the Chechesse and north of the Okatie, Elisha Walker's place. We called him "Mister Lisha" and you have heard of his nephews, George Herbert Walker Bush and George Walker Bush Jr. But we didn't know that back then. Elisha Walker was just another Yankee millionaire building the perfect Southern hunting plantation - skeet and trap, duck ponds, food plots, pointing dogs and a matched pair of redbone mules to pull a yellow-rubber-tired, soft-sprung wagon - a monumental undertaking to mixed results. Once each year he would host a deer hunt for those who had helped him expedite spending a minor fortune, game managers and wardens, deputy sheriffs, judges and selected members of the Legislature. We were poor folks back then, but Daddy pulled rank. He built the docks, I wrestled the lumber.
"Mister Lisha, you mind if I bring my boy?"
Elisha Walker did not mind, and that's how I got beneath that old oak along the salt marsh while the hounds made hound music way down in the freshwater bottomland.
The hog and dog men barged their horses over early. They knocked over a feral pig and a doe or three and set them on live oak charcoal. They were wild men from Jasper County. They slept on the ground, drank whiskey from the bottle and were artfully profane. But they had scrambled eggs, sweet rolls and coffee waiting when we got there at daybreak. The house staff took over mid - morning and when we came in from the first drive, there were white linen tablecloths, steam trays of barbeque, platters of biscuits and great sterling tureens of rice. But meanwhile, I was on the stand. If I killed a deer, the dog men would bloody my face, and if I missed they would cut off my shirt tail clean to the back of my collar, maybe beyond.
Beaufort County was an African-American tidal backwater in those days; shrimping, oyster picking and truck farming, population just over 30,000. Fast forward, and we now have 170,000 elbowing our way around a place that's half underwater at high tide, and more moving in every day. But fifty years after I waited on that Spring Island buck, I can sit in the exact same spot and wait on another.
Call it a miracle, and surely it is, but it took hard work, lots of money and some serious politicking, not for the faint of heart or the weak of wallet. Elisha Walker took sick and died; his children put Spring Island up for sale. Opportunists abounding in those days, there was talk of 3,000 lots on 3,000 acres, but there was no bridge, and the man who owned the land where the bridge would go had other ideas entirely.
County Council was astounded. "You mean you want to decrease your density?"
Jim Chaffin surely did. Chaffin was a Virginian who had previously worked for a high density developer on Hilton Head, "back when developer was a four-letter word," he remembers. "When I told my friends I wanted to put an unobtrusive, environmentally sustainable community in the middle of a hunting preserve, they said, 'Have a drink, Jim, and sit down 'till the urge passes.' "
Jim Chaffin may have sat down, he indeed might have had a drink, but the urge did not pass, and now on Spring Island there are three-hundred homes, hunting and fishing guides, an equestrian center and a nature center with a full time staff. Chaffin assured perpetual protection of Spring's natural resources by creating a conservancy funded by a surcharge on property transfers, with its own board independent of the property owners' association. "Mother Nature and the Good Lord put all the pieces here," Jim Chaffin says, "our job was to screw it up as little as possible."
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Jim Chaffin should consider himself flattered. His design team went on to create Bray's Island, another sporting retreat threatened by high density development. Land use architect Robert Marvin proclaimed. "I want to design an environment where a person can rise to the highest level the Creator intended him to be." And that included an intimate connection with the natural world. End result was 320 circular one-acre lots on 5,000 acres. There is trap and skeet, a kennel full of pointers, setters and springers, dove and quail shoots, a quality deer management program, and both fly and spin fishing in restored rice fields. But why circular lots? Robert Marvin again: "So a man will not feel compelled to face his house in any particular direction."
The jewel in the crown around these parts is the fantastic Palmetto Bluff, a 20,000-acre enclave, with seventeen miles of waterfront, salt and fresh, formerly the executive retreat for International Paper. Like Spring Island, enterprising middle men boasted of one house per acre, a small city of tract housing. But the money ran out before ambition did and the plantation was purchased by Crescent Resources, the real estate arm of Duke Energy, the largest power company in the United States. Crescent cut their permitted density by 90 percent and put 6,000 acres into a perpetual conservation easement. Jim Mosely, the visionary behind the enterprise, proclaimed, "When we are all done here on Palmetto Bluff, the maritime forest will prevail."
Run the numbers: private developers, plus private landowners and assorted governmental purchases, and roughly one quarter of the most beautiful, precious, pressured and beleaguered ground in the South Carolina Lowcountry has been preserved forever. Even way down on Daufuskie, the last underdeveloped island hereabouts, fifteen percent of the land is already under easement for hunting, with more to come. If it can happen in Beaufort County, y'all take heed, it can happen anywhere. Go ye and do likewise, as the Good Book says.
Down at a creekside beer joint the other night, I ran into a couple who had recently bought into Palmetto Bluff, and I will tell you true: He was vice-president of Lloyd's of London; she sat on the President's Council of Economic Advisors. They were, as you might imagine, ecstatic about Palmetto Bluff. Yes, Henry Ford hunted the Lowcountry too, as did Bernard Baruch, various Duponts and Carnegies, Jimmy Carter and Dick Cheney. But preserving South Carolina's hunting traditions is NOT just a rich man's game, nor has it ever been. While it may take a multi-million dollar portfolio to even think about Spring Island, Bray's or Palmetto Bluff, hunters and wildlife enthusiasts of average means have access to more than a million acres for just thirty bucks and change each year.
About the time Daddy put me in long britches, the DNR (back then the state Wildlife Commission) proposed to manage 68,000 acres of the Francis Marion National Forest - if the Interior Department would open it to public hunting. And the Feds, generally hard pressed to effectively manage their vast holdings, jumped on the deal. This was the first of South Carolina's Wildlife Management Areas, expanded now to include public and private lands, leased or owned outright, fifty-three named properties, ranging from less than one hundred acres to more than a quarter million. One million, eight thousand, one hundred fifty-six acres total. As Daddy might say, "that's a lot of land to plow before breakfast."
Charles Ruth, the DNR's Deer and Turkey project coordinator, likens the WMA program to a large hunting club with a nominal annual fee. Funds generated by the 50,000 thousand plus permits sold each year are dedicated to maintaining and improving existing acreage and to leasing or purchasing more land. So next time you set out to purchase your hunting license, make sure you include money for a WMA permit, even if you have no intention of hunting WMA land. You will be helping to preserve South Carolina's hunting heritage for all.
I tell you true.