It's hard to spell out what defines the Lowcountry

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comMay 3, 2014 

A pair of rare reddish egrets are seen on Harbor Island, a community recognized for working to protect birds and preserve Lowcountry habitat.

JAY KARR — Staff photo Buy Photo

A dear reader sent a note to ask the proper spelling of "Lowcountry."

She is writing a history of a neighborhood in Bluffton that I thought was brand new. But what isn't new in Beaufort County, where the first postcards could have been sent from Charlesfort in 1562?

To her credit, she wants the history to be accurate and consistent:

"One word that has turned into a conundrum is ... Low Country, low country, lowcountry, Lowcountry!

"Could you tell us how you spell it?!! And is there any reasoning behind it?"

Now ain't that a big gulp of saltwater? She wants accuracy, consistency, correct spelling and reasoning, all at once? In the Lowcountry?

"We use Lowcountry," I responded. "It is a singular place. It is a proper noun. The Lowcountry is not an adjective and noun, as two words make it."

Lord knows how that dogma fits with our county's community called Low Bottom. Low Bottom is a Lowcountry place if ever there was one. It's low, all right, and it used to be in the country.

So where is this singular place we call the Lowcountry?

We're squished between two mighty pillars, the Coastal Empire to our south and the Grand Strand to our north.

Personally, I would lay claim to everything from Murrells Inlet to Daufuskie Island. That would be from fried whiting to deviled crabs, with a big bowl of she-crab soup in the middle, at 82 Queen in the Holy City.

Charleston, of course, calls itself the Lowcountry as if the rest of us were not here. Charleston, you know, is where the Ashley and Cooper rivers merge to form the Atlantic Ocean.

I heard a man of letters in Beaufort explain the decision by the English to settle Charleston in 1670 rather than Beaufort: "Charleston ate our lunch that day, and they've been eating it ever since."

Jonathan Daniels, co-founder of The Island Packet, came away with a smart-aleck statement after visiting his wife's family in Charleston.

"Lucy," said the native Tar Heel when safely back home in Raleigh, "I have discovered that there are only two kinds of South Carolinians. One kind never has worn shoes and the other kind makes you feel like you've never worn shoes."

So let's just say that Charleston is the capital of the Lowcountry, and a grand capital she is. But Beaufort remains the "Queen of the Sea Islands." Long live the queen.

The outer reaches of the Lowcountry would be along old U.S. 17 -- the "Ocean Highway," the "King's Highway." Others may say we're everything between Interstate 95 and the Atlantic Ocean.

Whatever the boundaries, Lowcountry natives have long known they can run, but cannot hide. Anyone who escaped, even for a minute, was called a "Geechie" because we eat rice and talk funny.

We are first and foremost a sportsman's paradise, where children shoot deer and grown men devote their lives to flounder.

We're heirs property, mustard sauce, john boats and sweetgrass. We're men sitting on benches beneath live oaks, looking like Carew Rice silhouettes.

We're hummocks and hammocks, boiled peanuts and tomatoes. We're millionaires and raconteurs, high church and juke joint.

But nature is what really defines the Lowcountry.

It's the trees. And marsh. And birds.

We shouldn't be too proud to turn to a Georgian to tell us why people have perched here since 1562. Sidney Lanier wrote:

As the marsh-hen secretly builds on the watery sod,

Behold I will build me a nest on the greatness of God:

I will fly in the greatness of God as the marsh-hen flies

In the freedom that fills all the space 'twixt the marsh and the skies:

By so many roots as the marsh-grass sends in the sod

I will heartily lay me a-hold on the greatness of God:

Oh, like to the greatness of God is the greatness within

The range of the marshes, the liberal marshes of Glynn.

Sidney Lanier's breezy words tell why grasping the Lowcountry is no easier than spelling it.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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