South Different, but Still Kicken’

DAVID LAUDERDALE, Island Packet columnist, Hilton Head Island, SC
Published Sunday, January 21, 2007

DAUFUSKIE ISLAND — The “Cornbread and Sushi” tour nibbled its way through the Lowcountry last week, turning every mossy stone for an answer to that bottomless postmodern question: “Has the South done up and died?”

Twelve students and two professors from Wofford College in Spartanburg are exploring “the real and imagined rural South” through the eyes of writers.

Devouring words, food, dialects — even the Pickens County Flea Market, for crying out loud — the students scraped to see if there is a “there there” in today’s South, and if so, why and how.

They heard less about flow of words than the flow of Tinker Creek in the Virginia Blue Ridge, or the mighty Atlantic from Hatteras Island, N.C., to our own Daufuskie.

Writer Roger Pinckney stood outside the Old Daufuskie Crab Co. restaurant at Freeport Marina and guided their young eyes back across the waters we had just crossed from Hilton Head Island aboard the Capt. Rudy Thomas.

And he said, “Hilton Head has been very tastefully ruined.”

After a lunch of deviled crab or cheeseburgers, the students piled into lounge chairs in the bed of Pinckney’s fume-seething Chevy pickup to see a much different Southern island. He called Daufuskie the last of the old Lowcountry left along the South Carolina coast that is not protected by legal conservation agreements.

Daufuskie has no bridge, which makes it economically hard to develop. Or, then again, Pinckney mused, maybe it’s protected by something else — a no-money root Dr. Buzzard put on it after a reception center was built on a slave graveyard.

Pinckney said the island’s 200 or so residents — many of them writers and artists — sit in the silence of Constitution oaks between the frenetic ant hills of Hilton Head to the north and Savannah to the south.

For him, that slips comfortably into words. Author John Lane leads this venture along with fellow professor Deno Trakas. Lane calls Pinckney “one of the most lyrically beautiful writers we have in America.”

Try this from his newest book, “Seventh Son on Sacred Ground: The Lowcountry in Heart and Blood”:

“The sea is quiet tonight. Out in the Savannah channel, the sea buoys flash red, green, and faithful. A glycerin surf curls and falls onto Grenadier Shoals, a lazy symphony of tide and moon, music sometimes lost in the rattle of palmetto fronds, sometimes booming like distant cannon fire.”

But for Pinckney and other writers on the tour, place is more a passion than it is a literary ingredient. It’s a cause for activism as much as poetry. And the South’s people and places remain fertile as the garden where the old barn used to be. Wonderful Upstate author George Singleton put it this way in the title of an essay: “How Pickens County Gives Me Material Whether I Want It or Not.”

Josephine Humphreys spoke of opening the window to her studio in Charleston’s Confederate Home to be inspired by conversations on Broad Street below. But she also took the students to her true inner sanctum — her family’s cabin on a Johns Island creek.

The students indeed ate sushi with Hal Crowther and Jill McCorkle in the restaurant owned by Crowther and his novelist wife, Lee Smith. That’s in Carborro, N.C., outside Chapel Hill, where they ate five-star cornbread at Mama Dip’s legendary restaurant.

They followed poet Thorpe Moeckel’s footsteps along Tinker Creek near Roanoke, Va., on his farm where he’d recently slaughtered a hog named C.H. (Country Ham).

They hiked the windy Outer Banks with Jan DeBlieu, who is a literal — and literary — keeper of the land and water.

Down the coast in Wilmington, N.C., Clyde Edgerton taught them how to toss a cast net — and how to strike a match in a 30-knot wind.

“You have to affirm some core value in your work,” Pinckney told the students between pile-outs at the new Daufuskie museum, the old Mary Fields School made famous in Pat Conroy’s first book, and the 125-year-old First Union African Baptist Church, where a biracial congregation worships in pews held somewhat straight and narrow by handmade nails.

See, kids, the South is evolving. But I didn’t hear anyone say it up and died.

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