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Taming the wilderness

Posted: August 14, 2014 6:01 p.m.
Updated: August 15, 2014 6:00 a.m.

I jokingly call my backyard “the wilderness.” My house, built in 1912, sits fairly close to my downtown street, as is the custom in the Historic District in Sumter. The Victorian cast iron fence and neat little patch of grass in my front yard belie what is happening behind my house. The deck at the back of my house overlooks a very deep backyard filled with towering oak and pecan trees. Just over the fence at the rear of the yard is a magnificent willow oak which is probably 100 years old. It rises majestically above all and makes a beautiful silhouette against the evening sunset. The scene out of the French doors in my kitchen is like a green cathedral.

But I can just <italic> hear </italic> the invading weeds growing. Below the trees is a patch of grass and French and oak leaf hydrangea beds which wisteria from neighboring yards is trying to invade. The dreaded cherry laurel at the fence line to my neighbor’s house produces (apparently) delicious purple berries, which the birds devour in great quantities. The berries make them “drunk” and they proceed to swoop wildly in the air and bomb my yard with the seeds, which then readily sprout into want-to-be trees. The neighbor’s water-loving small elephant ears somehow invade my garden pond. How the two ponds share tuberous plants I will never know. The “wild” shielding my yard from the lot behind me is growing a bit too wild. It’s always something!

But my wilderness pales in comparison to what the early settlers carving out new settlements on the frontier faced. As they stepped off the boat on America’s shore, the earliest settlers encountered the primeval forest, save for where the Native Americans had burned off the forest undergrowth, as was their custom in places. After more than 150 years of settlement in South Carolina, the virgin growth forests were still a factor in transportation, agriculture, and occupation of the land.

In 1827, when Scotsman Basil Hall and his wife toured America, he described the land they encountered as “the woods of time immemorial.” Englishman W. Faux, the nephew of Camden’s Col. Rugely, visited here in 1819, and described the town as “a good and growing town, sacred to revolutionary blood and battles.” His uncle was an avowed Tory during the Revolution, but remained a beloved citizen of Camden after the war, and Faux wanted to see where he had lived and carved a plantation out of the Carolina forests. Faux visited shops, taverns and churches in town and was entertained handsomely. But whenever his new friends took him to see battlefields or notable plantations he stated that he “re-entered the wilderness” as he left the bounds of the town. He visited Gen. [Zachariah] Cantey “at one of his mansions, seven miles off in the wilderness …”

Basil Hall, when traveling from Montpellier, N.C., to Camden, noted that, “It would not be easy to describe the comfortless sort of aspect belonging to a newly cleared settlement in the American woods. It has the look of intrusion upon nature, a sort of ungracious attack upon the solitary reign of the trees -- native lords of the soil -- who had risen up and fallen down, generation after generation, undisturbed. Everything at such a spot looks bald, naked, and raw. There is an angular freshness about the newly-made houses -- the fences round the fields are formed of rifted logs, with the green, sappy bark still clinging to them …”

He was quite pleased when finally getting to Camden; I suppose that he never gave it a thought that Camden was carved out of the same wilderness and in the same manner as the new farm he had encountered in the woods. He wrote, “On the 19th of February we reached the pleasant little town of Camden, where the obliging landlord of a most agreeable, and handsomely-furnished tavern, introduced us to several of his acquaintances … who were all anxious to do the honours of the place.”

General Lafayette’s secretary, Auguste Levasseur, had a similar reaction when accompanying the General on his tour of America in 1825. Lavasseur penned a description of his trip from Cheraw to Camden. “…we continued our route with new carriages and a new escort of new friends up to Cheraw, a pretty little town which, three years ago, had hardly four houses, and which today counts more than 1,500 inhabitants.” After dealing with impassable rivers and swamp land traversed by badly made corduroy roads formed of logs, night overtook them. When forging on, their carriage shaft broke and accompanying dragoons insisted that they take their horses and proceed through the dark woods to the farm house where they were to spend the night.

Upon waking the next morning, Levasseur wrote, “…my eyes were struck by a spectacle altogether new to me. We were in the middle of what they call in America a ‘New Settlement,’ that is to say the clearing of land or the building of a new habitation in the middle of the woods … the forest was almost entirely cut down within a rather large radius … It is difficult to imagine something more saddening than a scene such as this.” He noted the large girdled trees still standing in the clearing but well on their way to dying. One of his traveling companions said to him, “It is nevertheless in this manner that all of our little towns that you find so joyful, so attractive, begin. Cheraw where you slept yesterday, and which pleased you so much, resembled this one only a few years ago, and perhaps you will find here another Cheraw if you come back in four or five years.”

The spring weather had arrived during the night and the sun rested warmly on them as they neared Camden. He wrote, “Upon approaching Camden, where one sees a large number of perfectly cultivated gardens, we were very astonished to find all the trees in flower and the air scented with the perfume of plants as in France in the month of June.” There they were joyously greeted by the people of Camden and surrounds and, again, enjoyed this bustling little town carved from the wilderness.

It is hard for us to imagine the South Carolina they were seeing. We drive through the countryside, passing through hundreds of acres of agricultural fields and enter towns and cities of vast proportion compared to those of old. Instead of encountering rivers spilling over their banks, we take well-built bridges over the waters. We drive, for the most part, on paved streets and highways instead of corduroy roads of logs, at best, and sand, at worst, as they did. Those generations of South Carolinians with a vision of the future created the built environment we know today. They literally tamed the wilderness.

I guess I could tackle the wisteria shoots and pull up some cherry laurel saplings this weekend without complaining too much!

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