The South's a very strange place. As we settle into our lives here in Lowell, we're often asked to describe our last home, Beaufort. We're more than just the token Southerners, to be sure, but we're still a bit of a cultural oddity. But, even with a lifetime spent in the South, I find it difficult to explain where I come from with clarity and accuracy. Living in the South, whether born there like I was, or being a recent addition, is a complicated and difficult experience.
On one hand, the South is home to some of the most striking natural beauty. Anyone who has hiked through the Blue Ridge, or watched the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean knows what I mean. But the beauty of the South is deeper than that. There is something almost supernatural about the salt marshes that wrap around the Lowcountry, delighting locals and visitors both with the sweeping green fields of marsh grass and the brown contrast of the pluff mud. Watching the same patch of spartina grass fade from lush green in the summer, to dull brown as winter sets in, only to be reinvigorated when the spring rains again nourish the dormant roots is nothing short of a miracle.
Living in the South, one becomes more in-tune with the natural ebbs and flows of the world around you. Being so close to the ocean, as we were in Beaufort, you start to understand the nature of life more deeply, and begin to see that there truly is a season for everything. You begin to appreciate nature's cycles. As the spring starts to give way to summer, the shrimp season opens. Tables, both at home and in restaurants are covered in shrimp, a sure sign of the bounty of the earth and sea. As the regular season draws to a close, shrimp baiting season opens, giving inhabitants of the Lowcountry one last chance to fill their freezers with enough shrimp to last the winter. Just as with the shrimp, so too are the tomatoes, and the okra, and the corn, and every other manner of wonderful fruit and vegetable that you can imagine. They are served fresh, straight from the farm or garden, but also cut, boiled, frozen, or pickled to keep enough a family well stocked through the short winters.
The South isn't just a place of natural beauty, however. Spending just a little time there, you'll find personal beauty that exceeds even the beauty of the salt marshes. That Southerners are hospitable is well known and doesn't need further exploration. But their beauty doesn't come from just their willingness to open their homes to strangers. No, the real beauty is in their stories and histories. The stories of families who have lived on the same land for generations makes you long for a similar connection to your own piece of the world. Stories of slavery and oppression, of ownership of other humans, of discrimination and segregation abound. These stories and histories flavor every interaction between local and tourist, between White and Black, and between "binyah" and "comyah", Gullah words for people who have been here and people who have come here, respectively.
The South in general, and South Carolina in particular, are strange places. I was born in South Carolina, grew up and went to college and grad school there, and thought I left for good in 2005. I soon returned, settling in Beaufort with my wife, Heather, for seven years. Now, freshly moved into our new home in Massachusetts, I find it difficult to express how I feel about the South and the South Carolina Lowcountry. I certainly miss many aspects of our lives there, the friendships we built over the years, the temperate winters, and the Spanish Moss that draped the trees in our yard. However, I'm happy to not be a South Carolina resident after the recent presidential primary. I guess that's the nature of the place, or any place; you have to accept those things you don't love so you can love the things you do.
As we settle in here in Lowell, I find myself more interested in the connections I have to the Lowcountry and to South Carolina. We've long enjoyed A Chef's Life, but being away from the culture of the South, we find ourselves enjoying the show even more. Just the other day, we enjoyed a presentation at my alma mater, The Citadel, on rice and rice culture, Requiem for Rice. Maybe distance does make the heart grow fonder, or maybe we're just influenced by the cold weather and are missing the mild winter. I'm excited about our new adventure and our new home in Massachusetts, but it's nice to find time to connect with the culture and places that we've left. There's nothing quite like a -12 degree day to make you fell like a Southerner in Exile...