I have written, in part, to honor a landscape I carry with me wherever I go. Though I have traveled all over the world, it is the smell of the tides and marshes of Beaufort County, South Carolina, that identidies and shapes me. Its seeds and grasses grow along the margins of my books. Its soft mosses hang, like laundry, from my high-strung prose.
I sometimes feel that Fripp Island and I grew up together, formed a pact of great intimacy during my final years of high school, and have maintained an alliance throughout my adult life despite many travels, false starts, and drifting of the spirit. A Marine colonel and his son first took me to Fripp on a fishing expedition the summer between my 15th and 16th year, and it was my first step on a sea island totally isolated from the mainland. It was an island as God made it, and nothing else, pristine as time itself. The sea islands of South Carolina shoulder up against the Atlantic, and the trees and the vegetation on these islands are wind-shaped and salt-burnt and stunted by the great storms and swells resulting from this initial encounter with the continent. They are the first line of defense against hurricanes and those deep-throated storms out of the Northeast.
When I graduated from Beaufort High School, workers had just completed the bridge to Fripp Island, and I had a free run of the island that same summer. The president of the Sstudent Council, Bruce Harper, sold real estate that first year land was for sale, and I remember him complaining that they would never sell a single lot with prices so outrageously high. In my own memory, I think that oceanfront property was selling for $2,500 a lot during those hot, long-ago days. Bruce and I would golf when he got off work, then go for long swims in the ocean on a beach where not a single house had gone up. The sun would turn our bodies gold as it settled to the west of the marshes, and I thought I would be young forever.
My mother, Peg Conroy, walked the shoreline of Fripp every day for the last five years of her life and collected basketfuls of seashells that she would place in the clear globes of lamps. Those lamps are now treasures her children keep because love to associate our mother with the sea, teh crashing of waves, the gathering up of beauty, and of light itself.
It was my mother who chose Fripp Island as our family beach, and it was where she was living when she died in 1984. She taught us that nature was simply another way of approaching God. When I asked her why buzzards never gathered ober the corpses of loggerheads or pilot whales, she explained that the putrescence of red meat, and not seafood, is what attracted vultures to southern roadsides in the first place. "A matter of preference," she said. "Your father likes steak. I like shrimp."
My mother was afraid of hurricanes and bought her Fripp house near the golf course, so she could watch the small convoy of golfers sail past her house in their squat, pragmatic carts. That flow of humanity made her less lonely and provided her with an endless supply of free golf balls lost in the shrubbery of her yard. Years later, I bought my own house facing a saltwater lagoon whare I watch ospreys hunt fish in my backyuard, then take their catch up into the trees to eat them heads first. I have seen great blue herons kill and eat the raccoons find garbage cans better hunting grounds than the toad-haunted wetlands. I woke up one bright fall morning and counted 300 egrets surrounding my lagoon in some mating ritual that looked like a dream of snow.
Because I came to Beaufort County when I was a boy, my novels all smell of seawater. I watch things closely here, and I try to get the details right. I write about the great salt marshes ans pretend I am that marsh. I do the same with the ocean, the horseshoe crab, the flock of brown pelicans, the beach-strewn kelp, the half-eaten stingray,. I try to inhabit the soul of things, before I write about them, the way my mother taught me.
There are other beaches, other oceans, but my mother staked out Fripp forever for her children. When she was dying, with her seven children gathered around her, Peggy, our mountain-born mother, said, "When I'm gone and you cross the bridge over to Fripp, look out toward the ocean. If you see whitecaps, that'll be me, that'll be your mother, waving, letting you know I'm still here with you."