April 25, 2013
The past is never dead. It’s not even past. —William Faulkner
Early this spring I spent two days in ricefield country over near Georgetown. Working on a new book, Reflections Of South Carolina, Volume II, (USC Press) I went to Mansfield Plantation to time travel. Turning off Highway 701 onto Mansfield Road I hurdled three hundred years into the past.
I saw the antebellum South and once-endangered wildlife, both not even past. Aside from massive live oaks the bird life astounds. I saw two bald eagles, an osprey, and two flocks of American white pelicans overwintering from Alberta and Northwest Territories.
Bald eagles whistled and wheeled above a distant field as I walked toward the allée of oaks Mel Gibson rode through in The Patriot. More germane I saw vestiges of a 300-year-old old rice plantation—what I came to see and record. I saw the Old South that once lived in dead teachers’ arid classrooms come alive with majesty and mystery.
Up close and personal the landscape astonishes. One word comes to mind. Sumptuous. Dogwood bracts flecked Spanish moss white. Dogwood’s tender, just-minted leaves—delicate emerald snowflakes—burst with life. Vines and resurrection ferns hitched rides to nowhere on the shoulder of broad live oak limbs. And why should they care to go anywhere. They dwell in perfection. Azalea and camellia blossoms went head to head fighting for my eyes and the broad sweep of this flat landscape gives them ample battleground. I saw no magnolias but I knew they had to be there. And yes I saw an old joggling board too, Charleston green, but it’s young compared to the old plantation.
The Old South of long ago, the one that placed avenues of oaks on vinegar bottles lives here, not the one Hollywood maligns with overstated accents. Nothing’s phonier than a phony southern accent declaring, I do declare, fiddle-de-dee, or y’all. Frankly my dear I don’t care for biased films about the South. Nor should you. See the real deal.
Come, let’s explore, but let me orient you. Standing in the allée of oaks looking toward the Black River I see the main house. My back is to Highway 701, 1.5 miles distant. To the left is a grassy stretch with structures where folks processed rice. There’s an old ruin here, the smokestack that ran the old rice mill machinery. Beyond it lies an impoundment drained and bare of vegetation. Even in the cool spring, sunlight has worked it over good. A tile fitter could set tiles the color of creamed coffee alongside the cracked earth and you wouldn’t notice the difference.
Of course coffee never grew here but rice did. The construction of impoundments and the growing and harvesting of rice was a labor-intensive effort that’s been compared to the building of the pyramids. Residue from the work remains … dikes, rice fields, slave cabins, and a strange building high on stilts—the country’s last winnowing barn.
Millions of pounds of Carolina Gold passed through this uncommon-once-common barn at Mansfield. Before Carolina Gold rice made its way to the barn women had to pound it for hours. Then it went to the winnowing barn. Women shook it loose and swept it into cracks in the floor. Slipping through the cracks the grains tumbled into a muslin tarp attached to the stilts—an immense sack if you will. The chaff? Gone with the wind.
Walking down the allée of oaks, my back to the Black River now I come to the slave cabins. Inside one cabin an old door painted haint blue leans against a corner. Unhinged, the door was taking a break from incantations, hexes, and dirt daubers. Haint is Gullah for haunt. Haint blue wards off bad spirits. It’s said that dirt daubers won’t build nests on anything painted haint blue. Must be true. I saw no dobber nests from summers past as we call them back in eastern Georgia. A fireplace splattered haint blue with double hearths stood in the middle of this cabin. Two families—or two groups—lived here at a time.
Overhanging the cabin old oak limbs point to the chapel across the sandy lane. It’s as if they beseech Look, see? The old chapel is being restored. Poignant beauty lives in that old chapel’s simple lines, old wood, ancient bricks, and cedar shake roof beneath which I stood at the pulpit and looked out upon the simple pine benches. The singsong sermons that rang out here must have been something … the shouts and songs too.
Before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave, And go home to my Lord, And be saved
O, what preachin’! O, what preachin’! O what preachin’!
At the end of the chapel just beyond the chimney stands a simple bell tower. The old bell, flecked with corrosion, is quiet, its clapper still. Beneath the bell stuck into the ground is a wood plaque. Oh Lord prop us up in all our leaning places —God’s Children by Archibald Rutledge, 1947.
I stayed until dark soaking up the haunting beauty of this 1718 plantation. Pondering things … pondering things. The sun was dropping fast. As a bald eagle wheeled and cried out a rich diversity of bird life answered his call. Last call before roosting time. Brown grasses rattled beneath a cold wind sweeping off the Black River. Winter still held the land but spring was prying its fingers loose. Darkness set in, and I called it a day.
DAWN AT MANSFIELD. Mists drift through the oaks and if I look across the grounds just so (to avoid dew-laden cars and trucks) no latter-day trappings mar the view. Just marsh, water, oaks, and moss—as it should be, as it used to be. A rosy patina glazes the eastern horizon and I hear work chants ringing out across rice fields. Foggy and surreal, the marshscapes rise up from the past, the past that’s not even past it seems.
A chorus of birdsong builds as the percussive cries of pileated woodpeckers and their tapping punctuate the concert. It must have been like this in Carolina Gold’s heyday, only more waterfowl descended here I’m sure.
A vast fortune passed through sights and sounds such as these so long ago. Some rice planters made a million dollars a year. Prosperity reigned and then the War of Northern Aggression came calling and a hurricane pushed salt water into the rice fields further ruining things. Prosperity moved to a new ZIP code, an anachronism for sure.
Relics from the glory days remain. Here’s a pile of old bricks heaped against the base of an oak. Really old bricks. When planet Earth dies, among civilization’s wreckage will be bricks. You can break a brick but you can’t kill it. Early light softens these old bricks, giving them a sheen born of weathering. It’s as if satin covers them. A few bricks are rounded at each end. They came over as ship ballast in wooden ships driven by the winds, but there’s little wind before dawn. Not yet.
EARTH’S ROTATION SERVES UP THE GIFT OF LIFE … Showering gold, boiling incandescent gas—the nearest star—breaks over the Black. Diamonds glint on the river and gossamer gold overlays the land. The deep-green crowns of yesterday’s live oaks gleam with a lemony luster. No white pelicans are about but were they, they too would be gold.
An easterly zephyr arrives and the Spanish moss dances. Soon the wind stiffens and drapes of Spanish moss swing to the west.
The day asserts itself. The mists have evaporated … or have they? From behind a thick oak drifts a wisp of blue-grey condensation. A woman smokes a cigarette as other bed and breakfast guests wander the grounds.
People come to savor the Old South. I see license plates from up north. I’m not sure if they understand how places like Mansfield came to be. All the rice that came from here and other plantations fed a lot of people. The demand was there. It took a lot of labor to mine that gold. It took something else. Innovation and a certain mix of water.
Rather than plant rice inland in swamps visionary planters turned to tidal cultivation. A Lowcountry tidal river had to mix with brackish water just so. If a river carried a sheet of freshwater on its surface as the sea backed it inland all was fine. All that was needed were ways to control the flow. Rice trunks—ingenious devices made of cypress—did just that. (Inland swamp rice planters laughed at them. They didn’t laugh long.)
Rice dikes, dams, and trunks did the trick as they say. One slave could now produce 3,000 to 3,600 pounds of rice—five or six times the yield per slave from inland swamps. The way to grow rice changed but in the end it all was for naught and a sad-but-unavoidable chapter in humanity went into the records.
I know … I know. I’m near the end and I’m supposed to blast the past. I had nothing to do with it. Nor did you. I’ll leave the criticism to those who dissect the past for a living and give long-winded lectures. Was it bad? Was it inhumane? Of course. Did it leave us with haunting beauty? Yes.
Still … Driving back to the Midlands images of the grand old plantation haunted me. I tried to come up with words that capture the essence of the Old South’s remnants. The best I could do was this: old bricks, red camellias, lost glories, hard labor, suffering, green allées, flaming azaleas, singsong sermons, chants, moody flats of water, and a time of few-but-bad options. And strangely white pelicans.
Tom Poland is the author of six books and more than 700 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. The University of South Carolina Press just released his book on how the blues became the shag, Save The Last Dance For Me. He writes a weekly column for newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture.
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