The Lowcountry nurtures a bounty of undeniable beauty, but the marrow of her mystique is more personal. It is a quiet thing. It lays in wait. Part of her paradox, though, is that to understand it, one must embrace her core, albeit unwritten, principle: slow down. This might inspire popular images of seersucker suits, rocking chairs on wraparound porches, and sweating copper mugs of mint juleps, but that is merely a drop in her pond. She is not concerned with the surface of things. The greatest part of her mystery can only be found by easing the pace. And when we do this, she invites us in.
Sitting here now I take her advice. I lean back in my chair and put my pen down and close my eyes. I am eight years old in the back of my parents’ Oldsmobile Silhouette. We are driving to my grandmother’s house. The ebbing tide has uncovered a new odor for me. It is earthy, savory. It smells of Brussels sprouts and brine. While the scent of pluff mud is off-putting to some, over the years I have come to relish it. It reminds me of herons in the shallows and a periwinkle sky laced with wisps of peach clouds, of throwing stones into a current, of the meeting of sawgrass and breeze.
There’s something about a place where even the mud sticks in your memory. Not only its aroma, but its richness, its density. Pausing at the edge of another memory, I am standing on a crude boardwalk in near dark, watching fiddler crabs scurry over the bubbling breathing holes in the black mixture of earth and water. The sticky summer air relenting a bit in the young night, but still I feel its presence. As DuBose Heyward put it in his poem “Dusk”:
And while the constellations gem the silence
High overhead, her cheek is on my cheek.
The Lowcountry’s mystique does not live only in the past. She is more than memory. She has a history, yes, and to walk her streets is like walking through a history book with many unsettling pages. Parts of her seem motionless in time. But she is constantly writing, never revising. And for one who moved away, the old constants, met with new growth, further compound her charm.
One could write epistles on her trees alone: the Angel Oak and the alleys of Oaks, with the fur-like lichens hugging and hanging from branches. To stand among these is to join the long, painstaking quiet, the patience that has brought them to that very moment, seemingly frozen in time. The air may carry the scent of rain through beards of Spanish moss, but nothing is still. These trees have mastered subtlety, and it has made them regal. They go on, like the cities and towns that have grown up around them, writing, not revising.
A curious thing happens when people come to the Lowcountry, that unwritten principle to slow down seems to settle in their bones upon arrival. People want to participate in her way of life. They want to taste her food. They want to sit at her table and join her ritual. Food is inextricably linked to the Lowcountry, and the rest of the country has taken notice. But I am concerned with the ceremony. Here, sustenance is food’s secondary function. Yes, the food does famously, as my mom told me when I was a child, “stick to your ribs,” but that is only part of its purpose. It is the preparation. It is the conversation at the table. It is the duration of the meal. It is the gesture. It is, to borrow from the Greek, philia, which Aristotle summed up as “doing kindnesses; doing them unasked, and not proclaiming the fact when they are done.” In short, southern hospitality.
It is easy to be a romantic here, and people come to meet or reunite with that part of themselves, the general romantic, the one that lets the landscape, the cuisine, the pace, the unspoken rites sink in, that lets it all—if only briefly—be their own. Perhaps this is why she has attracted the attention of great novelists, poets, painters, and filmmakers. Perhaps it is the setting that inspires, not just the inspiration of what to write, but, more importantly, to sit down and then write.
And so she has made it to the page in many manners and media—her buildings, her landscape, her people. Even those, like myself, who have moved away still find themselves tethered to her. At times I feel that I left so I could continuously return, but that’s just the kind of sweet nothings she wants to hear. Other writers have said the same. “My hearthstone’s set in the red loam,” wrote Beatrice Ravenel. “My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call,” wrote Pat Conroy. “Come quickly, have found heaven,” wrote the artist Alfred Hutty in a letter to his wife.
Ours is a mystical land. She is maker and keeper of memory for those of us fortunate enough to grow up among her quiet woods and swim in her rivers and streams. But she possesses more than an inherent awe of geography; hers is a charm renewed, compounded by simplicity and time. She is resilient. She weathers a checkered past. She does not discriminate. She plods on. She gives us her stories, her images, her traditions, and we make of them something personal to take with us or to keep here at home. As Heyward wraps up “Dusk:”
Hers are the eyes through which I look on life
And find it brave and splendid.
Julia Cart’s images and techniques are inspired by 19th and early 20th century photography. Using large format box cameras, Cart works exclusively in black-and-white film, developing her own negatives and printing her work in limited editions with antique as well as contemporary processes.
This work began after I found an antique 8 x 10 box camera for sale in a shop on King Street. It was bought in Madagascar, and was in pristine condition. It has its original Zeiss lens and the camera dates to the late 1890s. Most of these prints are with platinum and palladium metals, the most archival or permanent of the printing processes. The image is embedded in the fibers of the paper, unlike a silver print that rests on the surface. The finished print expresses a unique depth and tactile quality—a mood of timeless beauty and reflection.