May 2, 2013

When nature reclaims us all...

I've been thinking a lot lately about the impermanence of our place on earth. Seems like there have been lots of events to spark that sort of thinking...potential nuclear bombs in North Korea, shooting after shooting here in the US, a bomb at the Boston Marathon, and here in Charleston, an election making national news thanks to a farce of a Republican candidate.

I wrote this essay while thinking and thinking and thinking...and as it will segue nicely with a book review coming early next week, I'm posting it here, now. I hope you enjoy. 

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Driving down Bees Ferry Road after a torrential downpour recently, I saw a John Kuhn campaign sign, neglected and alone on the side of the road. No one had bothered to pick it up after the congressional primaries in March. A few weeks of rain and construction work destroyed the sign, leaving it muddied and canted awkwardly to the left, with tall weeds entangling it and dragging it further down. 

Later that day, I walked behind my daughter as she biked around our West Ashley neighborhood. Our retention ponds were filled to capacity, with water lapping over the concrete drainage tubes, keeping the resident turtles from resting in the sun. In another area, the swamp that hugs the outskirts of our subdivision had risen until it crossed the sidewalk. We left muddy wheel tracks and footprints after passing through, and by the time the water receded, the sidewalk was tilted and buckled, creating a new obstacle for our daily rides. 

The next day I drove south on 17 into Ravenel farm country. Tucked away in the watery forest stood an old clapboard house, the roof long gone. Trees grew through the middle of this building that was once someone’s home. The remaining wooden frame was gray, and it rotted in the humid southern sun. 

They all had one thing in common: each manmade item – the sign, the sidewalk, the house – was reclaimed by nature, taken back by the wilderness of the Lowcountry. They reminded me of how impermanent our place on this Earth is, and of nature’s ability to take back all it has given. 

We build things constantly here in Charleston. Out in West Ashley, our swampland is being clear-cut and filled. Where trees once stood behind my house there’s now a street. Behind the street? Another neighborhood. Behind that? Still more development has begun, and dozens more apartment buildings now stand on land that was once a habitat for Swamp Thing (seriously – Swamp Thing was filmed in Charleston and John’s Island). 

We like to think we’re safe in our neighborhoods, with our rock-hard clay soil, carted in by the truckload, in which we plant trees whose roots are stunted by the inhospitable dirt. Our houses are small but solid, built to withstand crazy southern storms. But if you leave the neat little squares of our front yards and venture down the street a ways, you see sidewalks cracked by the roots of native trees in native soil. You see sinkholes forming deep cuts in retention ditches. You see centipede grass strangled by dandelions and clover. You see nature taking back its land. 

I sometimes wonder how safe we’d be in a real disaster, out here in the swampland. If another Hugo blows through, how will our little subdivision fare? 

If New York City and New Jersey are any indication, I think we’d be in serious trouble. Footage of water flooding into subway stations during Hurricane Sandy last fall was chilling. In my hometown, houses that stood for decades were washed clean away. History was lost in the blink of an eye as nature reclaimed its land. 

I keep thinking about that campaign sign, though, minor though it may seem. The reality is, time and money were invested in making that sign. The hopes and dreams of a congressional candidate were wrapped up in the red, white and blue lettering. At the time of its creation, that sign must have felt momentous. 

And yet, after just a few weeks and a couple of storms, there was nature, come to reclaim it. 

I think that’s a good thing to keep in mind these days. Everything around us is impermanent. Nothing ever stays the same. And no matter how the Supreme Court decides a case, no matter how many nuclear bombs North Korea builds, and no matter who wins a special congressional election in South Carolina, one thing alone is sure. One day, nature will reclaim us all. 

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