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Captain Sams | A Walkabout with Mark Permar

You have to respond to the existing system rather than trying to change it. What’s exciting to me is gently integrating a neighborhood into an environment like this. It should be seamless with the natural environment.

It is a sunny day in mid-October, just five days after Hurricane Matthew has ripped through the Carolinas, a category one storm by the time it reached the Lowcountry but still enough wind and water to flood homes and take out power lines.

But today the sun is bright and hot. Children play in the ocean and sunbathers lounge along the shore at Beachwalker Park. Mark Permar pulls his Defender slowly onto the beach, and we drive a while in silence, taking in the scene.

I think we are in the middle of a swarm of butterflies.

Sure enough, countless fluttering monarchs are slowly, haltingly making their way south. The effect is mesmerizing, something out of Alice in Wonderland. The sun so bright, the air so clear, and all these flashing butterfly wings.

We pull onto a high area of soft sand, and Mark cuts the engine. The storm has taken out a row of dunes, maybe two, and the wide white beach shimmers. I was expecting more. More destruction, trees unearthed, debris littering the beach. But aside from the absent dunes, everything is pristine.  

It’s doing what it’s supposed to do. Mark gestures at the new frontline of dunes. In the coming year that will start to soften. All that material, sand, is out there (gestures to the ocean) and it starts coming back. The currents go from east to west, and it deposits all the sand down here.

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We climb to a rise on Captain Sams Spit. To the north is the gentle curve of the Kiawah River, beyond it is Cassique, the kayak dock, and a few rooftops peeking from the pines. To the south is the beach, the Atlantic. The center of the land is high ground, some of the highest on the island, and a mixture of wax myrtle and pines create a dense thicket along the spine of the spit.

Captain Sams has been long caught in a battle over development. To build or not to build. Environmental groups want to block development, and Kiawah Partners wants to build out the last entitlement on the island. Simple enough it seems. But not to Permar. The longtime nature photographer, and land planner has a paradigmatic vision for the spit. To Permar, both sides of the fight are on the same side of a larger, more subtle battle for responsible land planning and integrated development.

 

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We make our way to a stand of tall pines, a carpet of needles soft underfoot. It’s hard to believe just days ago a hurricane blew through. I wonder aloud about the maturity of these trees, the age of the this part of the island. The edges of the spit must shift, expanding and contracting with the tides and weather systems. But this place, these trees, seem so established, so sound.

These islands are organic, says Permar. I think that as long as you understand that and look at where it is appropriate to place structures—you’re in concert with the natural setting.

We make our way along the north side of the spit. It is a wide swath of high ground, a plateau of goldenrod and sweetgrass. It’s a landscape I’ve never really seen before, more exposed, more elemental. I imagine a roofline peeking out from the swaying palmettos. Not just any homeowner would be suited for land like this.

If I lived out here, I’d build a house that was like a Swiss Army Knife, that could fold out and open to the elements. On a day like today, why would you need air conditioning? It’s more about the experience of living—you can live in the breeze, you can live within a natural system in a more direct way.

We talk flora and fauna for a long while. Permar explains his helicopter-drop concept of building, where the landscape is healed around a newly built house so seamlessly that it appears the structure has been lowered by a helicopter and dropped into the natural surroundings. This wouldn’t be the place for ornamental gardens or manicured hedges. The responsibility doesn’t end once the homes have been built, says Permar. Homeowners have to carry the torch.

We wander apart for a bit, and I see him crouched down in the grass, taking photos of a purple flower. You wouldn’t believe this color exists in nature if you didn’t see it with your own eyes! he shouts. It makes sense. Permar has a vision for living in the elements, on the edge. He’s been telling me about an ongoing photo project, shooting the marsh all hours of the day, as the light shifts on the grasses, filtering through the marsh in hues that change with the seasons.

My sneakers sink into the pluff mud as we cut across a low marshy expanse. We are on a deer trail leading out to the westernmost point of the island. I understand that people don’t want to risk it. It’s an interesting challenge, and we have to nail it, says Permar. He thinks for a moment, choosing his words. Hopefully you never stop learning. This is another opportunity to learn how to design better with nature.

We’ve made it to the end of the spit. The butterflies are here too—like little squares of orange tissue paper, winking in the sunlight. There are a handful of people, in groups of twos and threes, standing very still at the shoreline looking out. Two brown pelicans are in their midst, and they too seem to be staring out at the horizon.

Everyone wants to live on the edge of the coast, says Permar. And we stand there for a while, watching the people watch the ocean.

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