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Edisto Island: A Historical Wonder of Nature On the Ecological Edge

On the week including the Fourth of July our family has gathered on Edisto Island and its Beach on the South Carolina coast for the past 30 years. Edisto Beach is a fragile barrier island on the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the Edisto River estuary between the ocean and Edisto Island, a much larger land mass in the lush and verdant Low Country of South Carolina some 50 miles south of Charleston. The drive across the island to the beach is enchanting in its natural beauty. Mingling with streaks of sunlight, grey beards of Spanish moss stream and swirl over the highway from the limbs of over-arching live oak trees forming an ethereal canopy over the colonnade of ancient trees with giant gnarled trunks. Our short journey across the island leads to another splendid vista of the beach and the vast expanse of the ocean beyond.

Edisto Island is named for its indigenous inhabitants, the Edisto Indians who were there for thousands of years before the Spanish came in the 1500s and the English settled there in 1670. In the early 1700s the Edistos gradually disappeared because of domination by the colonial culture, European borne diseases, struggles with other Native Americans and racial intermingling with black slaves and white settlers. Edisto Island's English settlers first farmed rice and indigo, then became some of the richest people in the world in the pre-Civil War 18th and 19th centuries as planters of long staple cotton. Slaves from Africa furnished the labor to amass their great wealth from the finest cotton grown anywhere.

Threatened by the growing political power of the abolitionist movement in the North, the wealthy planters fomented secession from the Union In 1860. Col. Joseph E. Jenkins of Edisto Island told a secessionist meeting on the eve of the Civil War, "Gentlemen, if South Carolina does not secede from the Union, Edisto Island will." While there are less than 1,500 African-Americans on the island now, more than 10,000 black slaves were there when the Civil War began. The giant cotton plantations have given way to farms that grow tomatoes, melons and a variety of vegetables.

The Island's economy is presently based on tourism and farming, along with fishing and shrimping. Family vacationers from the Carolinas and Georgia still predominate, but since the New York Times published "An Out-of-the-Way Isle In South Carolina" about Edisto in 1994 the outside world has discovered Edisto. For the past decade a tourism-inspired building boom of new homes, cottages and condos has ensued and driving under the ancient trees across the island on going-and-coming weekends are bumper-to-bumper SUVs and mini-vans guzzling $3.00 gas that contributes to the global warming threatening the very survival of their beach destination.

My brother David usually rents a place on one of the tidal creeks that team with life as they twist and turn, meandering through the marshes behind the barrier island and beach fronting the Atlantic. We delight in the inter-generational pleasures of fishing, crabbing, shrimping, and clamming along the tidal creeks with our children, grandchildren and cousins. Seafood gathered by those who eat it is the most delicious. David has a natural ability for harvesting seafood from the wild that was enhanced by learning experiences as a youth with our older brother Sam and our father and uncle. He and his sons are accomplished watermen who always bring their boat down to Edisto.

My wife and I rent a beach house with a large front porch filled with rocking chairs and swings that offers our family a view of the beach and Atlantic Ocean. Fish jump and splash above the ocean's surface. Dolphin roll near the water's edge. Giant loggerhead sea turtles wade ashore by moonlight to dig nests and lay their eggs up on the beach. Their tiny hatchlings totter across the beach from the edge of the dunes and head out to sea. Seagulls, pelicans and various birds sail across the sky and skim down over the water in their ceaseless search for prey among the species of marine life. Our four grandchildren, whose ages are 3 to 6, enjoy throwing Goldfish crackers up to the hovering seagulls that dart and catch them midair.

We have watched the beach diminish in recent years. The sand has eroded at an alarming and destructive rate. High tides lap at the underpinnings of beachfront cottages, especially near the pier on the northeastern part of the beach.

South Carolina's Annual State of the Beach report for 2005 said the first priority for the Town of Edisto Beach was beach re-nourishment. The report stated that the northeastern portion of the beach is sand-starved with many houses threatened. The beach was re-nourished with 150,000 cubic yards of sand in 1995, but most of that sand has been eroded away.

Dr. Orrin Pilkey, who recently retired as Professor of Geology and Director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Duke University, is an expert on over-development as a cause of beach erosion. Pilkey says nourishment creates a false sense of security, which has led to construction ranging from cottages to high-rises, and he dismisses beach re-nourishment as a long-range cure for loss of beachfront property. He cites the lack of adequate sand, rising sea levels and the "increasing recognition of instability of artificial beaches".

In "The Next Victim of Global Warming: The Beaches", The New York Times recently reported, "When scientists consider the possible effects of global warming...they can say one thing for sure: sea levels will rise." The in-depth science feature also said that, "According to a report in 2000 by the Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment, at least a quarter of the houses within 500 feet of the United States coast may be lost to rising seas by 2060."

Our grandchildren will enjoy the natural wonders of Edisto Beach with us next week. Will there be an Edisto Beach for their grandchildren?

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Tom Turnipseed

Tom Turnipseed

Tom Turnipseed is an attorney, writer and peace activist in Columbia, SC. His blog is

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