Reflecting on the South Carolina Coast: Hunting Island State Park

11 October 2021 Elijah Edwards

“To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the surf lines of the continents for untold thousands of years, to see the running of the old eels and the young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.”

― Rachel Carson

For contemplation, there is no site quite like the seashore. As famed marine biologist and environmental activist Rachel Carson describes in the quote above, standing at and observing the seashore welcomes reflection and knowledge. The ceaseless reach and roll of foam invite us to think about where and who we are.

The low salt marsh from the pier at Hunting Island, photo by author

On Monday, October 11th , for the first time during our travels we visited the Lowcountry coast, namely the remarkably pristine beaches of Hunting Island State Park in South Carolina. At this park, the state’s most popular, we strolled across the large pier that pierced out into the salt marshes and over Fripp Inlet. We spent most of our time observing the sights and being absorbed by the rich sensory experience of the salt marsh. Later, we went down to the beach to wander and hold two of our critical reflection discussions. Yesterday, we visited St. Helena’s Parish Church, and here, walking near the waves, continued our discussion of spirituality and the role of religion in Beaufort. After finishing this discussion, we reflected on our trip that morning to Legacy Art Gallery where owner and artist Lisa Rivers spoke with us about her paintings and Gullah Geechee heritage. Continuing our seaside talk, the group walked and reflected at length on the influence of memory, identity, and lived experiences in folk art.

The mid and upper salt marsh from the pier at Hunting Island, photo by author

Here, I wondered what made the South Carolina coast, the abundance of marsh and beach, so effective at inviting our attention and reflection? This activity required our active engagement within the isolated romance of the landscape, particularly the romance of the seashore. In Lure of the Local (1997), Lucy Lippard explains the idea of landscape: “On the most basic level, landscape is everything you see when you go outdoors—if you’re looking. It’s what you see from a single (static or mobile) point of view—a set of surfaces, the pictorial or the picturesque . . .” (8) In this sense, we could understand landscape flatly “as place at a distance, visual rather than sensual, seen rather than felt in all its affective power.” (8) This was partly true of our experience: our views were limited through the distancing structure of a pier and the framing context of a park. However, our encounter with landscape went beyond surfaces and into a sense-rich experience of place. Like Lippard, I learned I must also analyze my sense of place through my sense of landscape.

Outflowing salt marsh creek at Hunting Island, photo by author

On the pier, we took in our first slow view of the lowcountry coast. We shifted from hours of chatting cramped in cars, passing sights as we saw them, to a more paced observation of the open scenes around us. From the cars, we entered a congregation of Boat-Tailed Grackles croaking and screeching high in the Loblolly Pines and Cabbage Palms. We passed through a weathered—and closed—nature center and came out into the dominant ecosystem of the Lowcountry’s coast: the salt marsh. The view from the pier was panoramic. Here, a smooth breeze of salt and sulfur swam through the Spartina cordgrasses, stippling the air with endless movement. The ebb poured out of the winding creeks where silvery whirlpools spooled through the sage water, marking the strength of the outflow. Steepening banks of thickly oystered Pluff mud measured the speed of the receding tide. Across this ebb, we saw two young raccoons perusing for the fiddler crabs who tirelessly filter and burrow into the marsh. I noticed a Great Egret stalking through the Spartina, a white needle searching streams for flashes of mummichog, killifish, and silverside.

Sign informing visitors of shorebirds at Hunting Island, photo by author

We walked on in this state of calm attention near the shore as well. The tide had drawn the beach out into a long sheet. The high tide marks stretched far up the beach, and only a meager band of dry sand sat between the low, grass-prickled dunes and wide intertidal zone. Despite the dense cloud clover, this band glowed, contrasting the rows of pines and palms deepening back into the coast, looming like distant spires. There, I noticed changing colors in the sand: swaths of algal greens bled into rich stains of rusty red and mineral black. The shore showed evidence of dynamic layering beyond conventional Romantic visions. Shifting every six hours and twelve minutes, the strong tides are the life and energy of the lowcountry coast, and thus the environment shapes the lives of the people who live and visit here.

Hunting Island beach at low tide, photo by author

Collectively, we shared Lippard’s interest in “finding connections between land and people and what people do there.” In this sense, we came to Hunting Island State Park not to just see it, but to sense it. While the pier physically isolated and framed our point of view within the landscape, I noticed a saltwater fish measurement scale and washing stations on the pier. We saw locals and visitors fishing together. In this sense, the pier, and the park itself, offered both a Romantic vision of the landscape and a realistic means of active encounter.

The low tide line with Ghost Shrimp burrows, photo by author

Personally, the trip to Hunting Island helped me explore my attachment to seashore environments. Across my life, I realize that I am a person placed in coasts. The seashore asks me to use my senses and recognize what is familiar and unfamiliar to me. I knew the bubbling burrows in the intertidal zone spat traces of life. But here, they were not the familiar sand mole crabs I knew—they were strangers to me: the more elusive Ghost Shrimp. Several times, I reached into the sand, dug around for the tickling retreat of legs, and caught nothing but curiosity. Here, I discovered that one of my primary ways of sensing place is exploring the life of the landscape. I am especially skilled at learning the land this way, and the coast ceaselessly invites me to exercise this practice.