National Geographic : 2014 Nov
106 national geographic • November 2014 and turned into a signal station. A colony of self-emancipated slaves grew up around it. No sign of these things, or of any other human enterprise, remained, but we did see whimbrels, godwits, willets, oystercatchers, red knots, dunlins, and plovers. Their cries, the thumping and sighing of the surf, the rattling of the wind in the palmettos, and the squeak of sand underfoot were the only sounds. The place could have been waiting for Robinson Crusoe to stagger ashore and for its history to begin. Back in the woods, on a slight knoll overlooking the Chehaw River, a tributary of the Combahee, were several low burial vaults under an ancient, collapsing live oak. The surrounding trees were big and widely spaced—a magnolia, a beech, a holly, a walnut. “Those trees were planted,” Harrigal said. “You don’t find them growing in the same spot like that naturally. Somebody wanted this to be like an arboretum. And that little ditch along the edge of the marsh? I think it was a small canal, big enough to float the crops down to the river. There was a whole life here.” Farther down the Chehaw, another vault, quite a fine one, dat- ing from before the Revolution, stood in front of the overgrown earthworks of a Confederate battery, built to protect a bridge on the Charleston & Savannah Railroad a little farther upriver. Behind the earthworks, scattered in low woods, were the tombstones of slaves, former slaves, and their descendants; a spare cinder-block church, still in use, was half a mile away. “Whenever we sign an easement or a property transfer,” Harrigal said, “I tell people that with one stroke of the pen we’re preserving our heritage and our environment. It’s a good line. And it’s the truth.” You can stand on one of the dikes in the Bear Island Wildlife Management Area and imagine that a chunk of Holland had been set down in the New World. There is only one decrepit windmill here and not many people, but there is a greater variety, abun- dance, and obviousness of animal life than I have seen anywhere else in North America. In one canal beside a dike I counted over a hundred alligators, most of them still as stumps. Black skimmers, flying low and straight, their lower mandibles shearing the water, lifted over the motionless heads as casually as a man stepping over a log. About 500 storks, ibis, egrets, and white pelicans stood along the bank, as though waiting for a parade to start. Driving by a small, diked, mostly drained former rice field in the Donnelley Wildlife Management Area, Harrigal stopped the truck and handed me his binoculars. “Look out there and tell me what you see,” he said. I glanced and saw the usual suspects— herons, a glossy ibis, and even an immature eagle standing on the mud. Close to the eagle were two big white birds. They walked with a stoop, but they weren’t storks. Or egrets. Or ibis. I raised the binoculars and stared, then handed them back to Harrigal and said I did not believe it. A pair of whooping cranes.