Live oaks anchor the South Carolina Lowcountry, holding the flood plain’s sandy soil in place, forming a barrier between land and sea. The oaks’ wide branches, draped with Spanish moss (not a true moss but a member of the Bromeliaceae family like the pineapple), droop to the ground, weary under their own weight. Bald cypresses rise from still, earth-colored water up into the sky and down into the swamp, their knees stabbing the air. Prothonotary warblers streak bright yellow among grey trunks and pileated woodpeckers drum a carpenter’s beat.
The Santee, Seewee, and Catawba tribes managed these forests and swamps for hunting game. Then white settlers exploited slave labor to shape the land for cultivation of rice, indigo, and cotton. Carolina’s new inhabitants razed the old stands, transforming deltas into rice plantations, building an ephemeral empire. Liquidating the land’s wealth, the colony’s masters enriched themselves, becoming the most prosperous men in the Americas. Their fortunes lasted less than an oak’s lifetime—the empire collapsed, burned, and rotted. Cypress swamps and tidal estuaries reclaimed rice fields and pine forests sprang from parched cotton fields.
The forests hold rich histories that they will never divulge, but which their images invoke. Heat and humidity consume civilization’s ruins, and hogs run wild among the pines. Live oaks hold bits of clay, iron, and brick in their roots—remnants from past centuries that only come to light when storms topple giants. The trees signal home, their ferns, needles, and leaves whispering lullabies among the nightjars. I share place and time with them, knowing that they were here before me and will remain long after I am gone.