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Teasing the Eyes
Our Gentle, Rolling Land
For five months I’ve been the first person to see the magnificent photographs Robert Clark is taking for our fourth book on South Carolina. Each day is long but good. For about nine hours a day, with breaks of course, I sort and evaluate images and place the ones with most potential in the appropriate chapter, Lowcountry, Upcountry, Pee Dee, and so forth.
Then the real work begins. I learn all I can about each photo’s subject, its location, history, uniqueness, and what exactly is going on. Just one photo can take an hour to title and describe at publication-level quality. Some take two hours. The words have to be accurate, precise even, and they have to read well without stating the obvious. Nothing worse than a caption beneath a photograph of an old log cabin that reads, “Pioneer cabin made of logs.” No, I research heavily and I get quite an education about places, and one place that interests me in particular is the Piedmont.
My home county, Lincoln County, sits in the Piedmont, barely. The Upper Coastal Plain begins close by at the fall line near Augusta. There the Piedmont’s crystalline rocks meet the Upper Coastal Plain’s sedimentary rocks. How the land changes. Hills flatten into a plain dominated by large farms whereas smaller farms dot the Piedmont.
Growing up I gave no thought to geographic regions’ distinctions, though I was aware differences existed. Strangely enough I was more attuned to local differences, the county’s woodsy character as opposed to the town’s brick buildings, the southern end’s green farms and the northern end’s red clay gullies and kudzu. And whenever I crossed the Fortson-Dorn Bridge into South Carolina the land truly seemed to change. The pines on the Carolina side seemed a bit yellow and smaller. After all I was in a different state.
Perhaps it was something to do with the soil. More likely it was psychological, a self-induced perception that another state should look differently and my brain obliged me. I was wrong, of course. The reality is that if the Savannah River and the lake it fills didn’t exist, we couldn’t tell Georgia from South Carolina.
Cross the Highway 378 bridge and you remain in the region known as the southern Piedmont, smaller, yellow pines or not. Experts define our region as “a series of rolling hills and isolated mountains.” That sounds like Lincoln County all right, though I don’t think of the county as being in the Foothills. That notion comes across as farfetched because Lincoln County lies at the Piedmont’s bottom boundary. The mountains we sit “at the foot of” are a long ways off, Graves Mountain notwithstanding. With different geological luck we could have ended up in the Upper Coastal Plain. That would make gardening easier for sure. No rocks, just sandy loam, though our view would be diminished. The Coastal Plain lies flat and the far horizon lies beneath a big sky. The Piedmont rolls, folds, dips, and rises. It teases the eyes. You just can’t see all of it at one time like you can a wide expanse of plain. And unlike the mountains, you can’t command a simultaneous view of the land’s depth and breadth.
For five months I’ve studied photographs from major geographic provinces in detail. If I have learned anything from my book expeditions and writing with Robert Clark it’s this: the geographic regions that extend across Georgia and South Carolina are similar, very similar. Aside from man-imposed differences like barbecue sauces, football loyalties, politics, preferences, and perceptions, the Foothills are pretty much the same no matter which state you’re in. Kudzu-blanketed woods in Laurens County look much like those in Oglethorpe County. A hay field near Anderson is remarkably like a hay field near Elberton. A farm pond at the base of a hill in Lincoln County is indistinguishable from a pond in Abbeville County. A bed of coneflowers at Greenwood’s Park Seed looks like one in Athens. The red clay in a Chapin, South Carolina, garden looks just like the red clay in a Washington, Georgia, garden.
When I drive through Lexington County up into Newberry County I get a sense of déjà vu. It’s like driving up Highway 78 to Athens. An old barn sagging and leaning against the wind in McCormick County looks much like one in Columbia County. A crumbling tenant home in Saluda County resembles its McDuffie County cousin. The Piedmont is the Piedmont whether you’re in the Peach State or Palmetto State.
The topsoil, fields, and forests lying on those crystalline rocks in each state long dictate a lifestyle. We live in the land of forests, farms, fields, ponds, and orchards. Often it’s stunning. A brilliant cotton field, a green stand of corn, an amber field of summer wheat, all arrest the eye. And so do granite outcroppings thrust up among a stand of hardwoods, as does a creek covered in dogwood petals.
The Piedmont is our beautiful homeland but it may well be the Rodney Dangerfield of regions. It plays second fiddle in the minds of many to the Blue Ridge and Lowcountry as vacation venues or a place to go as the Irish say, “On holiday.” I hear people all the time say, “Well, we’re going to the mountains for the weekend,” or “We’re heading down to the beach for a week.” I never hear anyone say, “We’ll be spending a few days in the Piedmont next month.”
Our land is a place people travel through, not to, but that’s all right with me. Though it has no lofty peaks or crashing breakers, the Piedmont, well she has her charms. A green pasture with a red barn and a classic farmhouse enclosed by a white fence is a scene worth painting. So is a gleaming river with frothing rapids. And a gently rolling series of hills clad in fall foliage, burnished hickories and flaming oaks, delights the eye. Sunrise over a large lake, mists steaming up, the sun’s rays fanning out, makes for a fine photograph. There’s even allure to a classic old pickup truck rusting beneath a shed, its working days behind it. Such a sight pulls up sentiments and memories of life on the farm in the Piedmont.
I like this gentle, rolling land just fine. Scenic beauty, historic towns, rural character, and peaceful countryside make for a good place to live. It’s rustic or to use a poetic term “bucolic,” but it’s changing. You know we all are witnesses to things southern and beautiful vanishing overnight it seems. Old barns, sheds even, their roofs rusting and boards pulling loose, collapse. Who will rebuild them? A peeling dilapidated old home decays. Who will rescue it? A massive oak one day is gone. Why? An old-fashioned wooden wagon, its wheels rusting, rolls into oblivion. Who will stop its exit? An old plow abandoned at the edge of a field. Where’s the mule that led it down that final furrow? We’re losing landmarks and testaments to a time in the Piedmont when hard work by the hands made bad times better, not handouts.
But what’s best about the Piedmont may well be something that drives chambers of commerce crazy. Cliché-chasing outsiders shun it. Outside of campers, hunters, hikers, and history buffs it’s a tourism-free zone. We don’t have to worry about lemming-like tourists descending in hordes just so they can say they went to the Piedmont. Pass on through brothers and sisters. Pass on through.
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