Photo via Instagram @raleigh9kitch
When I was little, I was told some Coastal South folkore about the creation of Spanish Moss. The story is set several centuries ago, before the invasive moss covered our coastal trees and the native tribes still reigned throughout the region.
As the European explorers settled the Coastal South, a Spanish man met a young native woman. He liked her, but she refused him. The much older Spaniard did not take the rejection very well, so one day he attempted to corner her alone.
The indian girl ran and ran, and eventually found an oak tree that she could scurry up. The Spaniard followed her up the tree, so she went out on a limb -- as far as she could manage. Just when she thought the Spaniard had trapped her, he lost his balance and slipped out of the tree. However, his long gray beard got caught in the branches and ripped from his skin.
After this nasty fall, the Spaniard died. However, the story claims that his beard continued to grow on the tree, and with it, his spirit continued to search for the girl. Spreading from tree to tree until it covered the entire Coastal South.
Local dolphins in the St. Johns River have been spotted with severe cases of skin lesions, indicating their immune systems are compromised. In these photos, a newborn calf is covered in lesions and also appears to have an orange algal-type mat growing on its rostrum (face) and dorsal fin. Unfortunately, this does not bode well for his/her survival. A similar algal-type mat was observed on resident adult dolphins at death.
There have been several recent reports on the east coast (in addition to the Gulf) of people spotting dolphins, manatees, and other marine wildlife with growths and fungi on them. These growths are attributed to red tide, which is an algal bloom that produces toxins that can kill marine organisms, taint shellfish, cause skin irritations, and even foul air. They can also cause respiratory issues in children and elderly.
Algal blooms naturally occur, however, scientists, fishermen, and outdoors-people have noticed that they have been increasing in size, intensity, and persistence in recent decades. This is attributed to the increase of foreign nutrients in coastal waters – which causes the algae to grow at an unnaturally fast rate.
I wanted to share some simple tips on identifying the algae and what you can do to help!
If you spot an algae bloom (like the one pictured), you can quickly report it by dropping a pin on the App “Water Rangers” https://app.waterrangers.ca/
Create a River Friendly Yard.
Whether you are in your car or boat or on foot, pay close attention to what is going on around you. Is dirt running off a construction site into a creek? Did you spot a fish kill or a broken pipe? Is someone illegally-dumping trash or pollution into a storm drain or directly into a river? Report these issues to your city works or state environmental agency (they should have a hotline).
Most importantly, keep children and pets away from blooms. Wash thoroughly if you have come into contact. And do not eat fish caught in bloom areas.
It’s Easter Week! What better time to write about the Gullah Geechee faith?
Gullah religious systems and beliefs are derived from African tradition and the Christianity practiced by their former white plantation owners. While adhering to Christian doctrine, the Gullah practice a faith immersed in communal prayer, song, and dance.
The place –
While traveling throughout the coastal south, you may have come across small, whitewashed shacks in varying degrees of preservation or disrepair. These are known as praise houses. During the antebellum period, slaves were not permitted to worship in white churches, nor were they allowed to congregate in large groups for fear of rebellion. Small praise houses were purposely built to have an unthreatening presence. These whitewashed shacks once provided a place where blacks could worship, celebrate, and hold community meetings.
The sermon –
Many traditional African American churches are known for incorporating singing, dancing, and shouting into their worship services. Gullah Geechee services share this quality, which is derived from slave services where the congregation was unable to read. Most praise houses only had one Bible or hymnal, and being literate was a rarity. To address this, the congregation developed a call-response type of service, where the leader would loudly deliver the sermon, passages, or hymn, and the congregation would learn by verbally repeating it back. Additionally, the groups might clap or stomp to set a beat for the call-response. From this developed the performance of a Gullah Geechee ring shout, which is usually set for special occasions such as holidays or funerals.
A somewhat famous, but lesser understood feature of Gullah-Geechee faith is the blending of traditional African beliefs of hoodoo, wudu, or juju. In contrast to voodoo, this is a “lighter” form of folk magic that relies on an intimate relationship with the earth as an ancestral or parental relationship. Hoodoo heavily involves the use of herbs and roots for medicinal purposes, and from these practices, you may have heard of individuals known as "Root Doctors."
Until the 20th century, many lowcountry communities had their own root doctor. Dr. Buzzard, Dr. Bug, Dr. Snake, Dr. Crow. Just as people now keep lawyers on retainer, locals (both black and white) paid regular visits to their spiritual “doctor.” During the WWII, lines of visitors went down the street to pay a visit to Dr. Bug, who sold charms laced with arsenic causing heart palpitations for men who wanted to avoid the draft.
Similar to Mobile’s Africatown community, the east coast is home to West African slave descendants known as the Gullah-Geechee. “Gullah” is the accepted name for islanders in South Carolina, while “Geechee” refers to those islanders in Georgia and North Florida. It is believed that Geechee originates from the name of the Ogeechee River south of Savannah, Ga. In Georgia, Freshwater Geechee refers to those that live on the mainland, while Saltwater Geechee refers to islanders.
Originally, these Africans were chosen specifically for their knowledge of farming rice and other coastal crops – primarily in Sierra Leone and surrounding areas. As such, in America, the Gullah-Geechee worked almost exclusively with coastal rice, indigo, and sea island cotton plantations. While the two cultures are similar to each other, their isolated island locations resulted in distinctive differences from other slave communities. Their Sea Island creole language, African-meets-coastal food, and beliefs have become a celebrated part of their culture and traditions.
“Rice is what forms the special link between the Gullah and the people of Sierra Leone. During the 1700s the American colonists in South Carolina and Georgia discovered that rice would grow well in the moist, semitropical country bordering their coastline. But the American colonists had no experience with the cultivation of rice, and they needed African slaves who knew how to plant, harvest, and process this difficult crop. The white plantation owners purchased slaves from various parts of Africa, but they greatly preferred slaves from what they called the “Rice Coast” or “Windward Coast”—the traditional rice-growing region of West Africa, stretching from Senegal down to Sierra Leone and Liberia. The plantation owners were willing to pay higher prices for slaves from this area, and Africans from the Rice Coast were almost certainly the largest group of slaves imported into South Carolina and Georgia during the 18th century.”
At the start of the Civil War, Union troops rushed to blockage Confederate shipping. Fearing they would be invaded, the Sea Islands were abandoned by their plantation owners. However, the slave communities continued to live their lives uninterrupted. In the event that Union troops did arrive on the islands, there were several records of Gullah-Geechee men joining the effort to defend their freedom. At the conclusion of the war, few plantation owners attempted to restart their island enterprises, allowing the Gullah-Geechee an opportunity to buy the land at a low price. Here, the communities were able to avoid many of the racial tensions that would occur over the follow century, including Jim Crow.
However, with few exceptions, freed slaves were still excluded from the legal system after the Civil War, so the properties were not able to be “willed” from generation to generation. Instead, the land is held in common. The families are entitled to live on it under "heir's property rights." However, since the Gullah-Geechee property sits on “prime” coastal real estate, this historic arrangement has presented several common issues:
With the variety of pressures and schemes that outsiders use in attempts to make a profit off these small communities, the difficultly to hold on to the land will only increase. As a visible example, the only remaining 200 acres of undeveloped land on Hilton Head Island belongs to the Gullah people. (Hilton Head Island was once an entirely Gullah community.) Sadly, the loss of land also equates to a loss of coastal history and culture that has existed since colonial times.
After the twinkling lights and ornaments have been packed away, most of the nation settles into a deep hibernation – where social obligations are few and rarely spent outdoors. However, coastal residents continue to celebrate the season with a knife in one hand and a glove on the other. In the Southeast, it’s fair to estimate that a mention of a bushel of oysters is met with greater enthusiasm and attendance than any given warm-weather party (no matter how many kegs or slip’n’ slides are advertised).
Oysters have been a part of the local diet even before the arrival of Europeans. Pre-colonial mounds (AKA middens) of oyster shells can still be found scattered across barrier islands and throughout the Lowcountry. In fact, historians believe that the oyster roast as we now know it most certainly has Native American roots. Native Americans also used the razor-sharp shells for a variety of tasks.
Early settlers made use of the leftover shells, burning them to extract lime then mixing it with sand, water, and more oyster shells to create a durable type of concrete called "tabby." Tabby is known for being able to withstand the elements (even fire), and it was used in the building of houses and other structures, some of which are still standing.
Oysters continued to gain significance throughout the colonies and it is even said that Charleston’s old social calendar was purposely aligned with the season for oyster harvesting. However, most Charleston socialites didn’t originally shuck oysters, but poached them for soups and sauces. One of the most ubiquitous of these dishes was creamed oysters or "chafing dish oysters." Ladled over toast or pastries, creamed oysters were almost as important to a ball as the champagne... (Read more below.)
You may have noticed these same fences on almost all beaches, both here and in other parts of the world. The sand fences look thin and flimsy, but they’re actually serving a great purpose. The fence is made of wood slats that are deliberately spread apart. These openings allow for sand to be blown into the fence, but then accumulate naturally in that area. These simple fences help restore sand dunes in populated areas and prevent future erosion. Gulf State Park is currently undergoing a $135 million dollar project to install these fences, which will be paid for by the 2010 BP oil spill funds.
The dune pictured below stood around 8-9 feet high. Much of Florida’s panhandle used to be bordered by similar dunes. As you move away from the beach, you can see ancient dunes that resemble hills, growing pine and oak trees. Though these have become rare in Florida (due to development), in recent years residents have realized that dunes provide an extremely effective and cost efficient barrier against erosion and storms. Now, dune restoration has become a popular cause in many coastal communities.
You may have noticed that beaches on the gulf are well known for this ultra-white, sugary appearance. This is because the sand is almost entirely made of quartz. Ironically, quartz is not a naturally occurring part of the Gulf Coast -- so how did all this white sand get there?
These quartz particles are originally from the quartz rock in the Appalachian Mountains. At the end of the last Ice Age when the world temperatures began warming and the ice caps began melting, large rivers washed down the mountains and carried the sand to the ocean. The quartz sand that is in the Gulf of Mexico can be traced up the Apalachicola River, which rises in the Appalachians.
Posts are a combination of my own research, visits, and conversations, plus various information found around the web. I try to provide sources, but if you have specific questions, feel free to ask!