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reflections of the south
HIGHWAY 501 SC: April. Somewhere near Aynor. Having wrapped up a photo shoot in old Ocean Drive, we drive homeward through wind-driven coastal plain silt. Though dust devils obscure 501, a shimmering red and green mirage breaks through.
But it’s no mirage. It’s remembrance. Winds subside, sands drop, and Dean’s Produce emerges next to a cornfield mown to beard-like stubble. Dean’s stand of glinting tin and yellow pine glows with honey, but the incandescent red and green jams gleam like St. Elmo’s fire.
REMEMBRANCE: Oh say do you remember when grandmothers sealed jams and jellies with paraffin wax in sterilized jars?
And where cometh the fire in Dean’s lidded, lime-green jars?
Finely chopped jalapenos, my friend. Add apple cider vinegar, powdered pectin, and white sugar. Cloves too. Bring to rolling boils, and all find themselves in a jam as we recall kitchens where jelly making sweetened life.
Is your winter pantry getting thin? You don’t jell? Well, enjoy a taste of grandmother’s kitchen lovingly preserved in a Mason jar. Hit the road with high hopes that jams will work your brakes. Try a twisting mountain lane in autumn or blustery beach byway in spring. Either way, a sweet drive is yours.
100 Years Of Perfection
All across the South, evergreen shrubs burst with warm splashes of color in a season known for cool, dark days. These heirloom camellia blooms, perfection’s essence, grew on 100-year-old bushes in a Columbia, South Carolina garden.
Yearning to inhale their sweet fragrance? Well, forget it. In the dead of winter few flowers rival camellias, thus pollinator-attracting perfumes prove superfluous. (Some species are fragrant.)
Though native to eastern and southern Asia, camellias share a strong association with the South thanks to double-dealing. In colonial days, the British, coveting an afternoon spot of tea, sailed to China to buy tea shrubs. The Chinese sold them camellias instead, an easy ruse since camellias and tea plants are cousins in the family Theacea. Imagine the Brits’ disappointment. (China’s native name for camellias means “tea flower.”)
We brew tea from the leaves of Camellia sinensis. Our imported cousins of sinensis may not be palatable, but crème de la crème blooms such as these brew joy for the eyes and spirit: evocations of roses and longings for spring and summer.
Perhaps in 2115 these beautiful centenarians will brighten the winter of those to come for camellia bushes can live over 200 years.
Winter’s Breathtaking Valentine
The ancient Cherokee considered the northern cardinal, to-tsu-wa, the child of the sun. Indeed, males shine like red beacons at feeders. When red birds, as we call them, arrive to crack black-oil sunflower seeds a good day’s at hand. Many days, a dozen or more cardinals cling to my bamboo and bunch up like a bouquet of feathery roses.
As lovers, florists, and sentimental cards commandeer that obscure saint’s February day we see red. Red symbolizes love, passion, and desire, as do red roses, red velvet, red hearts, dark chocolate in red boxes, red candles, and more. Why not red birds?
Among the legends behind Valentine’s Day comes a fitting story from the Middle Ages: that birds pair up mid-February. Indeed, the male you see was staking out territory and seeking a mate when photographed.
Coming full circle, the northern cardinal takes its name from the red, hooded wardrobe of Catholic cardinals. Valentine, that holy martyr from Rome, might take solace in knowing his day evolved into a celebration for betrothed couples, happy marriages, love, and lovers. Often portrayed in pictures with birds and roses, I don’t think he’d have a problem posing with the Cherokee’s rose-red child of the sun.
The still image can’t convey this summer wheat’s rippling movement but the imagination can. Like wind-borne whitecaps, seed heads catch the breeze ghosting over them and hurdle downstream. No going against the grain here—no dam will hold back this river of gold that flows toward a confluence with buyers, bakers, and brewmasters.
The Lowcountry has its summer-green then autumn-gold spartina. Inland, we have flaxen fields of wheat. This summer wheat near St. Matthews, just off Highway 601, puts off such a fresh, sweet fragrance you’ll think you’re in a bakery and you are: the sun’s.
Before The Harvest—Standing by this tributary of sun-struck wheat you feel its warmth, inhale its additive-free fragrance, and hear its windy whispering and rustling. And when the currents build to a certain pitch, the eye beholds a billowing river.
After The Harvest—No other crop covers more of our planet than grassy wheat for wheat is, indeed, a grass. Nutritious, concentrated, and moved from field to table, wheat provides 20 percent of the food homo sapiens consumes. It’s a feast for the eyes, too, on a summer day remembered and rendered immortal by a man and his camera.
“Summer Wheat” appears on page 150 in Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II, USC Press, 2014.
- All photos by Robert C. Clark