Along with algebra and Latin, we studied woodworking and welding in shop in Lincolnton, Georgia. Mr. John Hawkins, our shop teacher, was jovial and full of facts, and many of his students wore blue corduroy jackets with gold letters, FFA, stitched onto them. One day he told his future farmers something remarkable: if they saw a hawk flying over one of their future fields, the hawk would be there the next day at the same time.
Not wearing a blue corduroy jacket, I didn’t give the hawk business much thought. I forgot my teacher’s words until many years later when I worked as a cinematographer and scriptwriter for natural history films, but Mr. Hawkins was right. All wild things, guided by the unerring rhythms of life, move with deliberation.
Geese migrate at the same time each year. Leaves fall in autumn; bears hibernate during winter, hummingbirds flock to my feeder March 24. The natural world moves in harmony to life’s rhythms but not man. Not us.
Contemporary life suppresses whatever natural rhythms we have. Schedules, shifts, and daylight savings time complicate things as do tide tables, airline schedules, and time zones. As time management goes, we’ve come a long ways and it isn’t necessarily good.
The ancients saw in the skies a great calendar and understanding the velvet dome’s shimmering pinpoints meant life or death. Celestial events were the only events early men could depend on. The moon went through its cycles and day and night came predictably. Knowing when to migrate to avoid cold weather … knowing when to plant and harvest … that was a tad tricky … But then the ancients erected monuments to mark the comings and goings of the sun, moon, and stars: a roofless temple in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico … Stonehenge in England … three upright slabs of rock in the American Southwest.
We take much for granted now, thanks to our watches, calendars, and cumulative knowledge whose amassing early men began. Now and then I try to force myself to consider how life would be if we lost our time-keeping technology. Without a clock or watch, for instance, can you tell 2:30 in the morning from 4:30 in the morning?
During clear winter-cold evenings when walking into the night air is to pour your body into a chilled glass, the stars shine with breathtaking brilliance. My breathing rises and vanishes, evanescent vapors. It’s then I find the night sky spellbinding. I see familiar constellations, the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper. I see the Milky Way, the edge of our galaxy, and it pleases me in a way I cannot express. And it brings back memories of awakening at 2:30 a.m., long drives before dawn, duck blinds before daybreak, stars wheeling. That inky black sky.
There’s a reason we say, “The early bird catches the worm.” There’s a rhythm to life as surely as the moon controls the tides. The rhythms of life dictated my schedule when I worked as a scriptwriter and cinematographer. I moved in concert with the stars.
I wrote scripts for natural history documentaries, films very close to what you see on the “Discovery Channel” and “National Geographic Explorer.” To get the job, I had to write a 15-minute script on the eastern brown pelican, (Pelecanus occidentalis). Capturing images had intrigued me before.
I dabbled in photography at Georgia and had even taught it at a small women’s college. In ’78 I got a daylong assignment photographing Senator Strom Thurmond at his home in Shandon, a tree-lined neighborhood in Columbia. My two memories of that day are seeing people stuff money into Thurmond’s pockets and seeing a man, walking with a cane, a Robert McNamara look-alike, erupt in anger. He had patiently stood in the line that stretched for blocks for several hours. Finally it was his turn to meet Thurmond. Inches from me, he whispered in Thurmond’s ear. Thurmond pointed to a chair eight feet away. “Sit there.”
The man sat for four hours. Several times he got up and came over to the senator. “Sir, I really need to talk to you.” Thurmond would point to the chair. Finally, he could take it no more and erupted into a frenzy of shouting, waving his cane about. South Carolina Law Enforcement Detectives rushed in and seized him, carrying him out above their heads like some rock concert surfer past the startled line of greeters. Nancy Thurmond’s response was that “he had a seizure.”
That was my only still photography assignment, such as it was.
Something like 80 writers applied for the scriptwriter’s job, among them a news broadcaster sure to get the job. He didn’t. I made it to a short list of three. Each of us had to write a 15-minute script on the pelican’s natural history. The closest I had been to a script was a script for an old slide-sound presentation back when I was working on my Masters at Georgia. That was well before personal computers and PowerPoint—the kudzu of executive communications—made a mockery of clean, clear messages. I went straight to the library and checked out a few books on pelicans and scriptwriting. Using the old “split-page” format, with camera directions in the left column and narration, SFX, and music on the right, I set to work.
It was ambitious, filled with camera directions of every sort. A close-up shot of a pelican diving into the sea for fish … a delicate shot following a pelican landing atop a pier, and a wide shot of pelicans in a V gliding over a shining surf struck by the rising sun. It even called for an underwater scene of the immense pouch opening, a scoop holding 2.5 gallons, among the gallons, hopefully, ill-starred fish.
The director of films, a man with a deep background in film production, looked at the script and spotted a fraud. Later, over beers, he told me, “As soon as I saw it, I knew you had never written a script, but you could write.”
The next hurdle I crossed was the final interview with the boss of bosses—John Culler, a tall, lanky Georgian who reminded me of the outlaw Josey Wales.
Soon I was focusing and panning an Arriflex BL following birds over tree lines. A workhorse of the 16 mm movie and TV industry, the “Arri” as it was affectionately known was used for shooting feature films, documentaries, sports, and eventually music videos. We used it to shoot wildlife. A lot of time was spent in blinds, well before daylight. To shoot nature in its finest hour means being onsite and setting up long before dawn.
These were the days of road trips to remote locations, days upon secluded, protected barrier islands, and cold mornings in blinds. These were the days of setting up tripods and leveling carpenter’s bubbles on the head, connecting the Nagra and yelling “speed” when it synced up with the film whirring through the camera’s gate at 24 frames per second. Adored by film producers through the generations, the Swiss-made Nagra worked with elegant precision. On a shoot, say, of an on-camera narrator about to read his cues, the action went like this:
The Nagra, once up to speed, emits a beep that can be synced up with a hole punched into film. Some of you will remember seeing 16 mm films in school. Remember seeing numbers counting down before the show?
8 … 7 … 6 … 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … Beep!
That countdown was the SMPTE leader, and it was placed on release prints to show a projectionist exactly where the feature starts—right after the “2” with no delay, as any TV engineer knows. SMPTE stands for “Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers.” I was learning all these things, learning about endangered species, and writing also.
And I was getting to spend time in a special place: the Lowcountry. My director loved the coast and in all my years of working with him, we never once filmed anything in the mountains. In particular, we shot near Charleston many times, a city I would come to know inside out in time for an altogether different reason.
I consider the Lowcountry to be an incomparable set. It’s beautiful, this land where the edge of the continent slips beneath the Atlantic. The ancients believed the world consisted of air, fire, water, and earth. I believe they had the Lowcountry in mind. Here, the Earth’s breathing can be seen in the ebb and flow of tides. Here, the sun blazes down with the fury that melted Icarus’ wings. The water here as everywhere, say scientists, quite possibly came to Earth as chunks of ice from the Solar System’s far reaches. And here, beneath our feet, we crunch the earthy remnants of ancient mountains. It’s truly an aged place. It literally reeks of antiquity. None of this matters, of course, to the gulls, pelicans, and loggerhead turtles I filmed.
There I was in the Lowcountry … the edge of the world. It seems like only yesterday, though it has been more than three decades. There in that sun-bleached land, I loaded film magazines as the moon tugged at me as it did the tides, as an ocean of air pressed down upon me, and coastal winds and solar winds blew through my hair. There in a sea-level pleasure garden, I drowned in science and nature striving to make art. I couldn’t have asked for a place more beautiful than the Lowcountry in which to seek inspiration.
When shooting wildlife documentaries down along the coast, one thing is certain: the backdrop will be beautiful. There are many beautiful things about the Lowcountry … its pure colors … its network of creeks branching into blue arteries, looping, doubling back, and nourishing the green-gold land. The moon and palmettos icons … greenish limbs, sinuous and heavy … a Carolina bay’s mystery and beauty … the wide Lowcountry horizon filled with clouds. Angel Oak and other ancient wonders. The maritime forest that grows right up to the sea’s edge, only to have the surf undercut its roots.
In places like Hunting Island, toppled trees litter the beach, their sun-bleached limbs white as marble, monuments to the sun, sea, and wind. Stripped of foliage and bark, whitened and smooth, the trees are about the end of life. In the distant marsh, an abandoned boat rots. Even death is beautiful in the Lowcountry, as any photographer knows.
No wonder so many Hollywood films were shot along the South Carolina coast, whole or in part … Forrest Gump, The Prince Of Tides, The Big Chill, The Patriot, and others. As for us, we made modest films suitable for broadcast on television, for use in schools, and for programs with various organizations. At the time I was as excited and as proud as a screenwriter drafting a Hollywood epic. A boy from the Georgia countryside, my name would appear on screens and TVs as “scriptwriter.” It was more than I ever hoped for.
In writing those early scripts I learned the value of “less is more.” I learned, as I would some day with people, that if a segment refused to fit in or behave, the best thing was to cut it. Problem gone.
Hemingway had a theory that if you removed a finished passage the reader would sense something at work and better appreciate the writing. Scriptwriting taught me that and other things about writing. It was, perhaps, the best way to break in. I learned to think visually, and I came to value how words sound. I could project a scene in my mind and see it play out to my words. A visual aspect entered my writing though I was unaware of it at the time. Nor could I foresee a time when my days in the Lowcountry—and death—would find their way into a novel, though it took twenty-eight years to wind its tortured path through my soul.
We were shooting a film on sand dunes, Dunes: Guardian Of The Coast. As usual, nature and its rhythms of life dictated an early rise. One morning we left Columbia when daybreak remained out of reach. The miles slipped by and soon lights began to appear in homes and trailers. A pink glow surfaced on the horizon and the land began to reveal itself. About an hour after dawn, we rounded a curve where a hill peaked and my partner had to hit the brakes hard just atop the hill.
Slanted across the road and leaning hard into the ditch sat half a mobile home, its open side covered by plastic. Hitched up front sat a faded red Mack truck with the steam hissing from its hood.
We pulled over.
Upturned baskets of peaches littered the road. Peaches, bruised, torn apart, some intact, were everywhere, the shoulders, and the ditches. One, and just one, sat dead center the yellow line, a bleeding heart clinging to its almond-colored pit.
A man in faded jeans and a light blue shirt ran toward us waving a red bandanna.
He leaned into the driver-side window, breathless.
A white oval with red stitching spelled his name above his shirt pocket, the kind of shirt every shade tree mechanic dreams of wearing. He had the face of hard living, the look of a smoker, a mustache in need of a trim, and mistrusting eyes.
I was curious as to why peaches lay scattered beneath a mobile home. Split-oak baskets, the kind you see at farmers markets, littered the road and ditch. I eased out and walked past the driver holding his bandanna, hands on knees, catching his breath. I stepped into a deep ditch high with Johnson grass and around the trailer to the road beyond. Knocked sideways into a shallow ditch was an olive International pickup, ’49 I guessed, with its driver-side door crushed. A man’s arm stuck out the driver-side window at an odd angle.
I looked through the passenger window. An old farmer, 75 or so, wearing a straw hat with a green visor, stared at the windshield with wide-open eyes. He could not believe the road had betrayed him. Blood—ruby-red and congealed—trailed from his right ear, a trickle that glistened in a chilling way.
The old man had pulled out of the orchard through the high grass in a makeshift lane straight into the Mac’s path. The high grass had blinded the old man. The Mack had smashed into him without braking.
The old man’s left hand stretched out the window as if reaching. Then it hit me. The hand was shoving. At the last second, the old man had seen the truck coming. His arm had instinctively shot out to push it away.
A good many baskets of peaches, thirty maybe, remained in the truck’s bed. The others lay scattered across the road in many directions, as did the bruised and battered peaches that were once their contents.
The old man was, of course, dead. That was in 1979. The years rolled by and I kept the old peach farmer with me. I could never forget the smell of fresh peaches and death commingling on a backroad at dawn. The old man’s death meant more to me as a writer than I would realize for eighteen years. The tragedy stayed with me. It had that quality of obsession that James Dickey would reveal to me in 1995. He told me that if a certain image would not go away it was real. Something the writer could use.
Other images, singular memories dwell among my film days. Sometimes the rhythms of life for nocturnal creatures ordained a departure from our early rising routine. We left Columbia early one summer afternoon to drive to Charleston to stay a night at the old Dorchester Inn. We were to board a U.S. Department of Interior Boston Whaler the next morning well before daybreak. We would spend the day filming shorebird rookeries in Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, principally the rookeries of the eastern brown pelican. We were still shooting Dunes: Guardian Of The Coast, and we needed broadcast-quality footage of pelicans, shorebirds, sea oats, and nesting loggerhead seaturtles among other things.
We booked one room to save money and to our elation, just six doors down we spied tables heavy with food and liquor—the Lowcountry gubernatorial campaign headquarters for Lieutenant Governor Brantley Harvey. Walking by, lugging our equipment, we saw neglected women lounging about while men watched the returns. It was too much to resist.
We freshened up, went down to the room to join the party only to find a pall of utter doom had descended. Women were crying. The media had just declared Dick Riley the winner of the Democratic gubernatorial primary. We presented ourselves as Harvey-friendly poll workers and proceeded to drink. It was a long night of revelry.
Somehow we made it to the dock the next morning and loaded our gear into a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Boston Whaler. The ride through the estuary was sickening. We made it to Bird Island and dumped our gear onto a thin slice of beach. We were blasted by sunlight; it was hot and equatorial, like being in a desert. Water, as the ancient mariner knew, was “everywhere but not a drop to drink.”
We made a weak effort at filming but we weren’t up to it. With way too little water and hung over, we sought relief in the surf off Bird Island. To add insult to injury, jellyfish stung us. Later the Whaler picked us up and we made the long trip back to Columbia, the trip as lost a cause as Harvey’s gubernatorial hopes.
In a reversal of what’s expected, memories of my film days strengthen with the passing of time. Within those memories, the long morning trips before dawn rise to the surface. As every photographer knows, the best light is at dawn. Filming shorebirds at Cape Romain, then, meant many 150-mile pre-dawn drives to the coast. We’d leave Columbia at 2:30 in the morning, drive to Charleston, grab a quick breakfast at some greasy spoon, and head over the Cooper River Bridge and follow 17 North past Awendaw to McClellanville, a fishing village perched on the Intracoastal Waterway, what locals call the “Big Ditch.” There, well before dawn, we’d catch a Whaler and thread through the estuary out to sea to the island of the day.
It’s a sensory experience not to be missed. As the Whaler hums along, the last stars fade from an indigo sky and the sun rises over the sea. A changing of the celestial guard takes place. Best of all, the city and its worries no longer exist. It is perhaps, the most special time of day, “the most delicious time in all creation” as John Culler wrote.
After all that night sky majesty, arriving at the shooting destination, in a way, was a letdown. Shorebird rookeries are flat, sandy places. Little or no vegetation grows there. Nearly level with the sea, a portion of the island remains dry during high tide. A shorebird does not line its nest with grass; a mere scrape in the sand will do. Or just the sand itself will do. Often the eggs resemble sand. We stepped carefully. After all, we were wildlife department employees, custodians, and we wore the uniform and insignia to prove it. Many times the uniform, a drab green and gray, proved an impediment to progress. A lot of folks mistook us as game wardens, the euphemistic conservation officers.
Besides breaking me into writing, the eastern brown pelican was significant in another way. It was a dying species at the time. The eastern brown pelican was listed as an endangered species in 1970, when its population plummeted to less than 100. Pesticides such as DDT caused thinning of eggshells, which subsequently broke during incubation. The ban on DDT in 1972 and similar pesticides spurred the pelican’s recovery. I heard biologists talk a lot about DDT in the mid-70s and it sounded as if the devil had invented it. I certainly wasn’t a writer of significance who could help it but perhaps a few words did some good. The species has been de-listed and is alive and doing well.
We filmed loggerhead turtles, royal terns, sea oats, dunes, and other Lowcountry icons. Most of the Lowcountry films were, thankfully, devoid of people. Sometimes, though, we’d stumble into the two-legged variety of wildlife. One autumn day my partner went out to shoot footage for a film on blackwater rivers. He went to shoot B-roll footage; he filmed something entirely unexpected: the oldest sport.
My partner was filming a scene—stock footage—of a couple on an idyllic day canoeing down the Black River. He told me the shot was gorgeous, shimmering fall colors on the water, flaming hardwoods, burnt-orange cypress needles, and a canoe lazily coming downstream around a sandy bend. The man, spying the camera, paddled straight toward it.
“What are you doing?”
It turned out he was with his best friend’s wife. He demanded the film’s destruction. And so the freshly exposed film, the beautiful autumnal river, coiled into a heap on the banks of the Black River, its secret safe. Years later it occurred to me that had that footage made its way into the film, perhaps a child would have gone home one day. “Mom, you won’t believe what we saw in school today.”
And there were opportunities for other kinds of danger. We flew to the coast once in a single-engine plane to fly over Carolina bays filming them so their distinctive oval shapes could be appreciated. Upon returning to Columbia Metropolitan Airport, we nearly crashed while landing. We had flown too close behind a commercial airliner that was landing. Caught in its prop wash the plane tilted 180 degrees close to the ground. Unsecured camera equipment slammed against me. Our pilot, a Vietnam veteran, calmly righted the plane and set it down.
Many times I went into swamps alone, the thought of being bitten by a snake a possibility. At Woods Bay State Park, filming near its old millpond I once watched a cottonmouth as thick as my arm slither through the leaves. And I knew monstrous Eastern diamondback rattlers, North America’s largest venomous and most dangerous snake—some as big as irrigation pipe—could kill a quarter horse in fifteen seconds. The entire time I filmed in the swamps I never once work snake boots.
On another mission, I was sent to film the arrival of a hurricane coming ashore near Edisto. When power lines snapped and steel trash drums danced down the street behind our truck, we left for Charleston where the wind blew the tidal surge in a great arc over the Battery. A Lowcountry painting, The Storm, depicts the Battery under siege by Hurricane Hugo. I never see that painting that I don’t go back to my days there filming Hurricane David, the first major hurricane of the 1979 Atlantic hurricane season. A Category 5 hurricane, David killed more than 2,000 people in its path, mostly in the Dominican Republic.
One night we stayed too long on a barrier island and a fog bank rolled in trapping us overnight. And on another time, we were to put out of McClellanville for a night of loggerhead turtle filming on a distant barrier island. It was late August and the nesting season would soon end, if it hadn’t already. Several times now we had made the trip to Cape Romain and each time we’d come up empty. Caretta caretta simply hadn’t cooperated. We were down to perhaps our final try. As we made our way into McClellanville, severe storms ravaged the coast and jagged forks of lightning splintered the sky. We were advised not to head out. We had driven 150 miles and to not go out meant a trip home empty handed and soon nesting season would end. Common sense prevailed. We returned to Columbia.
The next day, breaking news. A family had sailed out into the storms near McClellanville the evening before and lightning had struck their mast. The yacht had burned and the family had to abandon ship.
Sharks ate them.
I left film to write for magazines. Among my last assignments was one of filming a hawk. My old shop teacher’s words came back to me. Cruising the backroads looking for a hawk, sooner or later we’d spy one casing woodlands. We’d come back the next day, set up the cameras, and wait for it.
Looking back on my film days, I best recall days spent on barrier islands. I went where few others could go, Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, to sandy islands with names like Bird Key, Deveaux Bank, Capers Island, and Bull Island. Too young to appreciate my fortune, I nonetheless came away with the memories, and it all began with that first script, The Magnificent Pelican.
Many years later, my daughter, Beth, fresh out of Virginia Tech with a degree in Communications took a job as assistant editor on the premiere issue of Coastal Home magazine, dreamed up by Jack Thomasson in Lake Mary, Florida. In time Southern Progress would buy it and Coastal Living would evolve from it. Like her dad, she wanted to freelance. I was astonished to see her first freelance writing assignment, a feature for Sandlapper Magazine, was on … the eastern brown pelican. We shared a destiny.
It’s all behind me now. The rhythms of life for me, now, involve that of a freelance writer’s. Up early, coffee brewing, email, and the sundry duties that attend a full-time writing career occupy me, but I never forget those glorious days when the Lowcountry surrounded me … days when we drowned in science attempting to make art.
My film days began with that final interview in a restaurant with a beautiful name, the Sunset Grill. It was there I felt as if I were walking to the gallows, so intimidated was I. The food was supposed to be very good—that’s why we went there—but I can’t remember much except for the very last question, which I thought was a trap.
We were driving back to the office. John Culler, boss of bosses, and Billy DuRant, who would be my immediate supervisor, sat up front ignoring me. I sat in the back of a law enforcement cruiser, a Plymouth Fury Commando V8, one of the best-loved police cars of all time, one immortalized in “Hill Street Blues,” “T.J. Hooker,” and other shows. Just as we crossed the Congaree River, Culler leaned back and shot me a Clint Eastwood-like stare. “I’ve just got one more question. Do you like to drink liquor and chase women?”
The answer was instantaneous. “Yes.”
Culler turned to DuRant and barked, “Hire him.”
My film days had begun.