Photo: I am utterly enchanted by magnolia trees. I am seriously trying to figure out how to bonsai one myself or make a purchase of a bonsai’d one. I think they are just gorgeous. This tree grew proudly right outside our room. I could almost touch it if I reached my hand far enough from the railing of our balcony. I have a real life Muse already, but I really do feel inspired by these trees… can you have two muses at once?
One of the most noticeable elements of the South Carolina landscape that I observed during my visit is that seemingly every property has a gate in front of it. Perhaps it’s only in the Low Country region, which is where I traveled, though I have the suspicion that the gate is a marker wherever you go in the state.
During the drive between Charleston and Hilton Head, a person staring out the window will notice that every driveway, be it dirt or gravel or newly paved, be it two dirt spots in front of a trailer or a tree-covered grand drive between the road and a mansion too far down to see, every single driveway has a gate. Some “gates” are mere ropes between two poles that stand on opposite sides of the driveway. It’s an interesting thing to observe. It says a lot about how people feel about their place in the world.
There is a part of me that deeply understands the impulse of it. I feel an almost primal propriety about our house and the land it sits on. My little piece of land is mine, it has paperwork that has my name on it. It belongs to me. My rights to it go down all the way to the core of this very Earth. Those who traverse upon it come at my invitation. Those who dare insult it are also insulting me. How many times have I dreamed about putting a gate of my own on my driveway? They feel like powerful, wonderful tools for keeping the elements of the world out while serving to protect the preciousness I care about in. Really, though, I think that gates are more of an idea of protection rather than the real thing, you know? Perhaps that is why I will likely never give into the impulse of getting one and installing it. There is also that other nagging problem: when you close the gate, you close yourself off from the world… but Lord, isn’t the world so interesting? You keep so much more out than just those elements you fear. I know there are truly dangerous places in the world where walls and gates are necessary things… but that place didn’t strike me as one of them.
I suppose the reason why experiencing a culture of gated properties is jarring is because I observed a population that has almost wholesale given into that keep-out impulse. The gates and walls of the Low Country are the figurative (and, in many ways, literal) hold-overs of an old infrastructure designed to figuratively and literally mark and retain property. The plantations of South Carolina live. They never died. They simply changed.
And that, of course, is all of it, isn’t it? Perhaps I’m moved and shaken because I saw a ghost during my time in South Carolina. A ghost I studied, a ghost I taught, but one I’ve never seen in quite such a way. I don’t know why it surprises me so. Perhaps I’m surprised by what stays rooted in a culture despite time and change. Moreover, though, and I know I’m an outsider as I write this–the gates do exactly as they are designed to do: to close anything and everything unwelcomed out. This, right here, is not open. Whatever is out there, changing and passing through, need not stop here. Pass on by.
Now look, I’m a Marylander, so I’ve known plantations. You can visit one whenever you want and to whatever degree of sanitation you can handle. Every one is a little different, a little “cleaned up,” and made palatable to the modern tourist. You have to go looking for the real and the raw, but you can find it if you need. As a Marylander, I’ve known “old” land and old houses and plenty of gates. It’s all there if you know where to look. And yet, you have to go look. A lot of that still lingers, but doesn’t remain quite so intact as it seems to in South Carolina.
I’m writing all this not really as a critique, but just as an observation. I was a woman passing through. What makes that landscape beautiful and enchanting is also what seems to make it forbidding. Each magnolia tree, each tuft of Spanish moss, each branch-covered driveway, each sturdy, ornate gate… they tell a story. There is a teasing to the place. You’re left with so many questions about what lies just out of reach, just out of the range of the eye. What’s so interesting back there that it has to be so tucked away? What don’t you want us to see, want us to know? Or perhaps I should be asking, what is it about what’s passing through that frightens you so? When you leave your gates, do you see ghosts of your own?
Perhaps I’m a writer with a muse full of questions. So many stories on either side of the many, many gates.
How are you doing, Dear Reader? How is the week treating you? It’s good to be back. I’m looking forward to one more post on Friday.
I’ll see you then for Quiet Thoughts.