How Pat Conroy revealed the wonder of the Lowcountry, and made one local fear losing it
My wife had been telling me to read Pat Conroy for years. I’d respond, “I’m just trying to get through the classics,” or some other half-hearted excuse, before struggling through another chapter of The Beautiful and Damned. It was a time when I seldom enjoyed reading, forcing myself to turn each page out of commitment to “pure literature.” I don’t recall the time or place when I finally put down Ulysses, but I can remember most every detail of when I picked up The Prince of Tides.
I texted my wife telling her I was near tears. It was a transformative experience—the way someone could capture the raw, untainted Lowcountry with such fluid prose, my senses coming to life with each passing sentence. It was as if Conroy himself had taken me to explore a magical place for the first time, except that place had been right in front of me all along.
I’m reminded of Conroy’s words often. His ability to capture the natural world is like a walking stick I didn’t know I needed. Whether I’m inhaling the thick, briny stink of sunstruck pluff mud or driving past a swath of forest laid flat for development, the late author’s words find me as sure as the tide washing back in.
I know I’m not the only one. Most of us savor those times when the Lowcountry’s beauty outshines the traffic, flooding, and sticky heat—when it feels the way Conroy described it. When a sea of amber marsh crashes into the horizon; when the fecund aroma of the tidal marsh washes in on the breeze. I wish I could capture those moments between cupped palms, place them in a jar, and bury them out back beneath an acre of dirt. And when my days are shorter and the hours start to wane, I would dig them up, crack the lid, bury my nose deep, and take in the terroir, becoming drunk with the memories of what once was. Maybe I’m being dramatic, but I’m fearful Conroy’s vision of the Lowcountry will pass as he did—into legend, into remembrance.
While the Lowcountry stretches well beyond Charleston proper, our county could serve as an example of overzealous development to surrounding areas. The excavation of land, the filling of marshes, the destruction of natural habitat—it has accommodated many of us, while contributing to the issues we all curse. That stretch of untamed wilderness down the street might seem like it will grow old with you, but don’t take for granted the shadows it casts across the roadway. Can you hear it, that strange, disconcerting sound? I can. It’s the unsettling echo of a hundred bulldozers raking the earth in unison.
Luke Wingo (of The Prince of Tides) understands where I’m coming from. He was a character of sand and salt, of immoveable beliefs, bound by the straightest of moral compasses until the natural world he loved was threatened. Like Conroy, like many Lowcountry residents, Luke understood that depleting our land of its resources meant muddying its virtue: The more you meddle with it, the less it stands to offer. Do the shrimp boats still matter if they can no longer provide a sustainable catch? Are the coastlines still havens for healing if they are overdeveloped? Is Charleston still the “Holy City” when its skyline is consumed by hotels, an inch of St. Michael’s steeple waving its hand from the back of the class?
I’ll admit I’m a worrier, and I’m projecting for every beer can that has ever washed up at the shoreline of my fishing hole. That quiet place I go to rediscover Conroy’s vision, where the mullet bounce across the water like skipping stones, where I throw my anxiety to the wind with each cast. I try to remind myself: Charleston and its sister cities will be standing for a long time to come. They will change with the times, as all cities do, morphing into a place a new author will write about. If we continue trading the invaluable for a little bit of gold, future generations won’t be able to fully comprehend Conroy’s version of this place. Perhaps that is the natural progression of things.
Until then, I’ll be hiding out. Skittering amongst the fiddlers when I need to, still as a heron when I have to be, Luke on my mind, one eye on the tide, persevering against all odds until the walls close in, a new moon rises and the water with it, sweeping past the shore, closer now, washing away the sand and the ground beneath us.