you'll think you're in africa

July 24, Thursday afternoon, 3:30. The July sun bears down with no mercy. The humidity’s high and the terrain rough and remote. To the northwest a cloudbank promises relief but relief never comes. We drive on in no need of windshield wipers.

The author amid the colonies
The author amid the colonies

Robert Clark and I are miles from city life headed deep into the Francis Marion National Forest. To reach our destination, we turn off US Highway 17 onto State Highway 45. We drive for miles looking for Halfway Creek Road. Our directions, scribbled onto the back of an envelope by a naturalist friend, instruct us to “turn left onto Halfway Creek Road and drive until you see a high-tension power line. Turn left into the power line right of way and park. Look to your left. That’s where you’ll find what you seek.”

We do just that on this trip where we’re killing two birds with one stone. Our main reason for being on the road is to make a presentation on our new book and to attend several book signings. While making our way to and back from Georgetown, Pawley’s Island, and Litchfield, we will also explore two natural areas.

The naturalist’s directions are right on the money. Beneath the power lines we are somewhere between McClellanville and Jamestown, South Carolina. If something goes wrong, we are on our own. Civilization’s a ways off. I check my iPhone and see a bit of a signal, a degree of comfort. We’ve had good luck. All spring and summer we have explored swamps, savannas, and sand ridges as white as snow. We’ve waded into blackwater swamps up to our waist and slogged through underbrush chest high. We’ve seen rattlers and moccasins but so far have had no troubles. We dress for protection: boots, snake leggings, rugged shirts, hats, and wear liberal amounts of insect repellant. Beneath humming power lines we change into all that gear right out in the open and why not. No one is around for miles.

We are on a quest to find colonies of pitcher plants, one of nature’s more unique plants. Most people have never seen these carnivorous plants. To say they’re beautiful is an understatement. Let me put it this way, if they were more common and easier to locate, florists would elevate them to exalted status. I put them alongside stargazer lilies.

The site we’re about to explore is known as Florida Bay. It’s a place very few people go to. Locals call it Wambaw Bay and that suits my red-and-black Georgia blood much better. We walk along an ATV trail the US Forest Service cut through the sand and pines. We turn right to walk downhill to the bay and come to a stout fence made of hog wire and hollow metal poles.

It never pays to brag. As I cross the fence I tell Robert, “I’m a pro at crossing fences. Did it a lot on my granddad’s farm.” My pants snag a wire and I’m stuck. With a jerk, I free myself and the fence twangs like a guitar string. All of a sudden someone sticks a burning cigarette against my nose. Something flies beneath the brim of my hat and my right cheek burns hot. “Oooooh,” I yell. Robert turns and I turn too, and just behind me a whirling funnel of wasps rises from the hollow fence post, a tornado of terror. We take off running.

For the next thirty minutes I hold a cold bottle of water to my stings. For the next hour I endure a throbbing pain, a bit of swelling, and a feeling of being out of it a bit. I am not allergic to stings. Had I been we’d have been in a jam. The rest of the afternoon I was jumpy and on high alert. It was difficult to concentrate.

Wambaw Bay Savanna
Wambaw Bay Savanna

We made our way into and across Wambaw Bay and though we found some pitcher plants they did not grow in profuse colonies as we hoped. Sedges and wildflowers such as meadow beauties gave us plenty to see and photograph. On the way out, I went back to the site of my wasp attack. The wasps had built their nest inside the hollow metal pole. No way we were crossing the fence there again. About thirty yards to the northeast the fence was down and we made our way back to the humming power lines.

We changed into street clothes and resumed our trip to Georgetown/Litchfield where we had book signings. For us, this trip represented the polar ends of the book world. On one end we were researching and taking photographs for a book to be; on the other we would be giving a talk and signing books for the just-released Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. 2. From rare habitat to readers, those paired missions had taken us from Irmo through Awendaw past McClellanville and soon over the Santee and Sampit Rivers.

Reflections Interlude

Men seldom attend book signings and in resort settings you find few Southerners. Anyone care to explain?

July 25, Friday afternoon, 3:15. As we backtrack from Litchfield to the Francis Marion Forest we travel beneath irate skies. High winds, heavy rain, and neon-blue bolts pummel us, like being shelled by laser bombs. Back on Highway 45 after driving around downed trees and limbs, we witness a Biblical vision. An inferno consumes a solitary pine as its brothers and sisters look on in terror. Orange and yellow flames spew yellow smoke into the gray sky. Like Moses we should have approached the burning tree. Should have photographed it too but we didn’t and later regretted it. Only the torrential downpour kept the woods from burning.

Wind-gnarled cypress evoke Serengeti’s acacia trees
Zones of grasses and sedges paint the bay
Pitcher Plant colonies at Red Bluff Bay
Aliens descend on Red Bluff Bay
A pitcher plant throat is a one-way ticket to death
Competing colors. It’s a draw.

We turned off Highway 45 onto Chicken Creek Road and negotiated labyrinth-like forest service roads that grew increasingly difficult. Pig paths would be more accurate. Finally, we could go no farther. We parked and slogged through 200 yards of thigh-high shrubs into Red Bluff Bay where a sight dazzled us: colonies of plants botanists and naturalists call Sarracenia flava.

When I see colonies of pitcher plants, I think, “This is what life on another planet looks like, otherworldly and beautiful.” In cities on some planet in the Andromeda Galaxy, alien skyscrapers tower over a vast plain just as multi-hued, rich-veined pitcher plants tower over the bay’s floor … that’s the image colonies of pitcher plants conjure up for me. That, and a sensation that I am in Africa. You, too, if you came with me and set your imagination free.

Like insects, the plants attract me too. They make me want to touch them and to feel a pitcher plant is akin, ironically, to touching a Styrofoam plate. It feels leathery, plastic almost, but that’s as close as you’ll get to plastic in the oval depressions known as Carolina bays. To stand in an unspoiled bay is to go back 500 years. And so, my resume has “Time Traveler” under “Skills.”

I once wrote that death can be beautiful and I was right. Arresting and seductive, pitcher plants reign as death traps. It’s all so, well innocent. First, the plant’s nectar drifts across the currents filling the air with a sweet fragrance. The bouquet amounts to a bribe. Flies, crawling insects, and in some cases tiny animals just can’t resist it. By land and by air they come to the cupped lip, which, when moist, proves slippery. A careless moment … disaster strikes. This feeding mechanism is known as a pitfall trap.

I took a long, close look at a colony and couldn’t believe all the flies landing on the plants. Eager to taste the nectar, one did his little leg-rubbing thing in anticipation of a meal and down the throat it went.

Well, the joke’s on Mr. Fly. Once it climbs down the plant’s long, funnel-like throat, it’ll find the nectar all right but when it’s time to take off it’s grounded. Downward-angled hairs act like jail bars. After too many attempts to escape, exhaustion will set in and the drained fly will sink into the acidic nectar and dissolve, becoming what it craved, nectar. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t eager to see a wasp go into a pitcher plant. “Vengeance is mine,” sayeth Sarracenia flava. All this predatory, flesh eating evolved out of necessity. The plant needs supplemental nutrition from insects because the soil it grows in is nutrient-deficient. Natural selection and evolution turned the plant carnivorous and all manner of insects gladly comply with nature’s grand design.

I didn’t think I’d enjoy exploring Carolina bays as much as I do. Whenever I’m in one, I hear nothing but the wind in the treetops. I hear no cars, no horns. Wildflowers, exotic plants, and majestic sedges surround me. No litter. No billboards. An adventure, the chance of encountering black bears, exists too. Yellow pitcher plants, red root grass, and yellow milkwort splash living paint you could say here and there in the radiant grass zones. There’s music to hear too. I love it when the frogs sing out and cicadas rejoin them from the treetops. As if in a dream, I soar on outstretched arms into the Dark Continent—Africa.

Wind-gnarled cypress evoke Serengett
Wind-gnarled cypress evoke Serengeti’s acacias

Here in Red Bluff Bay wind-twisted cypress resurrect visions of acacia trees in the Serengeti. As far as I’m concerned I am in Africa.

A few more things … It’s easy to imagine I am the only human on the planet when I am in a bay. I feel more alive there too. Away from machines and buildings I get a peaceful sense of abandonment that’s hard to explain but easy to enjoy.

For me the question is which time of day reigns supreme here, dawn or dusk? At daylight dew-laden spider webs silver up bejeweling the sedges, and spice-like scents rise from the grasses. At sunset, cypress crowns blaze up with western light as if afire, and birds set a frenetic pace as nightfall drops. What great material to write about. I had a reader tell me, “Aren’t you overdoing it writing so much about these bays?” The reality is I am not. I exist to take others with me. I know few people who do what I do. They are content to look at photos and live vicariously, translation: live safely. Not me. Walking into a bay transports me. It sends me on a journey through the firmament to an exotic planet on one hand and a safari to Africa on the other. All this beauty, I realize, is concentrated here because man leaves it alone, and yet I am a man—an intruder. If the price I must pay to see, photograph, and write about such natural splendor are wasp stings, well, count me in.


Images: All the photos were taken by the author, Tom Poland.

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].