DISPATCH #12: June 24, Janet Harrison High Pond Heritage Preserve
The Janet Harrison High Pond Heritage Preserve sits off the intersection of Highway 39 and Carolina Bay Trail. Driving in at 6:45 a.m., though I’m near Monetta—peach country—this place resurrects memories of films, books, and National Geographic features. “Like going to Africa,” I think. Blackbirds perch in every pine near the preserve, a welcoming committee of sorts. What clamor.
Arriving at the bay’s south side along Highway S2-S1223, the Carolina Bay Trail, we immediately spot tall stalks of a plant best described as alien. They tower over surrounding vegetation and the strange stalks look a bit like cacti the pale color of aloe. Each one features a yellow corn-cob-like top heavy with what appears to be seeds. Some stand seven feet tall. (Later I learn that they are an exotic that did, indeed, come from Africa.)
When you go to a Carolina bay, or on this case a “high pond,” your senses go on high alert. So much to see. So much to hear. A bobwhite whistles but though I never hear bobwhites anymore, certainly not like I did as a boy growing up in rural Georgia, I’m not surprised. Almost every bay I’ve been to resounds with the bobwhite’s sharp, lilting whistle. In fact, over the last 20 years, the only quail I’ve heard have been in Carolina bays. Tells me something about the loss of habitat. The wealth of bird life in Carolina bays astounds. You see and hear so many birds in the bays. No backyard habitat rich with sunflower seed-filled feeders can compare.
Some experts describe this Heritage Preserve not as a Carolina bay but as a “high pond.” By that, they mean it holds water yet sits above the water table as true bays do. Some believe this preserve may well be evolving into a Carolina bay. In other words, the preserve may be a bay in the making. Hard to tell as no one can fully explain how Carolina bays came to be. The dramatic meteorite bombardment theory doesn’t hold water, but bays do. That’s one reason they run rich with flora and fauna.
When I go afield I take a camera, notepads, compass, Bertucci A-5P field watch, Vortex Diamondback 8×42 glasses, snake leggings, and Kershaw knife. Makes me feel prepared. The sun rose at 6:14, and at 7:16 the sun breaks through a low smoky cloud. At 7:21 it hides again. Rainy weather, a surprise, moved in over night. Frogs sing. They’re happy.
“Man, this is like a garden in here,” says Robert.
Many wildflowers grow here. As many rare plants live here as anywhere in South Carolina … harperella, pink tickseed, Florida false loosestrife, slender arrowhead, dwarf burhead, and others. Amid all the vegetation dead trees, snags, attest that something here went wrong for them.
“This place is just weeds to a lot of people,” says Robert.
It’s easy, no doubt, to ignore and undervalue such a place in our era of manicured lawns and orderly flowerbeds. And then there’s that old mindset that “swamps aren’t good for much.” Yeah, just keeping the world healthy.
This place does nothing to dispel the feeling that I’m in Africa. I need a machete. As we’ve come to expect, thick, shrubby undergrowth makes it difficult to get into the interior. Currents of air carry a heavy fragrance, musk-like, best described as the smell of marijuana. It’s akin to what my mom referred to as “swamp smells.”
Afar stand a few homes. One home has a good view of the preserve. I wonder. Do these people realize they live on the edge of Africa?
The birdcalls never let up. Nor do the frogs. It all makes for a pleasant medley. Only an occasional truck or car mar the peace.
8:47. The flow of cars and trucks picks up. Drivers seem intent on “getting there” wherever “there” is. Late for their workday routine, perhaps.
Looking northeast across the bay, the terrain plunges into a crease and then rises. Water stands in the crease. Sunlight reflects off clouds and briefly lights up the water some 200 yards away. The water possesses a mirage-like dimension. It doesn’t exist yet it does. It brings to mind Hemingway’s True At First Light … “In Africa a thing is true at first light and a lie by noon and you have no more respect for it than for the lovely, perfect weed-fringed lake you see across the sun-baked plain. You have walked across that plain in the morning and you know that no such lake is there. But now it is there absolutely true, beautiful and believable.”
The water is there. No denying that nor denying the croaking frogs it sustains.
Trying to gauge the size of this “high pond,” I’d say it takes up the space an SEC stadium requires for immediate parking and tailgating. I love SEC football, Georgia especially, but it’s damn fine that man can’t bring his cement mixers and power tools here. We need wild places … need them more than they need us.
9:16. The low smoky gray clouds persist and that’s fine with Robert. He likes overcast skies for they reflect even light that’s free of contrast.
Several years back, drought let pines invade the edge of the preserve. We’ve seen the effects of drought in a lot of bays. Free of standing water, plant succession takes over and saplings invade places. Thick tangles of blackberries fringe the preserve’s northeast edge. The bushes are heavy with them and they seem as plentiful as stars in the Milky Way. I eat the big shiny blue-black berries and fill a bag with them. Maybe a friend will make a blueberry pie.
As for the late Janet Harrison, well, she worked at the Savannah River Site Ecology Lab. A wild and beautiful place commemorates her memory. Hard to believe such an untamed place exists in the heart of peach country … farming country. Just beyond the preserve’s southwest end, stands an old windmill, vines climbing high. If they haven’t already they will soon reach of its blades. I like these picturesque old windmills. They convince me the people who built them were “greener” by far than we are.
To be June, it’s a cool morning. And though cool it’s a good day to wear Off—pesky gnats form thick clouds that hover just beyond the eyes. The wind picks up and blows away the gnats. It blows, too, and a familiar refrain my way: a chorale of frogs and birds. The frogs sit and croak and bark in the wet interior where the lush sedges grow. The sedges’ bright green stands out and the way they rise and fall beneath the wind renders them into emerald rivers. Robert says a multitude of blue darters fill the interior.
The clouds begin to disperse, torn into shreds by winds aloft. We pack up and prepare to head back to civilization.
It’s easy to focus on the wilderness, beauty, and singularity of a place like this, but what’s important is the role it plays as a conservatory of unusual habitat, an unusual landform, and rare flora and fauna. To stand here and look across the preserve transcends experiencing an Africa-like place. I’m standing on the edge of today gazing into the past, time traveler that I am.