At the Holiday Inn Riverview, I look down twelve stories onto a sweep of Ashley River and marsh. Charleston, South Carolina, where I grew up, is chilly this December. My parents, from Pittsburgh (father) and Hankinson, North Dakota (mother), used to complain that damp Southern cold penetrates far worse than dry, Northern cold. As a kid, I pooh-poohed this. Yet, now that I’m edging far beyond that designation, I understand what they mean. Still I love these winter-brown marshes where suddenly, swooping past my view, a small flock of something with curved beaks descends over the river toward the parade grounds of The Citadel. Ibis, the Egyptian dream-god Thoth, arbiter of good and evil.
Millions of ibis were mummified, so says Wikipedia, to honor the god Thoth in ancient Khnum. I remember no ibis in Charleston when I was a girl. But there were pelicans and gulls galore. Now I anxiously scan the marshes for pelicans, the poster bird of the Gulf Spill: a pelican, coated in heavy oil, raising its dripping wings, beak squawking in alarm. Even as I write this, my heart cramps. Then I spy a pelican, flying low as they do, over the water, huge head humped into its body, large bread-basket beak outstretched. And another. I breathe a sigh.
The edges of the continent, of any water-meets-land connection, teams with life. Amphibians, deep-water mammals–in the Ashley River, often dolphins crest above the waves–wading, diving, skimming birds; crustaceans–I identify a small boat loaded with crab crates and followed by an erratic medley of gulls. I am so happy to be home, beside this landscape, wide at the tidal rivers, then dotted with pine and cedar islands and finally fringed with the rich loops of magnolia, live oak, and the tall long-leaf pine that stretch above the rest.
My parents’ last home in Wappoo Heights wasn’t far from the Holiday Inn Riverview, which is why I choose to stay here. We were outsiders, but that was a human designation. I pride myself on absorbing close to my heart the smell of pluff mud, the sea-scented breeze, the watery light of coastal Carolina. This business about who belongs has agitated our country since its inception; maybe I should say agitated humankind. During the Continental Congress of 1775-6, so I’m reading in David McCullough’s masterful story-telling biography of John Adams (2001), long debates agitated the delegates: should the thirteen colonies break with dastardly England and George III who was burning their cities, creating havoc with their shipping, etc. etc.
Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence included a rant against the English king, blaming him for the slave trade which, by 1776, was responsible for a population of 500,000 Africans enslaved in the thirteen colonies, one-fifth of the entire population. This language of Jefferson’s was removed by Congress; after all, argued Adams, pre-eminent tactician and goad for independence, New England ships had carried the slaves and made huge profits; Southern plantations owned their very existence to slave labor. One English king could hardly be blamed for such an extensive enterprise.
Perhaps it’s easier for outsiders to see what is wrong, though harder to plump the depths of what it means. As a girl, walking to Ashley Hall through a broken-down neighborhood, where a trail of blood dotted the sidewalk, I knew instinctively as an outsider that the black children peering at me from their third-floor porch were poor. I felt a tug of guilt. Their obvious need frightened me. Later, as a teen, I argued mightily against my father’s racism. “No black boy is going to knock at our door and want to date me!” I cried. “I don’t know any black boys!” I refused to let my father, stewing in his cauldron of hatred and fear, use me as fodder. In fact, Southern white women often led the call for abolishing racism, especially lynching.
But I was not really a Southern white woman. Still, the core of who I am resonates with the Carolina low-country. As racism used to pain me as a girl, what pains me now is the desecration of the beach with enormous MacBeach Houses. Thirty years ago, we could walk the beach at Edisto or Folly Islands and pick up a wealth of shells. Moon snails laid their collars of wet-sand, filled with tiny off-spring, on the December beach. Now with huge houses on stilts just beyond the dunes, sometimes right at the edge of high-tide, not only is the view from across the marsh toward the waves blighted, but shells and moon-snail collars are rare. No doubt pollution for which we’re all to blame, is a huge reason for this decline.
Thoth’s flocks of ibis know where to congregate: at Magnolia Cemetery where my parents are buried. Pre-Civil War, this lagoon land of grey obolisks, Egyptian temples circa 1890, cunning cradles of marble to lament child deaths–hosts birds galore. It’s almost too cold to walk far, but I drive to the tip of Green Isle, locate my parents’ gravestone and the magnolia my mother planted to honor my father in 1990 when he died. The tree is now two stories high, I’ll be able to tell my sister. Someone has left a stone on the top of their gravestone; I’ll add one, in this wonderfully perennial Jewish tradition. And I will catalogue the birds: a black-crowned night heron, a yellow-crowned night heron, a great blue heron, a snowy egret, its fluffy plumage all bedraggled. They crouch at the tidal edge in a bit of sun. As I drive past on my way to the airport, suddenly on the opposite bank of the lagoon, a flurry of white–ibis. They settle near the car. I snap a photo of their awkward orange beaks, a bit like heavy chopsticks. Suddenly a huge winged nemesis flares across our path: the great white egret. It’s time to go. We travelers owe each other some space to be calm for a while.