Kids could learn a lot about biology just by looking in the pool at the Daufuskie Island Resort & Breathe Spa. Metamorphosis, for example.
Next to the weeds that sprout from cracks in the cement, an abundance of aquatic larvae swim freely in the algae-green water, waiting for the day when they’ll grow wings and take to the air.
Once in flight, the dragonflies and mosquitoes will have quite the view. The pool sits alongside one of the Atlantic’s most beautiful and remote beaches. And there’s not a soul in sight.
Roger Pinckney lives in the only full-time occupied house at the resort, a “Don’t Tread On Me” flag hanging defiantly outside the front door. It’s one of three dozen cottages that line the beach. The neighborhood is serene and quiet, a pastel-colored ghost town by the sea.
But the lack of neighbors doesn’t bother Pinckney; it keeps the rent down, and he’d prefer that the Yankees visit for a day, take his colorful island tour, and then head back to wherever the hell it is they came from.
The author, who published his most recent book Reefer Moon last July, is an icon on Daufuskie Island. His logo — a combination of a palmetto tree and a marijuana leaf — is prolific around the island’s cozy Freeport Marina, where the teenage workers wear his T-shirts and hats and joke with the author when he shows up to load tourists off the boat and onto his wildly colored school bus.
For some time, Pinckney has been the scourge of developers; once, he claims that he was even arrested for protesting efforts by Halliburton to create an enclave for Saudi oil barons on the island, complete with a 50-acre canal and marina dug into the swampy interior. But Pinckney isn’t the only thing that Daufuskie’s developers have to worry about. In the battle against developers and Yankees, Pinckney has voodoo practitioner Dr. Buzzard on his side.
The Right Side of the River
Look to the right outside Pinckney’s beachside home and you’ll see the lights of Savannah across a dozen miles of marsh. Turn your head left and there’s what Pinckney calls “Hilton Hell.” He only goes over there when absolutely necessary. Like when he’s out of whiskey.
White men first came to Daufuskie in 1710 but were quickly killed off by the native Yemassees. The settlers returned in force, and by 1723, farming began, first indigo, then Sea Island cotton. In danger of losing their workforce to the mainland after the Civil War, the plantation owners split their real estate and gave their former slaves four-acre plots to farm and subsist on.
Isolated as they were, the Gullah culture thrived on Daufuskie with as many as 1,500 African Americans living on the island in the early days of the 20th century. When the boll weevil struck the cotton fields, those that could stayed on to work at the island’s thriving oyster cannery. But the shellfish beds collapsed in the late ’50s as a result of pollution from Savannah’s waterfront industries, effectively drying up Daufuskie’s job market and further driving away the locals. The last straw came with the Yankee immigrants, whose elaborate island homes sent property values up and the tax bills soaring. Only a few Gullah families remain on the island today.
Pinckney first came here as a toddler after his father, also a Beaufort County coroner, raised the poles through the marsh to bring electricity to the island. Given a dinghy by his father at age 10, Pinckney spent his childhood exploring Calibogue Sound’s hammock islands, sleeping in fish camp shacks, and tromping through the swamps.
Now 64 years old, Pinckney returned here 12 years ago after a life that found him in Iowa earning a doctorate in writing, standing behind a pulpit as a small-town preacher, and courting a procession of wives and lovers over the course of 30 years in northern Minnesota, where he settled to hunt and raise children after his car broke down on the way to Alaska.
Back home with the warm salt air blowing across his porch, Pinckney’s happy. He’ll soon marry his fourth wife, Amy, a pretty blond Texan with a sugary demeanor. He affectionately calls her “Miss Biscuits.” Amy recently moved to Daufuskie with her two sons, now among the 18 students at the island’s elementary school. Recently, Pinckney says, an osprey built a nest on the service tower on top of the school, which caused internet service to go down.
Most days, Pinckney splits his time between writing and giving tours of Daufuskie. He says that the island is “the only place in the world where nothing normal ever happens.”
Reefer Moon is the first in a three-part series of novels he’s writing. He also regularly publishes stories in Orion and Sporting Classics magazines. By lunchtime during warmer months, Pinckney’s typically got a microphone in hand, spouting off well-oiled one-liners to bus loads of day-trippers searching for the “real Daufuskie.” On these tours, the houses reclaimed by the forest are called “green developments,” while the tour guide notes that the high ground gets “very high around sundown on a Saturday night.”
Under the author’s spell, the tourists certainly get what they’ve come for.
Pinckney knows his home well, publishing a collection of “love story” essays about the island called The Right Side of the River. (The rest of the U.S. is on “the wrong side.”) Pinckney’s tours visit the praise room behind the First Union African Baptist Church, which the author claims is “the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll,” and his passengers hear about the time the island’s chickens went berserk after eating psilocybin mushrooms off the dung of free-roaming cows. Pinckney is as Gullah as a pale-skin can be, and he’s unapologetic in his disdain for the white men who only have dollar signs in their eyes.
“I figure I’ll leave here in one of two ways — handcuffs or feet first,” he quips. “You can talk about God’s justice and [Dr.] Buzzard’s curse, but the real tragedy of Daufuskie is the Gullah people and the loss of their homeland. It’s a loss to them and it’s a loss to us.”
The Truth Behind the Story
Yancey Yarboro grows tomatoes on Daufuskie. It doesn’t make much sense anymore, what with having to ferry Mexican laborers over to work the field and carry crates of tomatoes back, but it’s his home, and he’s not leaving.
Belly deep in his whiskey bottle, Yarboro looks out one night to see a band of drunken well-to-dos giddily yapping in the moonlight along the golf course that cuts through the woods by his family’s property. One woman catches his eye and clings to his soul, and he spends the next year chasing and loving Susan Drake, only to discover that her pig-faced, coke-snorting husband is the developer trying to market Daufuskie as the “Martha’s Vineyard of the South.”
Or so goes the plot of Reefer Moon, which Pinckney casually pitches and then eagerly signs at the end of his tours. It’s billed as a novel, but it was clearly inspired by real people and real events. The inspiration for Susan Drake still lives on Daufuskie, although not with Pinckney.
In the book, apart from his romantic troubles, Yancey finds himself embroiled in a scheme to smuggle a load of marijuana into the U.S. via a shrimp boat. “There’s not a thing in that book that didn’t actually happen to somebody, but it didn’t always happen in quite the same order or to the same person,” Pinckney says.
“As a writer of fiction, I never think that I have to make anything up, because the truth is an astounding thing, and you can’t improve upon it, except by maybe massaging it a little bit and arranging it,” explains the author, who spent nearly a decade penning the 200-page Reefer Moon before completing it. “I worked on it in my spare time, and I didn’t have much. I thought I was done, and then realized my style had changed and had to deal with chapters I’d written seven or eight years before and go back and rewrite. It was a pain in the ass.”
Released last July, Reefer Moon is Pinckney’s sixth book, and it may be the one that makes him famous. Published by the Evening Post Publishing Company, the story rights were recently sold to a Hollywood film agency, an experience so full of paperwork and clauses that Pinckney nearly lost his cool during the discussions.
“I’m damn glad they didn’t ever invent choke-a-phones, because I was fixing to choke somebody right through the damn wire,” he smirks, half-jokingly. “If they ever show that movie on an oil rig on Mars, than my great-great-grandson will get 47 cents.”
In the meantime, Pinckney is still working on the tales of Yancey Yarboro. Next in line is Blow the Man Down, which Pinckney calls a “cocaine and sex” story. And after that, there’s Mullet Manifesto.
Although Pinckney makes the majority of his living writing magazine articles and giving tours, he considers his books an annuity that keeps on paying into the future. His first, Blue Roots, explores Gullah voodoo and folk magic. Its publication cost him his preacher job but paid off his child support.
“Most women are jealous of the laptop,” he says about the difficulty of balancing romance with the daily compulsion to write. That’s not to mention the isolation that comes with living on a farm on the Canadian border or a muggy island accessible only by boat. He and Miss Biscuits agreed that they’d reassess their location once her boys outgrow the island’s elementary school. Still, it’s hard to imagine Pinckney living anywhere but Daufuskie, where, as he fondly says, “the fast food has fins, fur, or feathers.”
When confusion gets the best of Yancey Yarboro, he turns to Gator Brown, the resident Gullah witch doctor. Pinckney has his own share of Gator Browns, including a woman named Angel in Savannah, who sent him a bag of roots to carry with him in the graveyards on his tours.
“What’s it do?” he asked.
“It do what it needs,” she replied.
Pinckney believes in the power of goofer dust, a magical powder that is largely made of graveyard dirt, and the ability of dried toads and buried statues to affect the weather or bring fortune. On his tours, he claims that the series of failures by Daufuskie Island developers is due to a curse by Dr. Buzzard, the patriarch of Gullah voodoo practitioners. According to the author, Buzzard placed it after the graves of his ancestors were dug up on the island to build a real estate office. Pinckney also claims that voodoo caused one developer to have a heart attack.
The tour rolls past a massive condo complex situated next to the most pristine, developable beachfront on the East Coast. Like the area where Pinckney lives, the place has seen better days. Weeds grow up the walls at the Melrose Inn at Daufuskie Resort, recently a posh enclave and vacation haven.
A quick ride around the dirt roads cutting through Daufuskie shows the extent of voodoo’s influence on the local culture. Eyes are painted on trees, and windowsills are painted indigo blue in order to ward off the Slip Skin Hag, a demon spirit roaming the island that’s said to attack people in their sleep. The hag is also known to have sex with men while they slumber.
The homesteads and double-wide trailers in the woods are the Daufuskie that Pinckney loves. Before moving to the resort with Miss Biscuits, he lived in a 600-square foot shack. Inside, it was “three steps to the pisser, five steps to the stove,” he fondly recalls.
For Pinckney, the most joyful day of the year comes in June when large numbers of the Gullah community return for Daufuskie Day. Gullah from Hilton Head, Bluffton, and Beaufort return to their home island to eat boiled shrimp, deviled crabs, and conch fritters by the county dock until sundown.
It’s the antithesis of the world he fears Daufuskie would become if folks like him let their guards down and let the developers have their way with their gated communities and golf courses.
“If you want a secure lifestyle, Daufuskie Island is probably the most secure place you can go in America. We’ve got 14 miles of deep blue water and everyone on that public ferry has to sign their name. Anybody that comes on a private boat will be noticed. And yet, within this totally secure environment, somebody has to put up a gate?” he asks, bemoaning one development. He despises manicured lawns and electric golf carts and bemoans the “Fortune 500 executives who are used to everything right now.”
On an early summer Monday night, Pinckney and his friend, fellow author and former S.C. Department of Natural Resources game warden Ben Moïse, swap stories over tumblers of Jim Beam about their trips hunting big game in southern Africa. Piles of deer antlers lay around the living room, amidst photographs and other evidence of a life spent close to the land.
It’s impossible to hear Pinckney’s stories — complete with a throaty laugh that emanates from behind a salty gray beard and a big, toothy smile — and not think about Ernest Hemingway. Without prompting, Pinckney broaches the subject.
“People try to compare me with Hemingway because we both have beards and four wives, but the similarities stop there,” he claims, half convincingly, as the conversation moves on to the time he went scouting peasant hunting grounds on LSD, watching the birds leave rainbows of bright color across the sky as they took flight.
The next morning, the authors sign their respective books (Moïse’s Ramblings of a Lowcountry Game Warden recounts his years tracking hunting and fishing law violators), prompting Pinckney to joke that it’s “the first ever book signing with a policeman and a drug smuggler.”
Between Pinckney’s constant stream of anecdotes and his passion for his island home, the writer easily endears himself to anyone holding him in conversation. At once both a hermit and a family man, reminiscent of a Lowcountry Edward Abbey with his fiery disdain for the trappings of the modern world, Pinckney’s characters come alive because they’re rooted in truth.
“I’m not an artist. I’m a craftsman, like a carpenter or a builder,” he explains. “I consider myself a functional person because I’ve got to produce. If I don’t produce, I can’t keep the lights on. If it’s art, I’ll let other people decide that.”
At press time, the Daufuskie Island Resort & Breathe Spa awaited word on the details of a bankruptcy auction for its assets, where it will likely sell for a fraction of its perceived value just a few years ago.
In 2010, Daufuskie Island is like a half-finished novel that has been put aside because it might be better to burn the half that’s written rather than complete the book. But those pages, their prose growing more poignant by the minute, are already tattered and gathering mildew in the ocean air.
Just the way that Roger Pinckney likes it. Stay cool. Support City Paper. City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.
Stay cool. Support City Paper.
City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.