Spring in the Low Country by Pamela Bennett


Two great blue herons glide low over the tidal marsh, slicing through late afternoon sunshine with wide, graceful wings. Raucous cries rain down on me as I stop to stare—I’ve ruined their perfect fishing spot, so they head for another.

I follow the path and duck beneath the soft, green branches of a live oak, covered in curly resurrection fern. Breathing in the primal, earthy odors of the salt marsh, I disturb a small white egret. Flapping wings erupt through feathery Spanish moss as she lands in the water with barely a splash.

My sister and I are on Hilton Head Island again, walking the same paths as two years ago, brushing past red and pink azalea blossoms, dark green palmettos and tall palms, as the music of birds and the roar of the surf replace sounds of the city.

My writing desk is outside on the deck on warm afternoons, surrounded by the green of a sea island, listening to the unique cries of sea birds and fielding the advances of a curious squirrel. He gets closer and closer to my chair and my lunch, hoping for a snack. Another visitor, a small bird colored like a chipmunk, lands on the porch rail and cocks its head, studying me.

This time we have five weeks to work together on our novel, creating scenes and discussing plot twists as we work out an ending to Twinless.I have nine days left of this writing retreat and I intend to make the most of each hour, writing and reading and walking in the sunshine.

Earlier, I walked on the beach as sand pipers and plovers raced the surf and seagulls drummed the sand with their feet, finding small insects and fish for breakfast. I looked toward the horizon and the languid largess of the ocean, that endless “water, water everywhere” pulled me closer and closer after so many months hemmed in by buildings and bare trees in the cold north.

What writing retreats give us is solid and precious time, to slow the busy pace of life, to curl up in a chair and read good books, to work on writing good sentences and compelling scenes and to learn how a place can shape and move our characters.

We have time to immerse ourselves in a setting, in this case, a South Carolina sea island—the low country immortalized by South Carolina writers, but probably most eloquently by Pat Conroy.

My sister and I have enjoyed Pat Conroy’s books very much over the years. Now, as writers, we appreciate his prose even more, in the place he made famous with descriptions like this one, from The Prince of Tides:

To describe our growing up in the lowcountry of South Carolina, I would have to take you to the marsh on a spring day, flush the great blue heron from its silent occupation, scatter marsh hens as we sink to our knees in mud, open you an oyster with a pocketknife and feed it to you from the shell and say, “There. That taste. That’s the taste of my childhood.” I would say, “Breathe deeply,” and you would breathe and remember that smell for the rest of your life, the bold, fecund aroma of the tidal marsh, exquisite and sensual, the smell of the South in heat, a smell like new milk, semen, and spilled wine, all perfumed with seawater.”

We had forgotten how unique and personal Conroy’s words are, how his original and haunting descriptions linger, how deeply he characterizes the people that moved in and out of his life and how he blurs the edges of fiction and memoir so well. He died in 2016, but as we read The Prince of Tides, Pat Conroy is still in this world, and his prose inspires us to put more thought and heart into our sentences.

Because I read and enjoyed the heart-felt memoir written by his wife, the writer Cassandra King, Tell Me a Story, I knew the Pat Conroy Literary Center had opened in nearby Beaufort, so we took a trip there one afternoon, browsing through the memorabilia of his life and the things the author loved, even sitting at his writing desk.

It was wonderful to see family photos and listen to our guide walk us through Conroy’s life from childhood to manhood and to know that his words and his giving spirit would never be forgotten.

We also roamed the historic streets of Beaufort beside its antebellum, three-story houses, flanked by massive live oaks old enough that Confederate and Union soldiers had leaned against them. We saw shady verandas that wrapped around houses, second and third-story balconies and porch ceilings and shutters painted “haint-blue,” a light blue shade that superstition decreed could ward off evil spirits.

Walking through the colorful history of Beaufort, reading Conroy’s books and staying on Hilton Head, has given us a new appreciation for literary immersion.

When we are deeply involved in the place we’ve landed, and when we read the writers who’ve immortalized those areas, we can delve into secret, little-known layers to mine that sense of depth and deliverance.

Our book is not set in the low country—it’s set in the karst landscape of Kentucky and we know our travels in and around Mammoth Cave have helped us come up with our characters’ authentic experiences.

One day in our future, my sister and I will write a story that takes place in the low country.

No matter where you land for a retreat or a respite from real life, try to immerse yourself deeply within that place and its literature. You will learn to lure readers into a story where the sights, sounds, tastes and smells are suddenly new, just as Conroy sang sweetly of the low country:

There. That taste. That’s the taste of my childhood.”


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