The Magazine of South Carolina

Caw Caw

Nature, History & Culture in a Low Country Swamp


Photos courtesy Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission.

"De Gullah Enna Pry" Entertains Elementary School Children

Critter Catching in Caw Caw

by Angela Meredith

An alligator bellows from boroughs deep in the marsh. A red-winged hawk calls from his high perch in the trees. Gullah singers share their rich history through song and story. Nature and history speak to you at the new Caw Caw Interpretive Center, a 654-acre site operated by the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission. The biologically di-verse park, situated within Caw Caw Swamp, includes elaborate rice fields built by African slaves in the early 19th Century.

Experts believe rice first was grown on the site after 1820. Before the Civil War, Caw Caw’s white land owners relied heavily on the skills of African and African-American slaves. "Many of the first enslaved Africans brought to South Carolina a knowledge of rice cultivation and certainly had much more experience growing rice than the planters," says Caw Caw’s interpretive coordinator Shawn Halifax.

Slaves used the inland swamp method of rice cultivation used in West Africa. Today, West Africa’s influence also is reflected in the Low Country’s treasured Gullah culture. "Gullah is a major component of African-American history in the Low Country," Halifax says. "But it’s not just history; it’s a living culture, community and language." Educational programs celebrate the site’s African-American heritage year-round. Gullah singers and storytellers entertain, sweetgrass basket makers display the ancestral art and slave descendants demonstrate techniques used to grow rice more than 150 years ago.

Caw Caw’s old ricefields, salt marsh and surrounding forest are home to an abundance of wildlife. "Caw Caw has an incredible variety of habitat," says manager Mark Madden. "We have over 200 species of birds and over 350 types of plants. It’s amazing for a site this size." Eighty species of reptiles and amphibians and 25 species of mammals also call Caw Caw home. "We have bobcats, otters, deer, fox and some very large alligators," Madden says. Visitors can view the wide variety of habitat from seven miles of self-guided and interpretive trails or from the 1,200-foot swamp boardwalk.

One of the most popular activities at Caw Caw is birdwatching. The site is home to endangered and threatened species: the American bald eagle, swallow-tailed kite, prothonotary warbler and wood stork, etc. Ospreys nest on manmade platforms. Wood ducks raise chicks in freshwater wooden boxes. To many visitors, the most spectacular view is the American bald eagle’s nest just outside the property line.

Caw Caw offers varied educational programs, including walks featuring edible and medicinal plants, owl prowls, gator gazing, animal tracking and canoe tours. "Our staff come up with innovative programs to address the uniqueness of the site," Madden says. "We offer programs on Gullah, folk crafts and life skills that would have been used hundreds of years ago and are becoming dying arts. We have a series of programs where people can learn how to make soap, dye fibers or make a rope out of plants." Caw Caw also hosts seasonal events including Gullah Christmas, a popular storytelling program with Gullah linguist Virginia Geraty.

Another important educational focus is Native American culture and history. A hunting camp has been found on the property, and historians believe the site’s name is of Native American origin. "Oral tradition tells me Caw Caw is a Native American word, and we’ve had people tell us Caw Caw was actually the name of an Indian boy," Halifax says.

Since education is a primary focus at Caw Caw, staff members spend much of their time with school groups, teaching historical and scientific programs. "Caw Caw is a phenomenal site for anyone who wants to use the outdoors as a classroom," says environmental educator Karen McKenzie, whose background is in education and biology. For students, a trip to Caw Caw is always an adventure. The Habitat Chat program provides dip nets to scoop insects, small fish and other organisms from the swamp. Students then head to Caw Caw’s Environmental Education Center to examine the species under a microscope.

Special programs help classes study water and soil quality and tree characteristics. "All our student pro-grams are hands-on, inquiry-based, and meet South Carolina’s curriculum standards," McKenzie says. Caw Caw’s staff set up self-guided tours for teachers to meet individual classroom needs. Other programs include "Marsh Creatures," "Pond Features," "Microscopic Marvels" and "Miniature Monsters."

Inside the Educational Center is a series of audio and video kiosks highlighting the many opportunities available at Caw Caw. You can hear wildlife sounds and Gullah singers, feel animal skins and bird feathers, and see archival displays of rice cultivation along the Carolina coast during the 19th Century.

Caw Caw is rich in nature, history and culture. Madden says there are many more discoveries to be made in the future. "We come out every day and find something new. It’s like having Christmas morning every day of the year."

Angela Meredith of Charleston is the producer and director of the Caw Caw Interpretive Center's educational kiosks.


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