From Swampitude: Escapes With the Congaree
Chapter 9: A Real Place
By Quitman Marshall
The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapors weep their burthen to the ground;
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.”
— from Tennyson’s “Tithonus”
“I shall never forget the sensations which I experienced this evening, on finding myself in chains in the state of South Carolina. From my earliest recollections, the name of South Carolina had been little less terrible to me than that of a bottomless pit.” The freight of these words and others of similar, if less eloquently expressed meaning has been carried by many—not only former slaves like Charles Ball—who have lived in the state. Call it historical burden; the region is bound by its past. If you know the bondage and can only imagine that your visitors imagine it too, what do you then show them? Why not take them to the bottomless pit? “We’re going to the swamp,” you say. “Wear comfortable shoes and try to look inedible.”
After several decades back in my home state and several hundred walks or floats into the Congaree Swamp, I’ve observed many visitors and their hosts. The Park Service used to keep a guest book beside the front door of the ranger station where, at any time, visitors could record their comments and sightings. “Very nice and peace full place, thanks,” wrote Salim Akaidi of the Sultanate of Oman on the 25th of February in 1996. He continued in Arabic. Someone from Boston or Port Orchard, WA, wrote of sighting “2 small bears” (must have been wild pigs) on March 4. “Crawdaddy,” scrawled another from Alamogordo, NM, where the first Bomb went off. In late August, there were jottings from Belgrade, Montana, and Joplin, Missouri. Pascale Koenig wrote a little poem on October 26: “A girl saw a squirrel/and then 10 more./A girl saw a turtle/and her Dad 1 more.” Around 11-10-96 were “3 feral Hogs--Hello from Belarus--A cool place to be.” Maxim from Ukraine wrote on the same November day: “ We have seen nothing but it was very great been here. P.S. No, I lied we have seen turtile.”
The emotional stages that preceded the breakup of my first marriage were probably well advanced as that winter came on, but I didn’t know it. I was in the swamp on Christmas Eve, looking for a place to sit over the flats behind Weston Lake. There was lunch and a thermos of coffee in my rucksack, a sweater too: even if I’d never left South Carolina, I wouldn’t trust the weather to stay gentle and warm. Walking the trail in the illusion of solitude that the swamp easily provides, I was startled by a heavyset man with a stick fast approaching from 30 feet behind me: a tiger and I’d have been eaten. The T-shirt he was wearing, which declared the Rainforest Rescue Fund, was black and decorated with bright yellows, reds, and greens that the graphic artist must have derived, at great distance, from South American Indians. (I thought also of the continuing rip-offs of Frida Kahlo.) We grunted “Hi’s,” and he moved on bear-like, the black hair on his neck streaming with sweat. It was warm. I found a place beside an 80-foot water oak and sat on the ground at its roots.
Clouds were rolling in from the west as I finished my bread and apple; the air began to cool and lose its brightness. The gray and brown of the tupelo forest stretching out before me could easily become silver and gold. Such alchemy was very close, the mystery, the edge of things I had come to cherish. At the lake itself, a serious thin man had been measuring light in the water at different depths, recording readings from his submerged gauges into a tape recorder. Turgidity, plant growth, “all kinds of things” can be measured, he said. With thirteen sites to measure in the swamp every week, he was busy.
Most have miles to go before they sleep on Christmas Eve, so let them go. I wanted only to sit and watch and wait for an hour or two. To me, these flats—the ground sloping from a low ridge into fields of cypress knees and the wide, buttressed trunks with their fleshy openings to darkness, the continuous solemn reach of the trees into blue, their simple stance in the earth realm they share with water marking and coloring them—these are devout swamp essence. The small water before me had very recently been higher: the trunks were wet ten inches up and a dusty patina reached ten feet more. Though patches of ground across the flats were dense with cane, a wonderful openness was there in the winter bare trees.
Because, by long looking, I had seen them before, I half expected this time to see some procession of animals, or a string of ghosts. Owls were watching, waiting for the first full moon Christmas Eve since 1950. It would be a good night for hunters. I felt like sleeping in the hollow between the massive roots plunging into the ground beneath me. But the silver drama of trunks coming out of darkness suddenly—blame it on Kahlo maybe, or my anxious state—put El Greco in my mind; the image of Laocoön, the man and his sons crushed by snakes, and this, in turn, brought me to my feet. Anyway, the sky was changing now toward rain, not moon glow.
The chance of this big real place bringing better sense to my life, to my woe, to my uselessness to loved ones, to our acquisitive traps of the season, to all forms of shopping and the mirrored infinitude of Trojan horses: these things had brought me to the swamp on Christmas Eve. A little less weighed down, I began the walk back in deep owl cries. We are small and needful and waiting. Kindness is the way. After just a few first steps again, I, in turn, startled a young couple, spring-dressed, hurrying along the trail. They couldn’t have surprised me. It was plain as they passed that she, under the approach of rain, was wondering why he had brought her there.
Once, when a trio of friends visited from Brooklyn, I turned for late lunch to a southern-style, meat-and-three-veg restaurant near the airport, built on sandhills above the swamp. Though I’d eaten in other restaurants of the same name, the extent of its duplication only became fully apparent as I attempted to share something real with friends. Seeking, with an authentic cuisine, to reward and celebrate their journey, I soon realized the genuine fakery of the place as the back of its menu proudly declared the multiple locations. Of course it was part of a chain, albeit a relatively small and localized one, and its success depended upon the copying process. It had to be fake to fill what Umberto Eco called “a vacuum of memories, a present without depth” from which real money is made. This vacuum, while it involves a leveling of the past, a confusion of copy with original, and thus a contamination of values, also extends to the basic act of eating. Perhaps our confusion of the authentic and the simulated is revealed most fundamentally in America’s epidemic obesity, in our bodies themselves.
I should have known better anyway. Outside, the sky to the north and west was rolling with gray-green darkness. The air was tight, and the wind was whipping the pine treetops like some local kid looking for a real fight. But I had to take my guests somewhere, especially after the comedy of lunch. So my car pushed on, dipping sandhills where tea-colored creeks fall through bluffs to the river, toward a place I hadn’t visited in 15 years. Hidden in a crease of Pliocene beaches, next to a small waterfall, was a 12-foot sandstone outcropping called Peachtree Rock, which millions of post-diluvian years shaped into an inverted pyramid. I remembered the rock as a wonder and its surroundings as an oasis, a fold in time, a mini-Olduvai Gorge of the imagination. Following my nose, I hoped to keep the old car and us pointed toward it.
The first problem was that time, as it had embellished the rock with meanings—like those declarations of teenaged love I’d later see cut into its base—had also eroded my sense of direction to the site. The second problem was that, as the car radio stopped all music to tell us, a tornado had been spotted nearby. My friends, just down from high altitudes themselves, were probably not amused by my driving through the warnings and telling them to look for funnel clouds. “Don’t worry, we’ll dive into a ditch.” I was determined to find the rock—a kind of tornado in stone—and to show them a real place, even if it killed us. And I was sure the turnoff was just around the next bend in the road.
We survived the tornado, which did touch down, injuring a few buildings but no people, a dozen miles north of the airport, and my crazy search, but we never found Peachtree Rock that day. Heavy rains drowned the idea, finally even for me, and we retraced a known route back to whiskeys at home. Don’t try to find it now: recently the ancient wonder has tumbled onto its side.
I’ve noticed that people tend to sometimes confuse two types of wind, tornadoes and hurricanes, locating either or both on the coast, with attributions of force from the crashing sea. Plainly, from the small agitations of our lives, we are attracted to the reality of that force. I was that day. But tornadoes are inland terrors, champions of focused natural destruction, comparable to comets as “acts of God.” An incomparably dense muscle of air whose violent touch replaces places with nothing, a tornado can suddenly visit you, especially if you live along interior paths somewhat northeast of their Gulf state generation. It is not a hurricane, whose widespread havoc can be foretold, whose path can be tracked, who allows time for naming, for genealogical speculations, and for flight. Hurricanes roll into our coasts and their winds often topple what was questionably built or sited—sea-view follies, vacation dreams, thin dikes. Tornadoes, by contrast, select some plain, necessary, uncelebrated interior place and demolish it. Charming coastal towns, with the help of heavily insured affluence, seem to become more famous now, their amber richer, after hurricanes. Nothing accrues from a tornado. Most often, even fewer people return. And there’s no time for naming its fury. Charleston and New Orleans have so far absorbed many hurricanes. Little nowheres utterly vanish in the reality of tornadoes. After chasing a tornado, my friends wanted to visit Charleston on the coast the next day. They’d heard a lot about the city, even more since Hurricane Hugo battered it. I took them to the swamp instead.
“Charleston style,” as an example, has now been explicated between the covers of coffee table books and is regularly declared in doorstop-heavy magazines. “Charleston-style houses,” originally the single-wide proletarian dwellings of those who labored for the planter palaces, can now be thrown up close together on any available land and make a fortune for the space-conscious developer who has turned away, for the time being, from suburban “French chateaux.” South Carolina’s old coastal capital has so successfully recreated itself that it no longer truly exists. Built by the African slave trade, the city has become a kind of Toytown. “Charleston style,” like most such things, is a “parody of the imagination” (to echo Jean Baudrillard) as well as a denial of origins. Tuscany still produces olives, after all, and Provence herbs. I prefer the swamp.
If I pick on Charleston, the town merits it, having had the nerve to call itself “the holy city” for many decades. In any case, people have learned to want to go there. Charleston is the great “tourist destination” in a state that lives more and more on tourist dollars, either of short-term vacationers or of end-term retirees. It is also the historical source of the problem that caused South Carolina to be boycotted by the NAACP: the Confederate flag that flew on the state’s Capitol grounds. These ironies, contradictions, confusions, or deceptions—whatever one wishes to call them—are good material for the swamp. Candidates attending the state’s past presidential primaries have gotten stuck in them. When the National Black Expo took place in Charleston, I don’t imagine the attendees slept in their cars or ate food they brought from home. Most places you or I will hear about for the remainder of our lives will have been distilled from their realities and reformulated beyond themselves, in one way or another, most more or less successfully, as tourist destinations. Being of our time, we will be tourists when we visit those places. The swamp offers us other possibilities, no matter how far we’ve come.
When we were all much younger, my friend Richard chose Vietnam. His disgust with his own ambivalence and with the moral hypocrisy of much of our student-deferred generation led him to join the Marines. He’d read Camus that way and knew that enlistment would put him on the anvil of war. He barely survived. When I met Richard over 40 years ago, the pieces of his shattered self were just settling into a kind of sustainable song; a real and admirable life was coming into focus after nearly a decade of dissolution. I’ve known several men of my generation who joined the Marines and each was a gentleman—refined by the troubled choices of his youth—and a pacifist (if the word has a meaning) in his maturity. Far less abstracted than most people I know, Richard has, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, more “there there.” Of the Vietnam war veteran, drugged and despairing, who became something of a cliché in the 1980’s, he has said, “Oh those guys. They have a catharsis every day.” And we continue to produce and to neglect them.
Richard has worked extraordinarily hard to earn the sanctity of ordinary life. Moving back to Brooklyn helped, so I was amazed when he troubled one mid-February to drive all the way down to South Carolina and delighted when he didn’t want us to drive anywhere else (to Charleston, for instance). It was his first trip South since the famous `60’s. We stayed close, visited a few friends in town, sang songs, and, one day, probably because I’d talked enough about it, we rolled down to the swamp. I thought he needed a walk there. Having played the guitar professionally, Richard knows traditional blues music with an illuminating intensity peculiar to a Jewish kid who grew up on the back-borough streets of New York in the early days of rock and roll. I thought he deserved a walk into an objective correlative of the music.
As it happened, a common walk was not possible. Swelling like an orchestra of strings to lift the voices of intrepid small birds, a February flood, café au lait reversal of elements, had reclaimed the forest space completely. The tangible stillness was revelatory, and yet all was flowing. I thought of the Baptismal prayer of thanks for water: “…Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage...” Ten feet out of normal channels—I’d never seen it fuller—and nearly cresting over the tall boardwalk, earth-rich water was what we seemed to begin to walk upon. But it was more like floating, an unanticipated detachment, while the creamy light wrapped us in a sort of swamp dream. For a first visit, this could be dangerous. We could be walking into nightmare. For a friend who carried other dreams, the fantasy had nothing in it to trust, no guitar to hold. For someone who didn’t swim well, the strange beauty would have been better from a distance, not directly underfoot. Nonetheless, we were lifted up by light and water. Something in the scene communicated that, though not usual, it was normal. The trees were waiting out the water: it would move on back into its channels and be black again. I won’t forget how we walked on water, even though we needed to turn around.
These winter walks into the swamp, when water allows, can reveal our true elements and best ambitions. Trees reach like angels for silvering heaven and yet plunge their thicker ends into the soft wet earth. They lean on each other and wait. We can see these things and feel them, perhaps with others, when we walk. Later that February the chalkboard at the ranger’s station even urged the swamp upon lovers: “Valentine’s Day. Take your honey on a hike. Trails muddy.” The fury of spring, with its explosive greening and the undermining insistence of the insects that want our blood, changes the walking.
When I took my mostly-Dutch friends—Wim and his American-born wife Eileen, both journalists, with his visiting mother, Annie, and brother, Lou—to the swamp, we had my red canoe strapped to the roof of the car. My own first walk into this once-restricted terrain, as I’ve earlier described, was decades ago in the company of my brothers and mother. Though she grew up a small-town Southern girl, my mother was of New York Dutch ancestry. Her father’s people first sailed up the Hudson River in 1633. Cousins owned land in Harlem, but the direct patriarchy was nine generations in Kingston, halfway between Manhattan and Albany on the river. It was her grandfather who moved south as a young man, to join an uncle taking timber from the Pee Dee River swamp near Johnsonville, South Carolina. This Herbert Van Keuren soon married Margaret Johnson, whose family named the town, and seven children followed.
Logging operations were centered on Snow Island, a place where Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, used to hide out from the British during the American Revolution. Given all this swamp pull, family history thereafter became Southern. But my mother retained a fantasy of Holland, a view of orderliness her father must have imparted, or her mother for him, before he died when she was eleven years old. Not until I lived in Manhattan and explored towns up the Hudson were there facts and real places to attach to the childhood tales. Some of this life material naturally echoed in my mind as I led these Dutch sons and their mother into the swamp.
I had in mind a float down blackwater Cedar Creek from the King Snake bridge, in addition to a walk on the Weston Lake loop trail: a little land-and-water tour. Even though they are from Limburg farm country never reclaimed from the sea, I was particularly curious to hear their comments on the indeterminate terrain. The most densely populated of European nations today, Holland was tossed around by religious and political ambitions for centuries, yet retained authenticity over, above, and out of water and the overflowing of other peoples and powers. The swamp might be something a “Dutchie” (to use Wim’s term), from the country of geest and polder, could speak to.
Before open country, on the way out Bluff Road, a bobcat beside the pavement was giving its death over and over again to human eyes, anyone looking, anyone knowing. I said nothing but imagined that the mating impulse for this illusive creature, one of the last of the known wild cats in most of the East, could have been a contributing cause to its death. Those of us who love the forest might dream sometimes of panthers, as we might also dream of seeing the ivory-billed woodpecker. We’ve heard of a few in Florida and in the tales of footprints down someone’s dirt road, but I’ve never seen even this smaller cat in the wild. To spot one road-killed this day was therefore sickening, completely discordant with my hopes for the outing, and yet, in truth, also normal. If we want to survey the mammals of our American woods, we do not have to stray far from our cars. We can leave the motor running.
Lou, a quiet man only recently recovered, with the help of another brother’s bone marrow, from a mysterious blood disease, had angled from the family’s horticultural business into his own, cutting and trimming trees. He described his climbing methods—two ropes, extension poles, belts, and a chainsaw—as we drove. He said he’d spent four to six hours in single trees in the past, but now at the most only two or three. I wondered what he would think of the swamp’s great trees, the source of a refrain of superlatives that had helped to save the place first from cutting and that would finally make it a National Park. Once Lou had a tree start splitting open on him, he said. Only quick saw work saved his life that time. There were fifty cars parked at the ranger station, people come to walk into the trees. We chose the high boardwalk for entrance, and our first human encounter was an excited elderly couple asking us if we’d seen it, a big bobcat, they said, that had leaped up, onto, and off the boardwalk just before we arrived.
As Annie, Lou, and I paddled down and up a short stretch of Cedar Creek, we talked about language, the sounds we say animals make in Dutch and their sounds in English. I tried to describe the scream of the bobcat for them. Elegant turtles and bright small birds, silence and song, were what we saw and heard. And trees. We talked about trees, some similarities of species here and in Europe. But mostly it was the peacefulness of the swamp that impressed my companions. A “peace full place,” as Salim Akaida wrote in the guest book. While they had commented on the trash of the American landscape, an inescapable perception of the road, what struck the Dutch in Congaree Swamp was how the great trees were left lying as they had fallen in the reality and the storms of their lives, aside from human consciousness, how what fell to earth was allowed to decompose into it again. For them this was a filling peace.
It was good to let the current take us and then to paddle against it. To share a small boat with someone is a matter of some consequence, more than a casual or chance meeting. Imagining a difference because these companions were from Holland, whose human habitation is so intimately borrowed from water, I’d shared some peace with them. We’d left Wim and Eileen at the bridge. I liked giving the two of them a little time alone from their hosting of family, and I liked that Wim would trust me to take his mother away on the dark water. But I especially liked that they were standing on the bridge when we returned. They were holding hands, and they’d taken a hike into the trees.
My friend Eric is a Buddhist. He’s also a counselor, and our friendship goes back nearly five decades. Early in my earthquake months and years, he asked me for a walk in the glue of the swamp and bothered to recommend a marriage counselor. He and his wife had noticed things at my house and were concerned. We walked four or five miles and talked about many things that January afternoon. As we looked into the winter trees, Eric remarked, “This society is thoroughly sick, from top to bottom.” We talked about race, the parallel worlds of black and white, as we walked in the riverbottom forest—about the denial and the trouble that never goes away. Eighteen months later, the swamp steamy in June, Eric spoke of his own marriage. I’d been in separation for some time already, and I knew about the real pain of what he was now considering. Standing by Wise Lake, dramatically down, its water sucked into the cells of the newly lush flora, Eric also talked about Zen practice. I kept at least one eye out for snakes.
He told me about his recent retreat up in Asheville, NC, about meditation and waking others at five a.m. with a gong, about talking to the female priest who looked like Carrie Fisher with a shaved head. His head was shaved as well, making a taller, better target than mine for the deerflies. The vow, he said, is to save all sentient beings, to bring them to the Buddha state, to enlightenment, which is the state of not-doing. Eric related the haiku of the person and the mountain, the person contemplating it—and then there is only the mountain. I said it was lovely, as fish and snakes and crayfish popped the surfaces all around us and we swatted at the flies in the stew of life, the mountain washed down into the swamp. It is obviously not possible to achieve the vow, Eric noted, not in one life, and so we proceed in endless rounds of being.
We’d seen an explosion of crayfishness, small and large chimneys of mud everywhere, and we’d jumped at sudden scuttlings in the mahogany pools. It was their season, these crustaceans. And a gumbo too for raccoons: the Dry Branch crossing before Weston Lake was littered with pink remains, large handsome crayfish claws beside long-fingered tracks in the mud. Ahead, in line with the high boardwalk, a flash of yellow flame marked the flight of a prothonotary warbler away from its feeding on a large insect. On the railing we found the long tubular rear section and the wings of a huge dragonfly. There was a glistening clarity in the patterned frame and scaly texture of the iridescent wings. They were gorgeous and light as air. Nothing of the head and torso remained. They had entered the warbler.
In Waterland, his novel of bereavement set in the Fens of England, Graham Swift presents the question, “For what is water, which seeks to make all things level, which has no taste or colour of its own, but a liquid form of Nothing?” It’s also Everything, which is the point. We are so helpless on the path. With my friend Eric, each time we walked in the swamp, I would be taking a slightly different person as my companion. The peculiar gravity of his weekday work, counseling inmates in a women’s prison—a common despair among the women was that they had hurt or even killed their own children—gave Eric the right, I think, to be a changeling outside of it. Which is not to say he was necessarily a bad Buddhist or a good husband, but only to have occasion to reflect again on the real place where we walked and talked. First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is…the swamp.
A sterner moralist than I might root the fakery I’ve earlier described in some kind of fundamental denial. In the Arctic you can go to sleep and freeze. At sea you can jump overboard and drown. But the richness of the swamp will keep you alive despite what you think. It’s not likely that the water there will drown you. The creepiness will keep you alert to a certain reality outside yourself. You won’t be able, however, to deny your condition. Then, in time, you will become the swamp, because that’s what you are. You won’t know how this happened because it has always been. You won’t care.
Passing through requisite jitters about floating alone, I took a slow solo paddle up Cedar Creek before Easter in the middle of the troubled times. It was a blustery blue day. Mosquitoes were trying hard, but only gathered when I had tied the canoe to a snag in the middle of the current and could slap at them. Greening was full on. Shapes of flood and ruin and decay—ghostly remnants, dark caverns, uprootings—all were poured over with the fresh color. As I began to pay proper attention and stretch into the upstream strokes, I could discern two great brown serpents coiled on overhanging trees, both moccasins close to the water, ready to drop their poison into the boat. Good, strong fear steered me wide. Then I sat in the steady pull back to where I’d come from, watching the dance of light and shadow up from the rippled current, waiting for the fractured time to flow. The trunk of a maple shimmered its pure silver. The swamp said: “This is how it’s done. I told you so. Things will always be this way.” Squirrels complained. The small birds were busy with their own eternity. A great blue heron floated over the treetops toward the setting sun. The mosquitoes gave up on me.
Men dream into wood, sometimes with machines, and with words like these: joinery, molding, table saw, dovetail joint, finish, beeswax, router, inlay. Men in great pleasure, with shavings or sawdust flying, make things from the flesh of trees. Once, in a tiny theater in the west of Ireland, I watched a sexy art film from Scandinavia about a beautiful wood nymph calling a cutter into her arms. It preceded the feature, one of the Rocky series, which the audience of mostly preteen boys awaited. Holding the boys in silence, the woodsman’s idyll ended abruptly with the union of man and nymph and a terrible crashing sound. His dream was in fact his death swoon. The tree he’d cut had fallen and crushed him. “Excellent fil-um,” whispered a boy in front of me just before he and all his friends began to stomp the wooden floor in time to the pounding theme of the feature.
Another giant oak, wood risen from the swamp, has fallen back. It waits, still green, with the fresh earth torn and exposed above an open pit where the roots tried to hold through some huge wind. It will add to the “mound and pit” topography of the swamp. Small dependent things—birds, insects, mosses, people—hold on in awe. The water in the pit is a false, temporary white, dissolved from a seam of clay. The oak waits to become soft again, like the clay. No man will make something of it. Beside the low boardwalk, there was a gum tree whose 12-foot-diameter root mass I’ve called Angkor Wat for the duration of this writing. Its intricate textures reminded me of pictures I’d seen of the temple ruins in Cambodia, their eroded reliefs intertwined with roots. The tree crashed to earth, taking another with it and exposing its wonders, only a few years ago. But now my Angkor Wat is coming apart. It no longer resembles itself as it crumbles into itself.
My walks in the swamp were entering a time of weeping, tears joining the late winter floods. In an article in NRDC’s Amicus Journal, Rick Bass, author and activist, described “the need for cornerstone or foundation reserves, undisturbed cores of diversity…that not only exist strong and free in the world by themselves, but pass on their genetic and spiritual vigor to things and places beyond their perimeters.” One day I walked the service road in boots given to me by Eileen and Wim, wondering with each turn if I could continue, openly sobbing toward Wise Lake where Eric had talked Buddhism, praying where the owls flew into the tree just above our heads, talking to myself where some say gators dwell. I walked out over the water on the trunk of a broad and slanted water oak and watched the breaking of the bare trees’ reflections, the great oscillation continuing. There was an air that whispered. Then, on my return, a little brown wild pig at the curve past Weston Lake backwaters froze in the middle of the road, stared at me a moment, and ran. Into the curve, a whole herd—huge, black, high-backed parents and more little babies— crashed away, snorting and squealing. I looked up, and the loblolly pines, holding the high clear air, were lit with fire.
An origin for the French and English word “charlatan,” is in the Italian “cerretano,” an inhabitant of Cerreto, the small village near Spoleto, Italy, which was famous for its quacks, its assiduous deceivers, its fakes. Spoleto itself has become famous for high-priced artistic tourism and has imported its tendencies to willing backwaters of the New Worlds such as Adelaide in Australia and Charleston in South Carolina. Artists and audiences often run a gauntlet of charlatans to find each other. Real people in real places sometimes do the same.
The building, by American and Columbia, SC, standards, had stood for a long time. Built as a community center for the mill village around it, the grand old 1903 structure had been a warehouse for decades. Abused and then abandoned, it was nevertheless a real place. With its gymnasiums, the center had the first showers in town. It had a movie theater and its own ballroom for dancing. Working people’s lives had given the place authenticity. They relaxed and played and danced and met one another there.
At the end of the 20th century, when its Olympic-sized swimming pool was wrapped in vines and open to the weather, when the mill was closed and the community long eroded, there was an effort to transform the old building into an arts center. It satisfied certain normal yearnings, an idea whose time had already come to many other cities: creative reuse of aged but worthy edifices facing the wrecking ball. Better late than never, it was a place that began to attract good people, artists and a growing audience. It also attracted the children of Cerreto. American outposts continue to provide a rich human mixture of the decadent and the gullible in which cerretanos may flourish.
The building had grown from the river. Before it slows to swamp speed, the Congaree hurries a bit to gather human effort. Columbia, a fall-line capital city, also became a mill town after hydropower was taken in the 1890’s, and fear of workers’ unions soon produced significant inspiration for buildings like this one. Now, a century later, the structure’s faded grandeur began to echo with the leaps of young dancers joining musicians’ notes as great cold spaces were lit by film projectors and gel-lights and warmed by the wines of art openings. Audiences were surprised and delighted to find themselves there with others. Most of this energy and these actions, even down to the pouring of the wine, was the simple gift of artists and university students. Older members of the audience might have been reawakened to their youth—their time in New York, their visits to Paris or London—in the evocative urban texture and notes of civitas emanating from the walls. But some quackery was also coalescing: it might have been observed that dedication to the cause of the arts center was becoming a cult around particular persons. Meanwhile, the old walls had begun to crumble and the roof badly needed repair.
So what is a real place? One that reflects with depth of time or experience the lives and the weather that have passed through and been absorbed by it, a real place accumulates the truth of itself. It doesn’t manufacture denial. In terms of human need, it is not a continuing imitation of a temporary answer, but an embrace of the condition of life before and lives to come. There is also a type of real place that exists only in human hearts. No one will ever find, for example, the buried walls of Camelot or the chambers of Atlantis.
In its brief emblematic second flowering above the swamp, this arts center, served a purpose and a memory, and it was eventually and properly saved. Decades before, the textile workers, for whom the place was originally built, became known as “lintheads,” after the air-borne fibers they breathed in the mills. These people had flowed dirt-poor from upstate farms and the mountains in hopes of steady factory work and what some cash might give them. They lost everything in the change, and yet they became something new. “Pure products of America” gone crazy, William Carlos Williams would later write.
And we met, she and I, in the massive ground floor room of that workers’ paradise, across a space transformed one night by music and paintings and an eager audience into a real place where troubles could vanish and eyes find other eyes. We did what we could. Later, when celebrated musicians, playing Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky, thrilled at the acoustics of the place, we were there to remember. We walked away before the roof caved in. We walked into the swamp.
The Weston Loop Trail in March. A group of Polish people is talking loudly over by Wise Lake. Martine understands a few phrases. She speaks of childhood trips from France to Poland, where her stepfather had many friends. Once I owned a cabin in a forest in upstate New York whose previous owners were a Polish couple, Mike and May. Together as resistance fighters, they survived the Warsaw Uprising, when thousands of young Poles were crushed between Hitler and Stalin. One of the regrets for me in losing the cabin was the loss of a cherished place transmitted by those two people. What might they exclaim when confronted by Wise Lake? Can Martine hear “alligator” in the “polsku”? We picnic on the low boardwalk, near where the cane starts. A Pinot Noir, bread and cheese. We toast the beginning of spring. My French is improving.
From childhood on into these various hostings, the swamp’s place in the course of my life and affections has sometimes seemed eccentric or perverse or surprising. But by the time it was the place of our first day together, there was no surprise. There was nothing odd in the fact that the swamp witnessed us. We were making ourselves together: the real place, she and I. She loved the fireflies that filled the slow darkness, and the mysterious cypress knees. As it happened, we would also always have Paris. In a phone booth off the Place de la Bastille we learned that our first child, Hélène, was coming into the world.
In the swamp, evidence is everywhere that roots can prove inadequate. Two quite tall trees get into a dispute with the wind and one falls down, taking the other with it. Both lie slowly dying, their shallow roots exposed, like Angkor Wat. They make way for others. The cypress, however, doesn’t follow this course. It can grow huge, even in joined pairs, while its roots spread wide, wide, wide, and break the surface in knees that do not resemble their parents, but, with their lively presence and spur to the human imagination, hold the tall-crowned parent up. Cypresses stand in long red tones and high green needles, dignified otherness, the elders of the swamp. Though it was primarily for the cause of great trees that the swamp was preserved in 1976, a whole world was saved with them, a “cornerstone or foundation” as Rick Bass wrote. The knees converse across the swamp floor, in and out of water, bald or pelted with moss like tonsured monks. They chant.
When my country refused her re-entry, I made many trips to be with Martine. We were married in France and lived there together for most of a year. Back and forth from France, I would return to walk in the swamp and rejoice to watch the wheel turn. I would rest on the bench by the cane where we’d picnicked. We’d been reading John Berger’s Pig Earth and were disturbed by an insubstantial tone that verged on condescension. After Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Berger’s had become our book-across-the-waters and we enjoyed our criticisms. They distracted us from the pain of separation.
I am telling the swamp about our child. I want to look down and give special attention to the little poolings, the tiny ferns and mosses in their wetness, the soft holdings, the ones of 50 millimeters or so, as she is now in her body. Driving here I saw small bronze-skinned men, decorated with feathers and fur, standing in the shadows and branches by the side of the road. They were quietly interested, these phantom Americans, in my movement. I sang.
“Kinda looks like a cemetery. All those little headstones. You can see all kinds of things, imagine all kinds of things, can’t you?” A mother-daughter-granddaughter discuss the cypress knees. They move past me on the low boardwalk with a grandfather/father pushing the wheelchair of the eldest woman. In the noontime sun, reading Berger, I get drowsy in the “Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol” who smells of wild boar. I stretch out on the wooden bench. I drift. The slight vibration of the boards wakes me to the quick footsteps of a little girl. Smiling, she approaches. “I was taking a nap,” I tell her. She’s followed by her mother, who says hello, then a professor I know, who smiles and introduces me to their companion, a man in a baseball cap who’s squinting back into the sun as he studies the new-green swamp: “This is Rick Bass,” he says. Okay. “Nice to meet you,” we both say. Approaching town again on Bluff Road, just before the first/last of the swamp, a big red billboard announces, “Because of IMMIGRATION the U.S. population may exceed HALF A BILLION in your lifetime. STOP IT…” followed by a John Birch website address. I don’t see the bronze-skinned men this trip. In two days I will fly back to France.
Like the swamp, which was saved only after the chainsaws had started cutting it once again, the old building where we met was saved for good, and its transformation into an arts center guaranteed, only after it began to collapse further and was in imminent danger of demolition. A group of people and organizations saw the truth of the real place and organized to save it. Some few among the hikers, fishers, and hunters who knew the beauties of the Congaree also knew and embraced their responsibilities to the place. A leader among the dreamers, mill workers, artists, and developers who joined together to make a lasting institution of the old building, to give it a third flowering, was my friend from Holland.
After one Thanksgiving—the same season as that of my first visit to the swamp, decades before—I returned with our daughter Hélène under Carolina blue vapors, returned to look into the spaces of trees, fields, and scattered houses. Trusting in the curve of light and time, I returned to not knowing. We were going to the swamp. The questions I fail to ask are not important. From sighing pines, we walked onto golden leaves and down to where the tupelo berries drop into black water among cypress knees. We shared an apple where two paths converged and we watched who passed for the time we were there: men and women, couples, with large dogs. I don’t want their opinions.
We drove into the swamp on curves of new asphalt. A grander entrance leading to an “interpretive visitors center”—plastic replicas of fish life and of a standing cypress, a faux fallen log against a 30-foot mural painting—has replaced the old ranger station and the now-closed, dirt-road approach to the swamp. The Peter Principle of Place—to arrive at the state of “tourist destination”—inspired the National Park Service people to “grow” themselves above the closings and other budgetary threats of the Clinton years and give in (no doubt with the help of consultants) to the relative security of the fake. But to be fair, it’s only a nod. The plastic is recycled and minimal in size and scope at the new center, and I’m a sucker for murals. Bathrooms are spacious. There are screened porches for group meetings off a large deck that leads directly into the swamp. No visitor is forced to linger over the exhibits, and the knowledgeable staff doesn’t lean on the replicas. The large new space also has more room for books. Unreality may have a toe in the door, and it may briefly hold us, but we are too close to linger with it.
Hélène was very interested in the other children she saw. There was a handsome family with two girls and a boy, all under twelve, lingering to walk on into the trees. We commented on the exchange of kid glances. “Regarde la petite fille, Papa.” “Oui, Hélène, je vois.” The kids were waiting for their mother, stuck beside the faux fallen tree. She was peering into a peek-a-boo, sliding-panel display of a plastic centipede, a beast that, if real, would have fed in the real rot of a real tree. Delaying all the feet of her family anxious for the real place, the mother had a quest-claration: “I thought centipedes had a hundred legs!?” Any centipede in life could show her the truth, but there she was, a new tourist, insisting on the factual from a plastic log. We all laughed, and escaped into the real thing.