National Geographic : 2014 Nov
98 national geographic • November 2014 currently delineated, the ACE Basin consists of roughly 1.1 million acres of upland, marsh, diked wetland, and coastal islands. Ap- proximately 200,000 acres are protected—some sold or donated to public agencies, and some remaining private but with conservation easements that preclude subdivision and development. The basin is an archipelago of low islands, separated and veined by a maze of winding creeks, rivers, marshlands, and swamps. Flying over the region, I saw just two-lane roads, many of them unpaved and visible only when they emerged from the canopy of the woods to cross marshes or rivers on causeways or bridges. A few modest houses were scattered along the roads, and there was a dock with a couple of trawlers tied up to it and a public boat launch near the mouth of the Ashepoo. It looked more like the South Carolina I had heard my father describe than the one I had rummaged around in half a century earlier. This landscape took shape well before the American Revolution, molded by the history of rice cultivation in the region. The earli- est method of rice planting involved damming narrow swamps and using the impoundments, called reserves, to flood the fields below them at the appropriate time. A later, more elaborate system depended on tidal fresh water; it worked only in the narrow region that was far enough upriver to be beyond the reach of salt water but far enough downriver to have significant tides. Swamps were diked off from the river and cleared. Then ingenious, double-gated spillways called trunks were installed in the dikes. These were used to exclude the tides for plowing and planting, then flood the fields to precisely regulated levels as the rice grew. In September the fields would be drained for harvesting. This system allowed for cultivation on a vast scale and generated great wealth for many of the planters. Even by South Carolina standards, the Lowcountry planters were ardently secessionist, and they paid for it in the Civil War. Federal troops quickly gained control of several barrier islands. The planters lit out for the interior, leaving their plantations to be burned and their slaves to be emancipated by Federal gunboat crews and raiding parties. After the war one planter returned to find what he described as a “howling wilderness”—the dikes broken down, the ditches clogged and overgrown. Cordgrass, cattails, needlerushes, and bulrushes completed the conversion of tillage land into marsh. Wildlife flourished in these disimproved places, and wealthy sportsmen, many of them Yankees, bought up the old plantations. To the extent that they maintained the rice fields and the uplands, these new owners did so for the sake of deer, quail, turkeys, doves, and especially ducks. They spent their winters pursuing those creatures, living sometimes in plantation houses that had managed to survive the war, sometimes in houses they themselves built, often on the site of the original house.