I live in a shining city on a hill, literally, Columbia, SC. The land falls off in nearly every direction so that from given locations, you can see the land and the incredible skies that lie above. For example, from my office window you can look over the low lying building across the street and see 20 miles to the northwest. That vista brings a sense of peace on busy, fast paced work days. As I leave the parking garage I find myself turning south along Assembly Street headed out to I-77 more often than not. That route is slightly longer than the other way home, which got me thinking; just why do I do that? It finally dawned on me that I could see out across several counties as I drive off the hill down towards the Congaree Swamp. The view between the buildings at the University is really spectacular. But there is something missing.
I was born in a city on the water, Jacksonville FL, where it is flat and the vistas are created by great bodies of water; fresh salt and in between. Water was as near as a mile or so in three directions from my parent’s home and my elementary school. We were bound by the Ortega River on the East and the Cedar River to the South and West. It used to be called Cedar Creek, which caused my Uncle John, who was from Montana, to quip; “What you call ‘cricks’ down here, we called rivers up there.” I guess someone listened to him because they changed the designation to river some years ago.
I would ask my uncle what “Big Sky” country was like since he was from Montana. His answer was interesting. He said he liked the big skies of Florida more. The reason eluded me until I moved inland away from the oceans, rivers and bays of my childhood; water is what was missing from my inland views! If you have ever experienced viewing a large river, a bay or even the ocean from a sunlit shore with the wind blowing overhead you know what I mean. I’ve seen my share of vistas from mountains and prairies. They are nice, but to me, water makes the scene!
Crossing a river or going to the beach wasn’t an everyday event until reaching my freshman year of high school. At that time, my route to and from school crossed one of the three bridges that spanned the St. John’s River at the time; The Alsop Bridge, The Acosta Bridge or the Fuller Warren Bridge. Each day the bus would climb the ramps over the bridge and we would all be treated to the sunlight glinting off the water below under the blue skies that were the norm, especially during the school months.
Rainy days were even more interesting. The clouds hung low in the sky, sometimes almost touching the superstructure of the older bridges that rose up majestically like some metallic tinker toy creation across the river from Downtown and the Westside over to the Southside where the school was located on the river’s shore. You could see the columns of rain splashing down on the green land and the rippling water between the shores. I often wondered what it would be like to be one of the ever-present seagulls flying between them and sometimes landing on the bridge to watch the traffic go by underneath.
As one got farther and farther from downtown and the busy port to the East, where the water was brackish and the tides more pronounced, one would encounter mud flats covered by sawgrass. If you were from Charleston you would call these areas “Pluff mud” but whether or not you were in Charleston or Jacksonville these tidal areas gave off a peculiar aroma. Growing up I was not too fond of the smell of sawgrass but these days I actually miss that smell.
I think my dislike of that aroma was another that was common around both Jacksonville and Charleston; that of pulp mills. All up and down the East Coast from the Carolinas to Florida there were vast expanses of pine forests that were harvested to make paper. The only way to describe the smell is to say that some actually preferred the odor from a skunk. Thank goodness that the technology has come along that has the capability of scrubbing the smoke from paper mills so that these days you can stand directly downwind of one of them and not smell it.
I love the neighborhood where I live today. It used to be on the edge of town but these days it is closer to downtown than it is to the rural countryside that was nearby. We are surrounded by beautiful 75 foot tall pine trees that keep the winds at bay in the winter and the house covered in shade in the summer. But I have no “Big Sky” view from my street.
So I was sitting here in my office/studio wondering what I was going to write about today when suddenly the thought of big sky vistas complete with sawgrass and Pluff mud came to mind. As much as I have enjoyed my reverie, I’m not sure where it came from. Hmmmm, it is possible it could have been one of the dogs. Oh MY!