Thank God for fall — the Lowcountry’s glory season, a time of splendor in the marsh grass, and days punctuated by acid-trip sunsets, perfectly legal psychedelic showstoppers. Come October, our skin can breathe again, no longer crusted with SPF and a perpetual layer of sweat, and the air is clean and frisky, as if it’s been on Whole30 — without cheating. The gentle slanted sunlight feels rinsed by an eclipse, or a few tropical storms, or all of the above. And yet there’s a heaviness, too.
This fall is haunted by desperate cries in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, and muffled cries long silenced beneath buildings-turned-tombstones in Mexico. Which may be why I found myself taking a longer than usual beach walk on Kiawah last Sunday. There’s something about a gaggle of seagulls standing firm amid a wave’s waning froth that steadies me. With wings tucked and beaks pouty, they just stare out to sea, so oblivious, unmiffed by Category 5 calamities and apocalyptic threats by petulant megalomaniacs who have as much business wielding nuclear weapons as Nikki Haley does uniting the nations (though, amazingly, she’s one Trump appointee who’s managing to look semi-capable.)
On a beach walk, with the sand giving way beneath my feet and the lull of waves on endless repeat, things begin to make some sense again. Which is to say, they don’t make sense at all. If the beach has a lesson plan it would be to teach us how little we know, and certainly how little we understand. Humility and awe would be on the vocab quiz, and the math equation would be one even I can figure out: add as much sand, as much “renourishment,” as much development as you want; it’s all going to be subtracted in good time. The seashore is a like one vast Liberal Arts 101 class co-taught by a bearded philosophy professor, an environmental scientist, and a theologian with a surfer’s tan, who all agree on one thing: We are not running this show.
Strolling on the southern tip of Kiawah Island, Irma’s ire is evident. Mega-million dollar homes are now just a few wax myrtles away from the high tide line, their walkways splintered and dangling. I walk past Beachwalker County Park toward Captain Sam’s Spit, the still undeveloped tail end of the island which may well be the most litigated patch of maritime scrub ever. This past week marked the fourth time now that Kiawah Partners have appealed to the South Carolina Supreme Court to overturn rulings restricting them from building a bulkhead. The bulkhead would allow development of the narrow, shifting spit, critical wildlife habitat, and one of the few places bottlenose dolphins strand feed. Google has yet to reveal to me who exactly Captain Sam was, but my guess is the poor guy’s spitting in his grave over the whole mess.
Back when I was in college and not just musing on heady beach walks, I took an oceanography class by Professor Orrin Pilkey. I’ve since come to appreciate that Pilkey is a world-renowned geologist and sea level rise expert, but at the time he just happened to be teaching the one science credit this religion major had a prayer of passing. Plus, it included a weekend “field” trip to Duke’s Marine Lab — at the beach — and I ain’t no fool. Then, as now (though he’s now retired and “emeritus”), Pilkey preached the gospel of respecting your Mother. Mother Nature and her vast oceans have always, and will always, batter and build up, erode and accrete her shorelines. A beach is, by natural design, an ever-shifting, unstable environment, and it is sheer folly to attempt to engineer it for real estate profit. Add rising seas and stronger storms to the mix, and that folly becomes only more foolish.
These are lessons we are slow to learn. I don’t pretend to understand the legal complexities of the prolonged Captain Sam’s battle; there may well be justifiable grounds for allowing development, but that doesn’t mean it’s wise. As Pilkey taught me, the unrelenting law of the land and the sea, could care less about property rights. I don’t doubt that Kiawah Partners, if they win approval, will, as they promise, develop the spit with the same environmentally-attuned aesthetic evident on Kiawah proper, but it’s still a fragile spit. What benefits investors doesn’t necessarily benefit a volatile, vulnerable coastal ecosystem.
On the way to Kiawah, and every time I’m at the foot of the Crosstown, I shake my head as I pass the huge banner hanging on WestEdge’s mammoth construction site. “Build Anything, Anywhere,” it proclaims. As if we need goading. (Anything, anywhere, except of course the one thing we need: safe bike/ped access across the river, but that’s another column). That banner overlooks Gadsden Creek, one of the last remaining urban tidal creeks on the peninsula that the developers sought to fill, and the entire project is surrounded by flood-prone streets and filled wetlands. Anything, anywhere.
Instead of hauling out bulldozers to once again “renourish” our beaches or build bulkheads, perhaps we’d be smarter to renourish our connection to the land, to re-orient our approach to the powerful beauty of our shorelines and coastal habitat with humility, not hubris. Fall’s crisp air and amber light nudges us toward transformation, a season of change. Nature shares her eternal wisdom via the purpling of sweetgrass, the return of the Monarchs. Let’s pay attention, anytime, anywhere.