The low country of Georgia and South Carolina is the geographic area of coastline and barrier islands where the coastal plain meets the Atlantic Ocean. It is indeed low. In many places ground is at sea level or just below. Making it a land of bottomland swamps, broad river deltas, tidal creeks, and estuarine marshes. This topographical feature has and continues to shape the natural ecosystems and the sense of place and cultures of its human inhabitants.
There is no better example of the sense of place and culture than the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Notice the capital L. Lowcountry is the proper noun name for the area comprised of the four coastal counties of Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton, and Jasper (though more generously marketed by other nearby counties). Basically, the coastline between the Ashley and Savannah rivers.
This definition is not just geographic and topographic. This unique place of land and culture has been profoundly shaped by its association with rice cultivation and the enslaved Africans that made Carolina Gold rice one of the most lucrative ventures – for some white folks – in the Carolina Colony and later State of South Carolina.
Carolina Colony was chartered as a commercial venture by eight noblemen. In the mid-years of the 17th century there was a lot of experimentation to determine scalable, profitable agriculture. Because of its wetness, the low country was not suitable for tabaco and cotton. Almost by accident, it was discovered that the rice planted by west African slaves for sustenance flourished on their small plots. The problem was how to scale rice cultivation to profitability. This included the daunting challenge of how to clear the bottomlands and swamps and build the massive hydrological systems—dams, dikes, and floodgates (called “trunks”)—required to irrigate rice fields. The despicable answer was more slave labor, especially from west and west central African tribes that had rice growing, harvesting, and processing knowledge and skills.
The enslaved Africans did build the hydrological systems that made the ‘tidal method’ possible for systematically flooding and drying 80-100,000 acres of ‘wet’ rice cultivation in the Lowcountry and mid-coastal Georgia. It is estimated that they excavated and built dikes equivalent in mass to the great pyramids of Egypt. They provided the labor for planting, tending, harvesting, and processing of the ceral. Their only ‘payment’ was the broken grains, the unprofitable byproduct, that they used as the staple for their unique and delicious cuisine.
These slaves were and their decendents are the Gullah-Geechee people. The people that created a unique creole language and culture that is pervades the Lowcountry and which is finally being honored.
The Gullah-Geechee peoples and culture almost disappeared. As did the rice fields they labored to create (but never profited from). The remnant rice fields of today, those continuing after the collapse of the rice industry in the early 20th century, and to a lesser degree the Gullah-Geechee culture, were saved in a roundabout way. All along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts, wealthy northern industrialists bought economically corrupt and failed plantations and turned them into private hunting domains. They then managed the ‘plantations’ for a different purpose – expanding game, fish, and waterfowl populations. This was particularly true for the expansive Lowcountry rice fields that essentially became manmade, managed wetlands for resident and migratory waterfowl. These ‘plantations’ did provide some work opportunities for the Gullah-Geechee communities that tried to stay in their communities.
The early ecological rehabilitation push was motivated for private sport, but has overtime grown to encompass private-public collaboration and cooperation for preservation and growth of these preserves and refuges – “rice field accords”. For examples, the Savannah River National Wildlife Refuge and the Donnelley Wildlife Management Area (Donnelley WMA is owned and managed by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Ducks Unlimited, The National Wild Turkey Federation, US Army Corps of Engineers, The Nature Conservancy and other conservation interests participated in establishing the property). These are the two refuges where the photographs for this blog post were shot.
There are few places in the U.S. a more diverse and exciting birding experience. Throw in the chance to experience a unique culture heritage, especially expressed in wonderful cuisine, and it just doesn’t get any better.