Sandlapper Society

His Heart is His Home

by Nancy Allison • photos by Jason Zwiker

For writer Roger Pinckney, there's no place like Daufuskie Island.

Adam Hutton, 18, rangy and serious, stands under the towering pines at Daufuskie Island’s Freeport Landing and says “Yessir.” He can get his daddy’s tractor and pull Roger Pinckney’s truck out of the mud after the ferry goes. 

Pinckney rumbles his thanks and waits without seeming to, taking in the spring sunlight and the chop on the river, breathing deeply the way a man will when there’s no place else he’d rather be. There’s no bridge between Hilton Head and Daufuskie, and Pinckney likes that just fine. He spent 30 years away from this island; don’t ask him to spend a minute more.

A graduate of the University of South Carolina and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Pinckney was born in Beaufort to people who “have been here for seven generations.” As a young man he headed for Alaskan adventure and was stranded in Minnesota. He made the best of it— fell in love, bought land, had kids, ran a farm, even preached. But he missed what he’d left behind. Since his return to Daufuskie in 1999, he has written about the place that has always been his heart’s home.

In four books of non-fiction, two novels and a screenplay, he has charted the woods and waters, deer and gators, “Capums” and capers of his growing up and coming back years, in prose that is half poetry, half battle cry. “The Hilton Head I knew is gone to highway, bridges, and blacktop, but there’s still Daufuskie,” he says. “I’m doing what I can to save it.”
Aside from wielding his pen, he’s challenged developers over high-rise condo plans and the construction of an inland marina. When lawsuits didn’t work he turned to Gullah magic, a subject he knows so well he wrote a book on it.

If you don’t know about the no money root and Dr. Buzzard and the bald eagles that finally stopped the builders on Daufuskie, then you haven’t read Roger Pinckney. And if you haven’t read Roger Pinckney— “hunter, fisher, voodoo man,” as writer Dorothea Benton Frank dubs him— then some say you’ll never know Daufuskie Island.

But there’s a way to remedy that: meet the man himself. Ride along on his historical, environmental, straight-talking, blue root tour of the place, and you might fall in love with his island and want to save it too.

Tall, fit, with a head of dark hair and a white beard, 63-year-old Pinckney isn’t given to small talk. Instead, he’s lavish with stories. Longtime friend and editor John Burbage says Pinckney only seems gruff. “Roger is a hopeless romantic. His friends already know that.” Fellow writer Baynard Woods likens being with Pinckney to riding down the Mississippi with Mark Twain. “In life and in his writing, he takes you by the arm and shows you his world.”

“Let’s get a move on, y’all,” Pinckney says, loading us into the van. “We’ve got a lot of ground to cover.” We’re in one of the few vehicles on the island. Most people here walk, bike or putter around on golf carts. There are some paved roads, but many are like this one, a sandy lane in dense forest.

“Five thousand acres. A hundred and fifty people. No bridge, no bank, no traffic lights, no traffic at all,” Pinckney says into the microphone, so we can all hear his low drawl. “That’s not how the real estate wizards over in Hilton Hell wanted it,” he explains. “In 1979, they came to Daufuskie, spent two hundred million dollars, said this island would be the ‘Martha’s Vineyard of the South’— and went broke.”

We drive through a tunnel of green: magnolia and camellia, palmetto and pine. Here and there are oaks so old and venerable, Pinckney has written, “that you want to embrace them and beg for stories.” But we don’t have to beg. From the school Pat Conroy made famous in The Water is Wide, to the remnants of rice dikes built by Gullah slaves, to the empty high-rise condos on Daufuskie’s four-mile beach, every landmark brings a tale.

Like Bloody Point, so-called from the Indian battle that took place here in 1715, and site of the lighthouse that was built in 1883. As a boy, Pinckney knew the last keeper of Bloody Point Lighthouse, Arthur “Papy” Burn. “Papy brewed scuppernong in the old lamp house,” Pinckney says, pointing at the skinny brick structure with “Silver Dew Winery” above the door. “When the revenuers swooped down on him for not having a license to sell it, he gave the wine away. Papy once said he wouldn’t trade a teaspoon of Daufuskie dirt for the whole state of South Carolina.”

Our next stop, the Cooper River Cemetery, is ground sacred to the Gullah, who buried their dead with faces pointed east, “so their souls could fly back to Africa.”

Then we come to another eerie spot: the disused Melrose Inn, a moldering mansion surrounded by empty beach cottages. Only one cottage is occupied, by the author himself, who doesn’t seem to mind that the resort went bust. “I’m not afraid of ghosts and I like the quiet.”

Next, we drive to the county dock that Capum Roger, Pinckney’s daddy, built, where water taxis speed people over to Savannah. “As you know, here on Daufuskie, the river is our road. This is the onramp to the superhighway.” Nearby is Marshside Mama’s, where those who don’t have to catch the ferry will have supper, our pulled pork and shrimp and grits accompanied by live music.

Then it’s off to church: the rebuilt wooden praise house where the Gullah once worshipped, catching the spirit in a movement known as the ring shout, informs Pinckney: “Heel and toe, round and round, clapping beats and half beats, in a circular dance of praise going all the way back to the west coast of Africa.”

Our last stop is Sandy Lane condos, the ones that got fixed by Dr. Buzzard. As Pinckney tells it, the famous Beaufort root doctor put the no money root on them. “When the condos went up anyway,” he says, “my neighbor got so depressed that he got drunk and cussed a flock of buzzards in a nearby tree. ‘Go tell Dr. Buzzard he’s fallin’ down on the job!’ he hollered. Y’all, the very next day, the buzzards left and American bald eagles started nesting in that tree. Soon after, the Fish and Wildlife and DNR came hoofing down here and closed the whole thing down.”

When Pinckney points out the nest that halted the builders, the whole vanload cheers. Too soon, we’re back at Freeport Landing. “Peaceful, ain’t it?” asks Pinckney, as he pulls up under the trees.

It is. There’s a gazebo with picnic tables, a handful of chairs where we can keep an eye out for the boat, and the Old Daufuskie Crab Company, where the crispy fish sandwich or shrimp and chicken quesadillas might make us wish it would tarry. For those who refuse to leave, there are cabins to overnight in, painted in the colors of flowers.

But first, we all troop into the general store to mull over which of Roger Pinckney’s books we’ll buy. Signs and Wonders, essays that caused fellow writer John Lane to name Pinckney “one of our greatest living lyrical writers”? Reefer Moon, the novel detailing a famous drug bust and the love story of tomato-growing Yancey Yarboro and nude moonlight golfer Susan Drake? The Right Side of the River, where we can meet Capum Roger before he dies, and witness the osprey falling among the silver mullet “like feathered lightning”?

The day trippers go home, arms full of books. Two visitors stay overnight, one of them an old friend of the author’s. In the morning, Roger arrives in his truck to take us to his favorite place: the Mary Dunn Cemetery.

On a trail through fallen leaves and slash pines, we roll through mud and standing water. Pinckney decides it’s too boggy to go on. Too late. We’re stuck up to the running board.

Oh well, the island is only three miles wide, it’s daylight and too early in the year for chiggers. The bull gators are off deep in the swamp. We hope. But we stick close to Pinckney anyway, dodging briars and ducking beards of moss.

Back at Freeport there’s a pleasant breeze and a few folks milling under the trees. Pinckney sees young Adam Hutton and strolls over to ask for help for the stuck truck. Adam’s waiting to see brother Dave, bearded, bear-sized and 21, off the island. Dave and his friend, Dallas Baker, 20, have been enjoying their spring break from Bethel University in Tennessee. Asked how his first visit strikes him, Dallas, a Tennessean with a trick name, says: “Daufuskie? It’s a whole different world.”

Adam, who commutes to Tri-County Tech in the upstate, agrees. “You don’t realize how lucky you are here until you go away.”

Roger Pinckney just nods and smiles around his pipe. He knows better than most how true that is. 

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This article is sponsored by the Binyah Foundation.


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