Armchair Peregrinations

December 15, 1998

I'm mostly not aware of it, but when I'm driving toward Columbia on the Old Charleston Highway, heading toward Cameron from Holly Hill, Four Holes Swamp courses in a sinuous path to my left about a mile away and parallel to the highway. Its origins lie just above Cameron. Bull Creek and Little Bull Creek feed into it just below that small town, as does Flea Bite Swamp, a somewhat poetically named little branch. They're all just about dried up now after this prolonged autumn drought we've had, but in spring when the rains come, the main Four Holes Swamp system will flow in a kind of slow-moving sheet across the swamp until it merges with the Edisto River.

Along a portion of this river-swamp drainage system (not a true river because it has so many braided paths), is a hidden world of ten-story tall bald cypresses and an understory of tupelo trees that have miraculously survived the loggers' axe thanks to the vision of its early owner, Francis Beidler. Now called the Francis Beidler Forest, a 9,000-acre preserve has been set aside for all to enjoy by the National Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy. Efforts to save this last remaining stand of such virgin bald cypresses culminated in the original preserve in the mid-seventies, about 3,000 acres. I remember writing a column about it at the newspaper, fired up and inspired that such a place could exist in this clear-cutting and development-crazed 20th century. Most people who walk the boardwalk trail through a portion of the preserve today find they are in one of nature's rarest sanctuaries, a quiet, cathedral-like natural wonder where sunlight filters down into clear, tea-colored waters and illumines a pristine world. On the occasions I've walked through the preserve, I've been struck time and again by the stillness, broken only by wind in the trees, splashes in the water as turtles fall from logs, and birdsong that I hear no where else.

But, as is often the case in this imperfect world we live in, there are some people who, with their infinite lack of concern and downright hostility to anything that is pure and pristine in nature, and which is quiet and beautiful, seek to destroy it for their own selfish ends. There is probably no more incompatible piece of human handiwork that could conceivably be placed near this worldclass nature preserve than a stockcar racetrack. But that is what has almost happened. For two years, those who love the Beidler Forest have fought the developers in court and before state agencies, losing and winning skirmishes against a most foul pair of entrepreneurs. In what may be a key victory for the Forest's supporters, the full board of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control unanimously denied, a few months ago, the issuance of a permit necessary for the track to be built. This followed a massive campaign of letter writing and calls protesting the development, and the board listened. They heard the evidence against the project, and they acted. The battle is not over yet, but we are cautiously hopeful that the prospect of roaring engines, exhaust, air pollution, and filthy, oily runoff from such a track will not threaten the Forest ever again.

From the moment the sneaky plan was publicized, people all over South Carolina and far beyond have been galvanized against this barbarous threat. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that the developers ever got as far as they did with their plans. There are few places like this left, but to some people the idea of preserving remnants of the natural world as they were hundreds of years ago is an alien concept to their greedy, materialistic minds and stunted little worldviews. It is a classic clash of opposites. Just the thought of that noise adjacent to the swamp, with thousands of people swarming into the area each Saturday, just boggles the mind. I shake my head in disbelief, disgust and sadness at what the human species is capable of at times.

This spring, as cool winds stirred new leaves in the swamp and water flowed quite perceptibly in sloughs and past cypress knees and massive fallen logs, the fate of that magnificent forest was constantly in the back of my mind. Would it soon be lost, or would it be saved for future generations to treasure as they look up into the treetops of those mighty patriarchs, some of them having been on earth a thousand years or more? I am hopeful that the integrity of Beidler Forest will remain intact and that I, and others, can go there again this coming April, or any time of the year, and walk quietly among those towering and magnificent trees.

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