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Article for January - February 2012

First Light Midlands: Wake Up, Life Is Calling
by Aïda Rogers

Lake Marion - Photograph by Michael FosterThis is the best way to see sunrise on Lake Murray: on your back, in a boat. Not that it worked quite that way for me. I was in a boat, but sitting up, sleep-deprived, craning my neck. Luckily, human discomforts dissolve at first light. Because there’s nothing human about it; the marshmallow colors blooming brighter and brighter, sky pink-orange in the east and blue-violet in the west. If you’re lying on your back, you can see all that at the same time. And if you're near Lake Murray’s Lunch Island in July or August, you’ll experience the incongruity of those soft, peaceful colors juxtaposed against the loud, bizarre chattering of the famous purple martins, hundreds of thousands of which roost there in noisy swarms.

This is not, usually, what I am doing at this hour.

But I’ve accepted this “First Light” assignment, and now, in early August, I’ve come to its end. And I realize that without intending to, I’ve saved the best for last. It’s true what I’ve been told: sunrise on Lake Murray is sweepingly, staggeringly beautiful — an astonishment, an amazement of light and color and water. I have never seen anything like this, and I probably never will again, given my preference for a warm bed in those hours between dark and day. And that’s the biggest irony of first light in the heart of South Carolina — the world is at its purest and loveliest when most people aren’t programmed to witness it. Makes you wonder, would we ruin that too?

May Day

The Midlands of South Carolina: no mountains, no ocean. But what a wealth of lakes and rivers, pastures and paddocks. There are high bluffs over the Congaree River, and there’s the national park named for it. With twenty-seven thousand acres of old-growth forest, Congaree National Park is revered for its giant hardwoods. They’re so big they crowd out the sky. First light here is a gradual thing, subtle. More about sound and slow awakening than color and dazzle.

Congaree National Park - Photograph by Phillip JonesI'm huddled with about thirty people at 5:30 a.m. — still pitch black — about to embark on the park’s annual Dawn Chorus Walk. It sounded just delightful — people walking in the park as the sun comes up, listening to birds heralding the new day. But most of us look like I feel, kind of stupefied at the early hour. Our leader stands before us. Long straight hair, blue jeans, Crocs. It's too dark to see her face, but I know her voice as soon as she speaks. Donna Slyce, the undisputed smartest and straightest-talking girl in my Lexington High Class of 1979. Donna got a full ride to Erskine College, which she finished in three years, graduating in English and Philosophy. I haven't seen her in forever. But like everything at Congaree National Park, it seems perfectly natural to find her here. She knows her birds and bird calls, breeding songs and alarm notes, and the aggressive interaction that occurs when two male Northern parulas, for example, compete for one female in their species. Later, I learn she fell in love with birds in elementary school and realized she wasn’t such an oddball when, as an adult, she discovered books on the subject. Now, as chair of the South Carolina Records Committee of the Carolina Bird Club, she almost speaks the language of birds.

"First cardinal," she announces at 5:48 a.m. That's the signal for the chorus to begin. It starts slowly, with barred owls and warblers sounding their notes just after six. A few minutes later, we’re moving to the park’s boardwalk, learning how to recognize the birds we'll hear. There are calls, and there are songs, and they’re not the same.

Peter-peter-peter calls the tufted titmouse.

Weep-weep-weepy calls the great crested flycatcher.

The breeding songs are conversational: I'm so Lay-ZEE sings the black-throated blue warbler. Here I am, where are you? wonders the red-eyed vireo.

The whistles and calls reach back and forth across the forest. We dart our heads as the sounds fly around us. By 6:30, the hollow knocking sounds of pileated woodpeckers are rattling through the air, providing percussion to the piccolos of the smaller birds. In the dimness, there’s something primeval about all this, something jungly. At the same time, it recalls modern, somewhat discordant classical music.

Dreher Island State Park on Lake Murray - Photograph by Michael Foster"There is no good language to talk about sound," Slyce observes. "As a matter of fact, I've made up words." She's consulted her musician friends, settling for "steel drum reverberation” for a ringing sound some birds make in multiple pitches. She's fascinated that wood thrushes and other songbirds can sing in chords. Those birds have a syrinx, which controls both sides of their throats, allowing them to produce several notes at once. Flycatchers are born knowing their entire repertoire, she says, instead of learning songs over time.

She's been leading the Dawn Chorus Walk for at least three years, taking over after Robin Carter, a famous local birder, passed away in 2008. Carter introduced the event to the park in 2005. While International Dawn Chorus Day is celebrated across the globe, Congaree National Park is the only site in North America to consistently present the event, its press materials say. In May, neotropical migrant species stop here to refuel on their way from South America to Canada. At Congaree National Park, where the ancient trees anchor and arch, a birder can find wonder alone or with comrades. "The light's different," says Slyce. "It's quiet here too. It's just you and the birds. For a lot of us, it's healing."

Catfish, Egrets and a man Named David Bell

David Bell - Photograph by Michael FosterDavid Bell is a bird person too. He doesn’t say so, but hang out with him at his bait house on Lake Marion and you’ll learn he’s pretty attached to three certain egrets. There’s Gracie, who stands almost four feet high and practically eats the herring out of his hand. Then there's Gracie Jr., who may be male, Bell’s not sure. Goofy's number three.

An egret named Goofy? Makes sense to Bell. "He'll fly in the trees and he's goofy!"

Fast note here: David Bell is a man of declarative and exclamatory sentences. He's got his opinions and he expresses them unreservedly. At Carolina King Retreat & Marina, which he bought and beautified four years ago, Bell monologues and dialogues about everything in sight, like the cormorant perched on the dock in the gray light of an early June morning, for instance.

"That one eats a pound of fish a day, and they're in here by the hundreds of thousands, protected by the government," he grumbles. "They'll come in the spring and fall, and have moved on right now. But they aren’t gone forever. You can bet they’ll be back."

Bell prefers the ducks that waddle ashore, and his trio of egrets who greet him every “moon-shiny night” when he opens the bait house door. Inside, herring swim in a refrigerated tank. They’re as appealing to the birds for breakfast as they are to the people who buy them — ten dollars per dozen — for bait.

Here on Jack’s Creek, anglers are after the “big blues.” Crappie, largemouth bass, striper and shell cracker are here too, but the blue catfish, from forty to seventy pounds, are the most sought-after prize. “Most lakes in the U.S. don’t have ’em that big,” Bell says. “We have ’em probably the biggest in the world!” Bell himself caught a ninety-pound blue on Lake Marion in 1973. The biggest one ever weighed in at Carolina King was a seventy-seven-pounder last spring.

Bell takes his fishing seriously. He has little patience for “city slickers” who want coffee and a leisurely breakfast. “It might be two hours after daylight before they go fishing,” he says, his voice rising. “They got too good a life! They want to smell the roses! A hardcore fisherman never smells the roses! He’s out there gettin’ it! It’s in his blood!”

Great Blue Heron - Photograph by Michael FosterRoses, ironically enough, are prevalent at Carolina King Retreat, a tidy village of cedar cabins with green tin roofs. Bell confesses he planted the roses — and built the heavy-duty picnic tables, and constructed the metal burn barrel where you can have a bonfire without the smoke blowing back at you. At Carolina King, David Bell does just about everything, including overhauling boats and repairing small engines and outboard motors. Bell might slow down enough to sit with you, and describe his set-up.

"We've got sixteen acres, seventy-four cabins, a hundred boat slips, thirty-three pontoon boat rentals, a dozen golf carts and a fool named David Bell operating the whole thing," he declares. "I was temporarily insane when I bought it and when I regained consciousness, it was too late."

But it sure beats his former life in Charleston, managing a furniture store. Home for him is Clarendon County, in this rustic resort within the Santee National Wildlife Refuge. The Palmetto Trail runs through his property, and he’s amused by the bird lovers looking for the ivory-billed woodpecker. He himself is content with the purple martins that appear every summer, and the bald eagles and ospreys that nest on nearby Persanti Island.

When the sun rises, Bell looks across the lake for Old Big Head. He always shows up — gliding his alligator way from the defunct fish hatchery where he sleeps to Billups Slough, where he spends the day. There are turtles to eat and lily pads to provide cover. "An hour before dark, he makes his trip back,” says Bell. “He’s always by himself. He’s like me. He’s a bachelor."

Horse Sense

Terry Houghton is a widow. The California native moved to Aiken County with her family seven years ago, drawn by the area’s rarefied air of gentility and horsiness. A trainer with Darley Stud Management in Aiken, Terry, and her husband Mike, opened their own ten-acre farm in Montmorenci in 2004. At Fox Pond Farm, she provides therapy to thoroughbreds that need time out after races. Sometimes she needs a little time out, too. Luckily, it’s available as soon as she meets her day.

“When I come out of my home, the stars are so bright it’s like you’re in high mountains and can pick them out of the sky,” she says. Early-morning sounds, particularly of whippoorwills, charm her. California doesn’t have whippoorwills. Nor does it have sunrises so spectacular and unpredictable. “It’s different every morning,” says Houghton. “I’ve seen sunrises over the Golden Gate Bridge, and they’re amazing, but Aiken can even top that.”

Terry rises between 3:30 and 4 a.m. to tend the horses boarding at her farm. By six, she’s at Darley, helping train young thoroughbreds for a future in racing. “When we cross the fields to go on the track, we see the sun come over the trees and those rays come down. It looks like the sun rays you see in religious art. We get so many different colors and we hear church bells ringing. It doesn’t matter what time of year it is, the sunrises are breathtaking.”

Thoroughbred Horses - photograph by Stewart GrintonWatching thoroughbreds at first light stirs Terry’s soul. "It's hard to explain, but their hearts and courage and competitiveness match our mornings here." Not that the horses aren’t playful. During the winter, trainers let them out of their stalls and then get out of the way. "They see that sun coming up and they’ll get down and roll and scratch their backs and when they jump up, they squeal and kick. The adrenalin hits them and they’re ready to go."

Life hasn't always been easy, Terry allows. In 2007, Mike died of ALS. Her mother, who moved from California with them, battled two rounds of cancer and passed away in May. One of her four children has special needs. But horses and nature can heal. She’s reminded of that every morning, when the sun comes over the pines. "It never lets me forget that God is bigger than my problems. Every morning He reminds me of that. It keeps me focused."

Bluffing It

"You can see why people worshipped the sun," says John Cely, focusing on the pale peach orb rising above vast green forests. "It was light and life itself."

Congaree River - Photograph by Stewart GrintonWe're standing 225 feet above sea level at the Congaree Bluffs Heritage Preserve in Calhoun County. For the Midlands, this is as high as you can get on public land. From here, at 6:30 a.m. on a warm July morning, we can make out the dim outlines of the International Paper plant and SCE&G’s Wateree station. But that's the only sign of man around. Everything else is thick green forest. Hidden from view is the Congaree River, far below us. Stretching before us, the tree-top canopy of Congaree National Park. All the rest is sky.

"If you think about it, there are four-hundred-thousand to half-a-million people living right up the road in Columbia, but once you leave, you can come down the river and never see another human being," John notes. He's a retired wildlife biologist with the S. C. Department of Natural Resources and currently the land protection director for the Congaree Land Trust. There’s not much about this area he doesn't know.

"Look behind you," he instructs. "Look at all that moss." Spanish moss, generally considered a Lowcountry signature, hangs from a white oak. At Congaree Bluffs Heritage Preserve, there are 201 acres of natural surprises. Its topography, so unusual in South Carolina’s coastal plain, yields more than 100 species of trees and other plants. "A walk across the state in thirty minutes" is how Cely describes it.

In 1540, there was another kind of Spanish surprise. According to Cely, Ferdinand de Soto and six hundred of his conquistadors marched through here, seeking the legendary Cofitachequi, an Indian city believed to hold bountiful treasure. For years, archaeologists believed the river de Soto wrote about in his journals was the Savannah, and his campsite Silver Bluff. More recent research differs. Near Congaree Bluffs, where the Wateree and Congaree rivers fork, is where archaeologists now believe de Soto came. The Indian mounds near here are evidence of it.

More chaos occurred during the American Revolution. Cely points to a ridge just under the rising sun. There at Fort Motte is where Rebecca Motte famously told Francis Marion and Lighthorse Harry Lee they could burn her plantation home to roust out the British officers occupying it. A widow, Mrs. Motte was living in the caretaker’s house. A gracious hostess, she served supper to officers on both sides of the war after the Brits surrendered.

"There's a lot of history on these bluffs on either side," Cely says. "Kensington, Millford and Borough House — three of the finest homes anywhere in the country — are within twenty miles of here."

A cardinal calls, then a yellow-billed cuckoo. The sun that had been so dreamy has become a fireball in less than ten minutes. Soon we will hike 125 feet down to the edge of the river, and look back up to the observation deck where we were. What we’ll see is a mountain of hot, thick green. Cely assures me there’s color in the fall and wildflowers in the spring. In the winter, you can hear birds and other wildlife louder and closer. Above all, there are the bluffs themselves, fifty miles of them from just below Columbia to Fort Motte. "Some of them jut out like a chin and you stand there and you've got a panorama of almost 300 degrees,” Cely marvels. “It’s just incredible, and people don't have a clue that's there."

Down on the Farm

Catherine Porth knows many of today's children don't have a clue where their food comes from. "We just get it at the grocery store," they tell her when she visits classrooms as part of her work as chair of the Lexington County Farm Bureau Women's Committee. Porth is fast to say that she, a lifelong farmer, doesn't always feel appreciated in her profession. But she knows what she does is important, and maybe never more so than in the early morning.

Third-generation farmers, Porth and her brother, Gene, grow greens, beets and crowder peas, which they sell at the State Farmers Market in Dixiana. It's a meaningful life.

Porth is another high school classmate of mine. Mother of four and grandmother of three, she was working in the fields back in middle school. Being outdoors is what she loves, and when she's not tending farm and family, she likes to hunt and fish. There's peace, quiet and excitement in the early mornings, she says. Watching deer in Fort Motte, waiting for fish to bite in the Broad River — it's the same Zen our bird-loving classmate Donna Slyce described at Congaree National Park. For Porth, a devoted Lutheran, first light also deepens her faith. "You have more energy in the mornings," she says. "It makes me stop and realize that God put us here for a reason, and I guess mine was to help feed people."

Kevin Satterwhite is up early, too. He's another third-generation farmer, working 2,500 acres in Kinards, on the Newberry/Laurens county line. Satterwhite is responsible for 850 dairy cows, and he needs to make sure they're producing their usual sixty pounds of milk per day. At Satterwhite Farms, the sun rises over a sixty-acre field before coming over the trees. Ducks and geese fly overhead to the Bush River. Many mornings he's too busy to stop and soak up his surroundings. But not always.

"I've been to beaches in Mexico and mountains out West, and sunrises are beautiful wherever I see them," he reflects. "But across my farm, looking at the barns and cows and the corn we've got planted, we're just thankful to see we’ve got all that. Being here, in the quiet, it's one of the most beautiful places I've seen."

And that brings me back to Lake Murray, at first light in the most beautiful place I've ever seen, with SCW photographer Michael Foster. I'd read online that the purple martins take off from Lunch Island at 5:30 a.m.; a good friend told me she heard it looked like the island itself took off. So we’re anchored near the island, waiting. In the dark.

The sun won't rise for more than an hour. I won't lie: It was thrilling to zip across the lake in the black night, stars pricking their sparks above us. July and August had been suffocating, and the breeze from the boat ride refreshed us. But now, sitting in the dark with nothing happening, I was thinking twice. And wondering why I didn’t bring a pillow along with my banana.

Then we heard it. The high-pitched sounds of birds gone mad. The purple martins were up, whirring and chattering and letting us know we weren't alone on the lake. At 6:00 the noise got louder. We had to do it; we had to mention Hitchcock. And then we couldn't say much at all. The birds started swarming, flying around in circles, flying around the island. Then the day began to dawn, and I could see, bit by bit, the island, the trees on the island, the red clay on the island. The birds circled and flew, and circled back again. At 6:10, the soaring became surreal. I felt like I was lying down on an airport runway, and the martins were the black planes of World War II documentaries — heading straight for the enemy. At precisely 6:35, it all broke loose. Cacophony. Bedlam. Frenzy. Island, birds, sky — "somebody gave the signal," said Michael. Louder and thicker, to the east they flew, toward the sun. But where was the sun? Still unseen, hidden in the water, maybe?

And then, it happened. A sliver of red just over the trees. Fascinated, we stared. This was the moment. This was what we came for, though we told ourselves the martins were the draw. No, the birds are secondary. The sun, this sun, is greater. The sun, moving serenely into the sky, casting its glow upon the water, the clouds, the trees and our spirits — this is the reason we're here, the reason we’re all here. It is 6:37, August 2, 2011, and we have seen the light.

And as we see it, the noise subsides. The birds have gone. A lone angler appears. The sky is as big and beautiful and bright as the martins were tiny and strange and terrifying. A fish jumps, but that’s the only sound we hear. The world is quiet. And we are too.

Aïda Rogers is a born and bred Lexingtonian, former editor of Sandlapper magazine and co-author of the road-trip-inspired guide to dining in the Palmetto State, Stop Where the Parking Lot's Full.

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© 2012 South Carolina Wildlife Magazine, January - February 2012 - www.scwildlife.com 


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