Blue Root Real Estate

Bird Head in a Bowl, Wade Schuman, 1993
Oil on linen on panel, courtesy of Forum Gallery, NYC

I SLEPT ON THE BEACH last night and saw the new moon over the dunes at sunrise, a crescent coasting above a casual slurry of pink and blue, like God got up late and slung color over his shoulder before stumbling off to make coffee.

Plovers and sanderlings skittered up and down the backwash and shrimpboats were working Grenadier Shoals. Way offshore, the sea buoys flashed red and white and faithful, while the sunlight gathered and the colors faded and the moon disappeared into a great glory of morning.

And all the while the surf was whispering, shawoosh, shawoosh, secrets only those who love this place can hear.

Daufuskie, it gathers in the back of your throat and tumbles around like poetry. I want to tell you about Daufuskie Island, about the wind and the woods and the bugs and the snakes and the descendants of slaves and the voodoo drums – and the real estate tycoons.

The Indians lived here for ten thousand years; then came the white man and his cotton and the slaves he brought from the Gola region of West Africa. The slaves toiled here for one hundred and fifty years and took this place to their hearts. When the Yankees set them free, they stayed, taking up farming and fishing and oystering. Pollution from Savannah killed the oysters and stunted the crabs and drove the self-sufficient rivermen from the island. But the “Gullah” stay on.

There are 45,000 people on Hilton Head and upwards of a quarter million in Savannah and you can see both places from Daufuskie. Little wonder developers want Daufuskie for condos and gated communities — plantations, they call them — where you can’t go unless you belong. Twenty years ago, developers came like Pharaoh’s host in the old Gullah spiritual, two hundred million dollars strong. But the waters came together, rolling over Gucci shoes, and they all went down in a Red Sea of ink — International Paper, Haliburton Oil, and Club Corp of America, chief among a great drowning of lesser corporations.

Some say marine transportation did them in. Daufuskie is damned inconvenient. Every screw, every nail, every golf ball, t-bone, jug of whiskey, employee, and customer had to be hauled across Calibogue Sound, deep and wide and dangerous as a woman. And then the garbage and customers and employees and money had to be hauled back.

Some blame the man the Gullah call “Osamy Bin Bombin’.” Club Corp of America, parent company of the gone-broke-once-already Melrose Plantation, also owned Windows on the World — collapsed now into a great pile of toxic rubble and litigation.

But the Gullah know better. It ain’t “Osamy,” and it ain’t the Calibogue and it shore ain’t those funny numbers up on Wall Street that worry white people so. It’s Doctor Buzzard and – great gawd a’mighty – the Blue Root.

You can call it voodoo or you can call it conjuration or maybe rootwork, like the anthropologists do. But the Gullah don’t call it anything at all. Like the Name of God to the Children of Israel, this ancient magic is too fearsome for utterance. There may be upwards of a thousand conjure doctors scattered from Jacksonville to Cape Fear, sisters Miriam, Marguerite, and Magdalene; mothers Kent and Katrina; doctors Snake, Crow, Fly, and Bug.

THE GREATEST AMONG THESE is Dr. Buzzard. From African born slave patriarch to his great, great grandson, a Dr. Buzzard has been working here on Daufuskie since before anybody remembers. Ax cut or snakebit, lovesick, took sick, or trouble with the law, Dr. Buzzard is your man. Got a man pestering you? The Blue Root will make his chickens quit laying, make his cow and well dry up, and pretty soon his head will turn around backwards and he’ll walk down the street barking like a dog.

I came by these stories naturally, heir to a great gumbo of history, culture and magic. I was born to it, the eleventh consecutive first son to bear my name. My daddy, Capum Roger Pinckney X, was making a pretty good living, building docks and seawalls and hauling freight over to Daufuskie on his workboat, the Sweet Bedelia. I rode along whenever I could, and roamed the woods, bogged the creeks, climbed the trees, and swung from the vines.

Daddy was also county coroner, a doctor to the dead. Called out at all hours for drownings, knifings, shootings, and car wrecks, Daddy would take pictures and make notes and call up a jury to decide who to throw in jail. But scattered throughout thirty six years of accident and mayhem, came what Daddy grinned and called, “death by undetermined natural causes.” It was a code that everybody knew, from the sheriff to the judge to the undertaker: Dr. Buzzard or one of his colleagues had been at work.

I got the dark from Daddy and the light from his Gullah deckhands, Horace Brisbane, Dan Williams, Cuffey Dawes, but mostly from Miss Elvira Mike, mammy to my father, my uncles, my cousins, and finally, me. I figured her to be at least old enough to have remembered the battleship Maine taking on its last load of coal at the Port Royal Naval Station on its way to Havana and destiny in 1898.

Elvira sat me upon her knee and spun up a world long gone, a world of cotton and rice and slaves, the stories and spirituals and field hollers. When the spirit got to working, she would leap from her chair and do a ring shout right there in my grandmomma’s kitchen, heel and toe, round and round, clapping beats and half beats, in a dance of praise going all the way back to the west coast of Africa, before the slavers threw her great-grandmother into chains. I clapped and jigged along as best I could and by the time I was twenty and moved Up North, I was so Black nobody would rent me an apartment over the phone.

WHEN I CAME BACK TO DAUFUSKIE a year later, I found its magic still very much alive. I met Miss Susie, who cooked fried chicken that makes a man want to rush out and buy Melrose real estate — or used to before Dr. Buzzard took over. I met Capum Bud, who lost his truck, his job, and finally his health after he threw a Gullah stowaway off a Melrose ferry and got a voodoo doll in the mail. I went over to Savannah and met Angel, who can look in your face and tell you more than you want to know about yourself, who can call up money and love and make rich white women weep and tear their hair and run all over town spending money. I met Bloody Mary, who gave me a High John the Conqueror, the king of the root world, after the developers threatened to run me off for meddling in their business. It was Miss Sally to blame.

Miss Sally and I are cousins a couple of times over and I wasn’t back on the island two weeks when she showed up at my door asking help to defeat plans to dredge a fifty-acre boat basin into the heart of the island. So eight of us met on a shrimp boat and put our names to paper and raised Dixie cups full of good champagne and toasted “To the Woods!” We called the state and we called the feds and told them about the ancient Indian camps and pretty soon we had the developers so tangled up it would take them years to cut through the snarl.

It was the first time white folks had challenged the developers and all hell broke loose. They sunk one of our skiffs, threatened to burn Miss Sally out, blackballed a gal I was sweet on at the time, and got me fired from a job. But when they started talking of throwing a bag of marijuana under my porch and calling the cops, I called Angel.

“Angel, Angel!”

“Whas wrong, chile?”

I shifted into Gullah. It rolled on my tongue like a salty oyster and Lordy, it tasted good. “They be a man pester we.”

“Uh, uh.” I could almost see her shaking her head. “Write down he name,” she said, “and make shore you spell um right.”

I did and ran into her a couple of months later. “That man still pester you?”

“No, he have heart attack and done been lay up in hospital.”

Angel smiled. “How bout dat?”

The developers’ “troubles” all started back in 1984 when Melrose Plantation set a real estate office on a slave graveyard. Locals called in the NAACP and the Cristic Institute. Papers flew and witnesses were deposed and a court date set while 60 Minutes philosophized disgrace. But then a flock of buzzards took roost around the ferry landing and Melrose moved the office, and then so quickly went broke there was not even money to pay the house mover.

In more recent days, Melrose property owners picked up the pieces and tried to put them back together while the fairways grew weeds and the boats grew barnacles and the hungry sea began nibbling at the beachfront inn. Club Corp of America, purchaser of distressed resort properties worldwide, stepped in with a five-year plan to make Melrose public and turn Daufuskie around. CCA pumped six million cubic yards of sand upon the eroding beach at about a buck a yard, a project that drowned five men. They remodeled the inn and thirty-six rental cottages, bought boats, buses, mowers, and trucks, and dropped another six million into a center for corporate gatherings. But then came September 11 and CCA laid off two hundred, cancelled six thousand reservations and began hauling their best equipment away.

On Daufuskie’s Haig Point, the most gated of gated communities, the story was much the same. International Paper, who now own the Savannah mill that has fouled Daufuskie’s waters for fifty years, bought twelve hundred acres on the north end of the island in 1984, carved twenty seven holes of golf out of the maritime forest, drained swamps, filled wetlands, and offered seven hundred lots at up to a million dollars each. Haig Point did not bankrupt International Paper, but it cost them eight hundred-odd thousand dollars every quarter for twenty years. Eventually, this carnage got too much and International Paper turned the facilities over to the property owners.

There are two large undisturbed tracts remaining on Daufuskie, former cotton plantations Webb and Oak Ridge, twelve hundred acres total, a glorious green stripe from tidal river to the sea. The land has been bought and sold and optioned and abandoned by a long and confusing line of corporations, all beset by unexpected financial woe. Developers call these tracts the key to Daufuskie’s future, but for some reason, the key won’t quite fit the lock. Today, the very last of the ocean front real estate on the East Coast goes begging, and you can take a nap on any of three golf courses and a gator might wake you, but not likely a golfer.

A five-story condo was planned for the beachfront, thirty-six units, seventy-eight feet tall, one hundred and fifty feet from a beach that was washing a dozen feet each year. We called the state like we did with the boat basin, we called the feds, we went to county meetings and got articles in the local press. But nothing worked this time until a neighbor, deep into depression and an afternoon libation, walked out into his pecan grove and hollered at the buzzards, maybe callin’ the Doctor to work. Two days later, the US Fish and Wildlife Service came up with the first bald eagle nest on Daufuskie in fifty years, not a quarter mile from the proposed condo site.

By the time it was over, thirty six units had shrunk to twelve, the top floor was gone, the project was seven months behind schedule and everybody wondered just how long it would be before the bankers lowered the boom.

Strike another up for de doctah.

Did Dr. Buzzard put the Blue Root on Daufuskie development? Did he watch 60 Minutes and gather lizard feet and crow feathers and graveyard dirt at midnight while the Spanish moss moved in the seawind and the palmettos rattled like Ezekiel’s dry bones? Did he mutter off to his backyard office, mumble soft words in Bantu while the candlelight leapt and danced over African statuary and pictures of Jesus and John Kennedy and Martin Luther King?

You don’t ask. We can believe what we want here on Daufuskie, a world away from anything you ever thought was real.

Roger Pinckney lives and writes on Daufuskie Island, off the coast of South Carolina. His book The Right Side of the River: Romance, Rage, and Wonder was published by Wyrick & Co.