Southern Land

When I worked in film one of my early assignments was writing a script about Carolina bays, perhaps North America’s most unusual landform. The subject intrigued me on two levels. One, I have always found swamps alluring. Two, Carolina Bays, so the speculation went, resulted from a massive bombardment of meteorites.

Our film was to explore the possible origins of these swamps and present them as rich oases of abundant wildlife. I mentioned this project to a city slicker and his response was subdued and predictable. “If you see one swamp, you’ve seen them all.” I never saw this unenthusiastic fellow again. Too bad. He could not have been more wrong.

I cannot recall many swamps in Lincoln County but I know they exist. I have never given thought to their origins. A high water table? Flooding? I know that Georgia, for sure, has its share of swamps, including most famously the Land of the Trembling Earth, the Okefenokee Swamp. Recently I looked at a topographic map of my home county. Lincoln County has its share of swamps. A topographic map reveals a band of near unbroken wetlands along the coves and fingers of Clark Hill Lake. These areas are more or less a side effect of the lake. Inland pockets of swamps dot the map as well. What is their origin?

As a kid I played near a small swamp on the family property adjacent to the Colley mine. Not once did I venture into it. Its origin is due to an embankment made to prevent water from entering the old mine … at least that’s my speculation.

Writing my script in 1981 for what would be Mysteries of the Carolina Bays, I found myself confronting a term other than “swamp.” Ecologists had coined an emotionless term and definition for swamps: “wetlands, areas of ground saturated with water year-round or during certain seasons.”

I prefer swamps. It’s not technical; it’s evocative. Mirror-like black water and buttressed cypress trees and their knees come to mind. (No one by the way can explain just what cypress knees do.) “Wetlands” evokes visions of bureaucrats wading into swamps with measuring sticks, Secchi disks, strange gizmos, and plastic bottles.

I prefer to envision swamps as places where man comes as an intruder. How well I recall one swamp I entered by boat in the early 1980s, a cathedral-like lagoon where light slanted like spotlights onto black water studded with cypress knees. It was otherworldly and beautiful but dangerous, the domain of moccasins and alligators. We think of swamps as alien places where man is an unwelcome invader. But we never think of swamps as created by alien invaders. Our film was to address the conjecture that “visitors” from outer space created certain unique swamps here in the South.

This speculation centers on a system of swamps that stretches over the Atlantic Coastal Plain from Florida across Georgia and the Carolinas into Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey. The vast majority of these swamps occur in Georgia and the Carolinas, hence their name “Carolina Bays.” Lincoln County has none, being a bit too far from the coastal plain.

Chances are you’ve driven by many a Carolina bay in your southeastern travels and didn’t realize it. From the ground they look like, well swamps. That perception changed overnight in 1930 when the city of Myrtle Beach contracted Fairchild Surveys to take aerial photos of the area. Thus, were Carolina Bays first discovered in the Myrtle Beach region.

Later when Roosevelt’s minions in the Department of Agriculture studied aerial photography of the East Coast, Carolina Bays showed up along much of the Atlantic Coastal Plain. An astounding fact surfaced: Close to half million exist and they all looked alike. Even more astounding, they all are oriented along similar planes.

These bays, so named because of the preponderance of bay trees in them, are like no other swamps in the world. Viewed from low-altitude flight they appear so uniform as to be manmade and yet some believe they resulted from a low-angle meteor bombardment. Looking at craters on Mars we can see elliptical depressions with rims similar to those found in Carolina Bays. The near-identical similarity is convincing, in fact it’s staggering.

Each bay is elliptical in shape. Each one lies in a northwest to southeast direction—as if a meteorite swarm came in from the northwest. The southeastern rim almost always consists of white sands. They vary in size from one to several thousand acres. (Many were converted to farmland because of their unusually fertile soils.)

What ancient wonders they are though determining their age is problematic. A variety of dating techniques have them 30,000 to 100,000 years old or older. For a while this aged series of strange swamplands was indeed believed to have been cause by a swarm of meteorites that smashed into the coastal plains of Georgia, South, Carolina, and North Carolina. It’s an exciting theory. Just imagine a bombardment of meteorites gouging out elliptical bays all across the Southeast.

Other theories border on the bizarre. Some “experts” claimed dinosaur footprints created the bays. Others claimed ancient buffalo wallows formed them and others still said ancient volcano activity formed them. Such theories, of course, held no credibility.

The meteor crater theory, however, gained a bit of traction for a while. An attorney from Camden, South Carolina, Henry Savage Jr., wrote a book, The Mysterious Carolina Bays, that proposed meteors did indeed create the bays. His theory, however, had a major problem. Not one meteorite fragment has been found in a bay, no nickel, no iron. No ejecta. Nothing. Perhaps a comet of ice blasted out the bays. Impact experts give such theories no credibility because the bays are much too shallow to be impact craters.

Most of these things I read when researching my script. My next step was to explore a bay. I did that at a place near Olanta, South Carolina. Woods Bay State Park.

Solitude. That’s the word I use to describe Woods Bay. No, two words, both with equal weight. Solitude and wild. I shot 16-millimeter film on an Arriflex S. The camera was a bit loud but I shot distant subjects. An anhinga drying its wings. A gator sliding past water lilies … a cottonmouth sliding through vegetation. Various waterfowl. Turtles sunning on logs. There was a boardwalk, too, from which I filmed birds. Sometimes I used a Bolex, handwound. A rugged camera but one with limitations. No matter the camera, trips to Woods Bay always delivered a profusion of wildlife … osprey, carnivorous plants, wood ducks, and otter.

With a solid script ready and ample B-roll shots for cutaways aerial filming was next. We were going to fly over a number of bays and film them so people could see just how remarkable they are. It was the only time in my life I was eager to fly. I would get to shoot from a Hughes 500D helicopter like Magnum PI flew in. The director and I drove to the Columbia Metropolitan Airport where we met our pilot, David Scott, aka “Super Scott,” a gung-ho kind of fellow. Scott, a Vietnam veteran, could fly choppers and fixed-wing craft, which was a good thing. The Hughes 500D refused to start.

We boarded a Cessna 180, known also as a Skywagon. I sat in the rear of the cockpit with the camera cases. The flight to Horry County didn’t take long. I saw for myself just how distinctive Carolina Bays are. Aligned ovals! We made passes over several bays, seeing how they overlap each other and even contain bays within bays. Then we returned to the Columbia Metropolitan Airport.

As we approached a large commercial airliner was landing in front of us. Super Scott pointed to the jet and said we would not go in quite yet … we fell back for a while and then proceeded to land. As we descended to a height of about four stories the wake of the commercial airline got us nonetheless. In an instant the Skywagon’s wings flipped vertical. Camera equipment slammed against me and I found myself pushing equipment away from my head.

Super Scott, cool as the proverbial cucumber, righted the Skywagon and onto the runway we glided. No one said a word about the incident.

Mysteries Of The Carolina Bays turned out to be a decent film though it broke no new ground. It did present a plausible if unimaginative theory on how the bays formed, long-term wind and wave action. Given enough geologic time, prevailing winds set up wave action that shapes the bays and piles sand at the southeastern end. That’s not such a strange origin after all.

It’s tempting to think that something from space created the Carolina Bays. Suppose a massive asteroid of ice made it through the atmosphere only to explode and scatter across the Atlantic Coastal plain? Scientists increasingly are certain icy asteroids and comets seeded Earth with its water. And massive collisions with Earth have happened in relatively recent times. Remember the 1908 Stoney Tunguska event in Siberia?

Every time I went to Woods Bay I thought of Leonid A. Kulik who sought to solve one of the 20th Century’s greatest mysteries, the Tunguska blast. Kulik made exhausting expeditions to the Tunguska region. He saw things that only black holes, comets, nuclear bombs, asteroids, and alien spacecraft might explain.

Had something cataclysmic and mysterious taken place where my tripod and I stood? I like to think that it did. I’ll never know barring the advent of some new technology or evidence that might come to light.

Carolina Bays serve up a fascinating subject and have made for more than a few documentaries. I’m sure any surviving prints of Mysteries of the Carolina Bays got trashed long ago as new and better technologies displaced 16-millimeter film. Somewhere, perhaps, a brittle print sits in a film canister in some forgotten cabinet. The cameras have long been cased. The old film lab in Atlanta is gone. After all, 31 years have passed and much has changed. The Skywagon crashed in the South Carolina Lowcountry years ago. Perchance it made a crater in soft sands, one of non-mysterious origin.

The men I worked with retired. Swamps and their origins are no longer on their minds but they are on mind. The swamps are still out there waiting for one more visit.

I intend to return to Woods Bay. I will return to the Land of the Trembling Earth and the little swamp on family land. And if by chance I bump into the city slicker who said if you see one swamp you’ve seen them all I’ll straighten him out. Fly over Carolina Bays at low altitude I’ll tell him and you’ll never again see all swamps as the same but you will see them in a new light.

Photo from Natural World Education video via YouTube.

Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of fourteen books, 550 columns, and more than 1,200 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II, and South Carolina Country Roads. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground.

He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks to groups across South Carolina and Georgia. He’s the editor of Shrimp, Collards & Grits, a Lowcountry lifestyle magazine.
Governor McMaster conferred the Order of the Palmetto upon him October 26, 2018 for his impact upon South Carolina through his books and writing because “his work is exceptional to the state.”

Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He grew up in Lincolnton, Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina.

Visit Tom's website at Email him at [email protected].