David Lauderdale

Man tells sad story about sweetgrass

One disturbing line stands above all others in John Ferguson's PowerPoint presentation about his new nature project on Daufuskie Island.

"Naturally occurring crops of sweetgrass have become scant in many places, particularly in the South Carolina Lowcountry," he says.

That's crazy because this is the home of sweetgrass, where it has thrived forever like alligators in the sun.

And it is here that generations of people have harvested sweetgrass by hand and woven it into coiled baskets. It's here that rustic roadside stands bloom with the handmade art.

As the booklet about sweetgrass baskets now on exhibit at the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn says, this is "one of the oldest African-inspired arts in America."

It's not new that the Lowcountry's recent crops of golf courses, gated communities and shopping malls have forced the basket weavers to purchase raw materials out of state.

But what is new is how Ferguson's Daufuskie project is tackling the problem with the stubborn precision of scientists, the passion of artists and the wisdom of sweetgrass weavers.

Over the next two years, they will produce the "Daufuskie Island Sweetgrass Production and Establishment Study."

Ferguson said it started in the summer of 2009, when Tommy Socha was invited to Daufuskie to talk about beach and dune protection. He's a plant specialist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He looked around and wondered why sweetgrass couldn't be established on Daufuskie.

He got others got involved. The committee includes Mimi Williams, who has a doctorate in plant pathology and works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resource Conservation Service. David Findley, the service's grassland and forestry specialist for South Carolina, also is on the committee.

So is writer Bo Bryan, who wrote the definitive history of the shag dance, and Nakia Wigfall of Mount Pleasant, who has been weaving baskets since she was 4 years old and can tell the quality and usefulness of sweetgrass fiber by touch.

Next week, the team will launch into action. It will plant test crops. Williams has cultivated 1,200 plants in a variety of ways in Florida greenhouses. They are to be planted Tuesday, then studied for two years. Numerous variations -- plants with and without fertilizer, for example -- will be tested.

These plants won't be harvested anytime soon. But they just might produce a bumper crop of data that can help sweetgrass thrive again in the South Carolina Lowcountry, where it belongs.