Three mothers walk beneath an iridescent sky. Wind in their hair, water about their feet, they talk of days gone by and days to come. Though they walk the edge of the continent, they stand at a crossroads. In one direction, aging parents, decline, and death. In another, concerns for children and grandchildren. And the others? One can only guess. One thing’s certain. They can’t turn back.
Some gift from the sea, a shell, a sand dollar, a piece of driftwood, perhaps, should memorialize this moment, for this walk makes them feel vulnerable and powerful at the same time. A vast sky overpowers them and yet they walk upon water like goddesses. The sun, a pearl in an oyster shell, illumines morning and life itself as three women share concerns, hopes, confessions, and dreams beneath a mother-of-pearl sky.
The Universe Within
This otherworldly image could easily portray life on an alien planet, but, no, it’s merely a daylily. Overflowing with luminescence, it flaunts nebula-like plumes of yellow, red, and gold.
Within this daylily lives another universe entire.
Lured by nectar, our high-stepping member of the family Formicidae seeks sustenance for the colony. Antennae touching, tasting, and smelling, our alien explorer descends into the throat on a quest for survival.
This intrepid loner seeking sugary secretions runs counterpoint to the image of collaborating ants. And it defies with reason. It’s a scout sent to forage. Having found nectar, this voyager will return to the colony laying down a scent path. The masses will follow. The daylily, however, will be gone tomorrow, replaced by a bloom at a different position. But that won’t deter the colony that will drain the nectar from all daylilies in its path. From such beautiful destruction comes new life.
Each day we walk over, past, and through a universe of life but pay it no heed. A phone call, a text, a job, too little time—we fail to absorb it. This macro image of an ant, however, reminds us that the universe within holds more beauty than many imagine.
Angel Hair Illusions
Bows and flows of angel hair … and feather canyons everywhere …. It’s clouds’ illusions I recall —Joni Mitchell, “Both Sides Now”
A childhood rite of passage. Lying on a patch of grass and seeing things in the sky. Clouds don’t cloud children’s vision; they unleash it. Adults, too. In this stark black and white of cirrus clouds, a deer peers from behind a palmetto. The brain’s alchemy conjures up a sinister face, a carnival mask, a dragon, and more. What do you see?
Summer clouds rain joy. A thunderhead brings danger and the thrill we call lightning. A cloudburst paints the sky with rainbows and brings out the kid in us. Water vapor creates marvelous illusions and resurrects memories. In the Carolina Pee Dee an anvil-headed cloud takes on the ghostly semblance of a naval destroyer cutting across an ocean of sky. Soon, winds aloft render it into a Hiroshima-like mushroom cloud. Suddenly, I remember my father took a troop carrier to Japan.
This summer I’ll stretch out on the lawn and watch illusions float by. I’ll see birds, angels, faces, and more in clouds. How about you?
Foggy Moon Arising
John C. Fogarty saw a bad moon arisin’. You, my friend, see a Carolina moon arisin’ through ground fog in Enchantment Bay. Fog or not, the moon rises as it always has. Predictably. To those who preceded us eons ago the moon and other heavenly bodies provided a great calendar. For the ancients, understanding the heavens literally meant the difference between life and death. And so, early men were in synch with the rhythms of life for a simple reason: they had no choice.
These rhythms, doubtless, were the only events they could depend on. The sun always rose. The moon went through its cycles, and day and night came predictably. Knowing when to migrate to avoid cold weather … knowing when to plant and harvest … it all depended on reading the skies. Thus did the ancients erect giant monuments to mark the comings and goings of the sun, moon, and stars a la Stonehenge.
This cumulative knowledge in time it helped create the first written calendar. That was more than 4,000 years ago. As surely as the moon controls the tides, there’s a rhythm to life. Nature still has that rhythm, but calendars and clocks bred it right out of man.
Death can be beautiful. So goes the line in a forgotten novel. Here, we witness the last days of a monarch doomed to topple into the sea, overthrown by lunar tides.
And where might we be? Jekyll Island’s Driftwood Beach, where sea-ravaged trees become beach statuary. Unrepentant Atlantic tides undercut roots, and gravity takes over. Stripped of foliage and bark, the trees throw up sand-smoothed limbs seeking salvation that never comes. Thus, by day, their sun‑bleached trunks, limbs, and rootballs become monuments. By night, these ghostly spectators behold bioluminescent, phosphorescent tides. By dawn, they bless the coast with a phantasmagoric presence like no other.
We call such places bone yards. Here we witness an opus, an epic performance, “Bone Yard Ballet.” Prima ballerinas grace a dais of sand and foam and we catch them at the precise moment all freeze in supplication to the rosy goddess of dawn, Aurora.
In plain talk, we witness the demise of a maritime forest, assassinated by saltwater encroachment as oaks, maples, and other trees lose their battle with the Atlantic. These beautiful losers will never leaf out and turn golden red come fall. Still, we cannot deny that in death they showcase perfection—a photographers’ paradise.
Stark light illuminates a spate of clouds, a field of stubble, and small cemetery. Spring will soon break winter’s grip and bleakness will retreat. That line of naked hardwoods will then clothe itself with a million leaves.
Walker Evans, photographer, and James Agee, writer, didn’t pass by Ebenezer Memorial Garden, but had they, they would have stayed a while. “Tarried,” they’d say. A small tombstone would have caught their eye, for here lies a child.
- Evans and Agee, on assignment for Fortune magazine, drive into countryside and enter the world of three tenant farming families. An American classic of photojournalism results—an unsparing record of living with dignity with poverty—Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
In the book, Agee describes a cemetery’s gravestones in detail. “On others of these stones, there is something I have never seen before: by some kind of porcelain reproduction, a photograph of the person buried there.” In “Shady Grove, Alabama, July 1936,” Agee’s oh so carefully chosen sentiment rends the heart. The headstone bearing a six-month girl’s likeness preserves her parents’ heartache. “We can’t have all things in life that please us. Our little daughter, Jo Ann, has gone to Jesus.” —Off Highway 9 in Marlboro County
Seeing is not always believing. Behold an illusion.
This landscape misleads viewers into thinking a full moon floats over the rising sun. Just the opposite. The moon sets in the west as the sun rises. Anticrepuscular rays—cloud shadows converging opposite the rising sun—reinforce the illusion.
We’ve all seen the common crepuscular rays known as sunrays. Thanks to perspective, they converge like spokes to a hub. Nothing new. You’ve seen a field’s plowed rows go from wide to narrow and train rails converge into infinity.
To put things in perspective, imagine you’re standing in the middle of a long straight road. To the east, it converges at the horizon. Now look to the west. There, too, it converges. Crepuscular and anticrepuscular rays behave much the same way.
As for that mouthful, “crepuscular, it means resembling twilight.
The setting? Fripp Inlet. None other than Blackbeard may have hidden his pirated bounty on Fripp Island, the most seaward of South Carolina’s islands. Perhaps a beautiful morning such as this greeted Edward Teach after a long night of plundering and drunken revelry. Most likely this old salt was quite familiar with such atmospheric optics. If not, no doubt he checked his compass ’fore setting sail.
(This photograph appears on page 224 in Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II, University of South Carolina Press.)
Threads Of Silk
Witness a battle older than mankind. The irresistible force versus the immovable object. Water wins. Note the fractures freezing water cleaved in boulders. The battle never ends, and eons of weathering, water, and gravity shatter rock into seaward-bound shards. A beach of the future waits among the greenery, rock, and water.
See the copper-like glint of rock? Riches hide in streams. Aspiring miners (if you know one) will tell you. They pan for placer gold. Trout fishermen, too. They use their pan in an altogether different way, however.
This silky water, like “many threads being pulled,”* seeks the Atlantic, giving man many gifts along the way and receiving no small amount of abuse in return.
The Middle Saluda, thankfully, has a fairy-tale-like story. It was the first river South Carolina’s 1978 Scenic Rivers Program protected. Roughly five miles of the Middle Saluda and its major tributary, Coldspring Branch, enjoy a 600-foot wide scenic corridor from U.S. Highway 276 to one mile upstream of the defunct Cleveland Fish Hatchery.
The river, running through northern Greenville County within Jones Gap State Park, drops nearly 1,000 feet in four miles. Its clear, cold water supports self-sustaining trout populations … and beaches of the future.
* From James Dickey, Deliverance
A Golden Treasure … The Sea’s Nursery
The colors of the Earth live in this Hunting Island estuary. The hues hint of abundant life, for when marsh grass turns golden, it begins to break down and nourish the sea’s food chain.
The beauty’s obvious. The utility isn’t. Yet few places are as biologically rich as a salt marsh where sunlight, nutrients, and water produce five to seven times more protein per acre than an acre of Midwest wheat.
Tides flow in and tides flow out, planetary breathing. And how lovely when winds ghost across marsh grass, which gives form to zephyrs. And when the tides stand still, the sea holds its breath until the moon’s push-pull nourishing of creeks resumes.
Gazing upon this spartina-fringed estuary near Hunting Island should resurrect the fertile smell of marshes, a fragrance that speaks of life rising from death.