Crossing the dune before sunrise, we behold paradise. The shell-spangled beach is ours alone, and the sea is an inverted shell filled with cream, glistening and rippling in faint illumination of dawn over Edisto Island. No condos, no high rise motels break the great smile of South Carolina beach stretching in both directions, as we stroll down off the dune toward waves that whisper their shifting refrain, “I am, I am, I am, I am….” and tides that shout and murmer for a billion years in answer, “Sure you are, sure you are, sure you are….”
Unsullied grace dwells here, so naturally we stay for sunrise, a storybook rendition. Dolphins trace gentle black arcs parallel to the shore—count 'em, three, five, seven, at least--and gulls and pelicans fly in formation from out of a backlit sky. Here comes the sun, little darlin', a luminous pearl of blood that blesses the horizon then bleeds into all the eastern edges of clouds, turning them shades of coral and vermilion, clear across the heavens.
Others from the beachside campground gather now in ones and twos--solitary beachcombers, strolling couples. A college-age boy and a woman who could be his mother trundle up the beach on an engine-driven cart that stops 50 feet away and he clambers out with a five-gallon plastic bucket and a thin metal rod. He pierces ruffled sand, probing, rolling his lips together as if to better discern the nature of his discovery.
“This is it,” he says beneath a gold-spangled sky, and goes to digging a hole about a foot across and two feet deep, scooping sand with his hands. The woman, dressed in olive green, asks if we'd like to watch as he transfers a trove of loggerhead turtle eggs--slightly pinker and larger than ping-pong balls, and much more fragile. He must move the eggs gently, so as not to disturb the embryos attached to the inner bottoms of the eggshells. Just turning them over would doom them, as would letting them alone. The mother loggerhead never clambered far enough up the dunes to deposit these eggs safely. High tides would smother them before incubation had fairly begun were they to remain here at the end of this undulating trail the turtle created during the night. Here she dug a hole with her back flippers, then answered nature's primal call to bear fruit and multiply.
The young man counts the eggs as he moves them to his bucket, using seashells to denote groups of ten. In the end 13 shells lie in a row representing 130 eggs—ten above average he tells us. Quickly, carefully, he carries the eggs to another hole he's dug higher up the dune, as his partner in preservation fields questions.
I ask her why Edisto is so undeveloped. Where are the condos and motels, supermarkets and shopping malls, theaters and waterslides—the urban sprawl that plagues other natural gems?
It's a choice the people made, she says. Despite material poverty for some, community leaders have fought every effort to bring city water and sewer lines to the island. A state park that fronts more than a mile of beach serves as a magnet for people like Jeanne and me, drawn here for the primitive feel of the place. “Bring in the water and sewers, and development can't be far behind,” the park lady allows. “They don't want it here.” They prefer to raise standards gradually, unlike the mad clamor for cash surrounding our Smoky Mountains.
I think of a recent bike ride Jeanne and I took down Gist's Creek Road in Sevierville. Near the end, where the road joins Old Knoxville Highway, there used to be a place of leafy reprieve. I loved riding and running that stretch of road as it undulated through acres of forestland, across an ample creek. To peer into those woods was to glimpse mayapple, redbud, oak, sassafras and sycamore. Sometimes you'd see deer and raccoons, herons, an occasional fox. The road is blocked now as earthmovers build a plat for development at the end of a long-finished bridge over the Pigeon River we call “the bridge to nowhere.” I often think of our last ride there.
A smell of ash is on the air as, with growing dread, we negotiate our way on bikes. Crossing that last hill at dusk, we behold a vision of hell. Acres of scraped and gouged clay bear only piles of scarred logs and brush that send up clouds of smoke as they smolder and burn. Arrayed like giant yellow insects before the bridge to nowhere a dozen earthmoving machines prophesy ever more pipelines and roads snaking through a countryside lining itself with every kind of tourist contraption. Across Pigeon River flows another current--a river of cars on Hwy. 66, bringing money and material gain. There's something lost, though, a more modest way we might've gone in the face of God's grandeur.
To take its measure, consider Edisto.