Conservationists in South Carolina are transforming old systems of oppression into practices that preserve land and create habitat for an extraordinary number of birds.
In the final episode of this season Host Ari Daniel tours the marsh at the Nemours Wildlife Foundation with Dr. Drew Lanham, cultural and conservation ornithologist at Clemson University. They bring us a story of time travel. Of touching a place through old hands and seeing it through new eyes. Of honoring a people for the incredible work they did— and sharing how that work continues today, and is reflected in the birds that call this place home.
- ACE Basin - The Nature Conservancy
- Low Country Legacy - National Geographic
- Nemours Wildlife Foundation
- African Passages, Lowcountry Adaptations - Lowcountry Digital History Initiative | College of Charleston
- Lowcountry Land Trust
- Harriet Tubman’s Great Raid
Ari Daniel: BirdNote presents.
Victoria Smalls: People like you and I, adults, would be processing and making the bricks. After the bricks are fired, they need to be laid out and dried. And some of them are not completely dry. So the children, enslaved children, their little hands would pick up the bricks, they’re pretty heavy for them. And if they’re not dry, they’d leave fingerprints, you see? One, two, three fingerprints here. There’s a whole set of five down here. Do you see how small they are? I always like to touch them because I feel like I’m recognizing and honoring them. I got goosebumps.
Ari Daniel: I got, I teared up.
Victoria Smalls: I feel like that’s them just saying, “Thank you. Thank you for recognizing us, thank you for seeing our contribution, thank you for speaking about our existence.” More here. More fingerprints.
Ari Daniel: Today on Threatened, we have a story of time travel. Of touching a place through the hands of generations past, and seeing it through modern eyes. Of honoring a people for the incredible work they did. And of how that work continues today, creating habitat for an extraordinary number of birds. Stand in certain places long enough, and the past shimmers into view. I’m Ari Daniel.
Ari Daniel: It’s just after sunrise in South Carolina low country, near the coast. The morning light filters through the cottony clouds. I approach a lone figure, framed by giant oaks draped in Spanish moss, standing near the water’s marshy edge.
Ari Daniel: G’morning.
Drew Lanham: Good morning. How are you?
Ari Daniel: Good, how are you?
Drew Lanham: Man, does it get any better than this? I mean, this is creation every day, listening to the world wake up.
Ari Daniel: Drew Lanham is a cultural and conservation ornithologist at Clemson University. He scans the marsh here at the Nemours Wildlife Foundation with his binoculars.
Drew Lanham: Yeah, that’s a gator roaring over there.
Ari Daniel: Three alligators float into view. Tree frogs chorus. The marsh grass sways in the humid breeze. And there are birds everywhere.
Drew Lanham: We’re the early birds, but not earliest. Orchard Orioles have beat us to the punch. Great-crested Flycatchers have beat us to the punch. Tufted Titmouse, the “peter, peter, peter, peter, peter, peter, peter.” We’ve got what look like Rough-winged Swallows likely in silhouette over the marsh. A Northern Parula. There’s a Red-winged Blackbird. Pileated Woodpecker letting us know that it’s here.
Ari Daniel: Here on the bank of the Combahee River, the tranquility is absolute.
Drew Lanham: Look at that, ah, looks like a Tricolored Heron. Wow.
Ari Daniel: And yet. Over the past few centuries, the birds have sung to different audiences. Some 400 years ago, the view would’ve been different. We’d be standing not beside a marsh, but in the middle of a swamp.
Drew Lanham: A swamp is a wetland that’s dominated by trees.
Ari Daniel: Bald cypress. Hefty tupelos.
Drew Lanham: We go back to pre-settlement and you think about much of this landscape as inhabited by Indigenous people, so people like the Yemassee. And those people who would have nurtured nature in their own way. And then they were persecuted, executed, enslaved, many of them, and then sent south to the Bahamas.
Ari Daniel: And in their place, 178,000 people were forcibly transported here from West Africa. Roughly 151,000 survived that journey.
Victoria Smalls: The water is what brought us. So all the way from Senegal, the Senegambia area, going on down to Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana, Nigeria, Benin, also Angola.
Ari Daniel: Victoria Smalls, who we heard from at the top of this episode, is a National Park Ranger with the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park in nearby Beaufort, South Carolina. And she belongs to a group of people who now call themselves the Gullah Geechee, descendants of the Africans brought here against their will.
Victoria says the white colonists recognized a landscape that could be transformed into one perfect for growing rice. And, it turns out, perfect for creating critical bird habitat. There was just one problem. The white colonists didn’t have the knowledge to do it.
Victoria Smalls: So they sought out the experts in rice growing. So they handpicked, kidnapped, enslaved people from the rice-growing regions of west Africa. When they come here, wow — they’re gonna be greeted by the landscape and waterways that look similar to their homeland.
Drew Lanham: There are stories of enslaved Africans seeing the South Carolina coast and thinking they were home because they saw much that looked familiar here. And so imagine that. Imagine being kidnapped, being in a slave hold for weeks, having to endure those fetid conditions of barely being able to move. And then being brought up on the deck of a ship after this passage across the Atlantic, and seeing lands and thinking, “I’m back home.” Only to be disembarked from that ship, bound, shackled, whipped.
Ari Daniel: And forced to tame and transform the swamps into rice fields. Which required two things. The first — immense and horrific physical toil.
Drew Lanham: So imagine being out there, in marsh. You would have been up since before daybreak. Imagine going out in what we call plough mud, this marsh mud that wants to suck you down into it, and having to work in the mosquitoes, the biting flies, cottonmouth snakes, alligators for no pay, day after day. Those enslaved Black people, each one whose life mattered.
Ari Daniel: There in the marsh, in the plough mud, those enslaved people were removing trees to clear the forest for rice fields. Slowly, the cypress and tupelo disappeared from the swamps.
Drew Lanham: Imagine a tree that’s big enough for three grown men, three large men. They can’t wrap their arms around it, right? How do you get rid of a tree like that? It’s going to be really difficult to cut it down. The long-term is to girdle, to go around that cambium to sort of choke the tree, as it were, so that that tree dies. But no chainsaws, no gas engines, but people deforesting land — that would take decades, removing acre by acre.
Ari Daniel: So the labor was the first thing needed to transform the swamps into rice fields. The second was something these enslaved people had within them.
Victoria Smalls: And that’s where those experts at the hydrology from West Africa, these engineers come into play. The landscape today is evidence of them being here.
Ari Daniel: Because once the trees were gone, the soggy ground beneath their feet had to be wholly resculpted. And that resculpting is what started attracting numerous new bird species to the area a few hundred years ago.
Drew Lanham: And all the birds that we’re hearing are probably birds that enslaved people would have heard.
Ari Daniel: Elsewhere on the Nemours Wildlife Foundation, which encompasses what used to be multiple rice plantations — and which remains home to many of these bird species — I meet wildlife biologist Ernie Wiggers, who directs the Foundation. He explains what enslaved people had to do to create these rice fields, which is all about regulating the flow of water to flood and drain the rice when needed.
Ernie Wiggers: They didn’t want water in there until they were ready for water, so they built an incredible series of dikes to keep the water out of these rice fields.
Ari Daniel: And dike is this…
Ernie Wiggers: The dirt. The earth here. It’s just an earthen berm separating the field from the tidal river.
Ari Daniel: So on one side of this berm, which was originally built by enslaved people, you’ve got water going up and down with the natural tides. And on the other side, in the cultivated rice fields, the water can now be controlled. Dikes were built throughout coastal South Carolina, requiring a colossal movement of dirt. Millions of metric tons of the stuff.
Ernie Wiggers: And we think that number’s well beyond the volume of material moved to build the Great Pyramids of Egypt. So just to give it a sense of what was done here. And it was all done by hand.
Ari Daniel: By enslaved people. But then you need a way to regulate the water level within the rice fields — to move water in and out when needed. Controlling the tide, in other words. That’s where something called a trunk comes in. Basically, a large wooden tube that sits inside the berm and allows water to flow from one side to the other.
Ernie Wiggers: Well, back then they had what they call a trunk minder, who might’ve been an older individual, kind of that skill set, because you had to do a couple of things. You wanted to know what depth of water you wanted in your rice field. And two, you wanted to make sure it was fresh water that you were putting in there. So they had to taste it and see if it was bitter or sour, and they could pick up the salty taste.
Ari Daniel: On either end of the trunk, that tube, you’ve got these gates that push open with the flow of water.
Beau Bauer: And so, this will keep pushing water through until the tide stops.
Ari Daniel: Beau Bauer is a wildlife biologist at Nemours.
Beau Bauer: So when it switches to low tide, it’s gonna shut this door here on the side we’re managing. And it’s gonna hold this water here.
Ari Daniel: The closed gate plugs the trunk to keep the water from leaving. Unless you want to drain the water, in which case you pull up on the gate, like Beau’s doing now. He inserts a large metal pry bar and hoists the door.
Beau Bauer: [door opening] You see those doors are coming up?
Ernie Wiggers: There was a whole series of: add water, pull water off, add water. These water control structures were used multiple times during the growing of the rice during the year.
Beau Bauer: It’s an ingenious contraption that’s utilizing gravity and tides to move water where you want it.
Ari Daniel: An ingenious contraption designed, installed, and maintained by the West Africans and their descendants. Come late summer, early fall, they’d drain the water to dry out the fields for harvesting and stacking the rice.
Drew Lanham: There was a science to it all along.
Ari Daniel: Drew Lanham again.
Drew Lanham: So you’re getting the knowledge, you’re getting this free physical labor and the cost is in human lives and suffering. They got better and better at it, and made their owners, those who would chattel them, extraordinarily rich and powerful.
Victoria Smalls: We are responsible for the wealth that was brought to this area.
Ari Daniel: Victoria Smalls again.
Victoria Smalls: I like to say “we.” My ancestors survived the Middle Passage on ships. They survived the warehouses that they were stored in here in America until the market price was right for them to be sold or auctioned off. They survived years, hundreds of years of enslavement.
Ari Daniel: And so things went for more than a century and a half. Generations of enslaved people laboring in a hostile swamp under merciless oppression. Until. Until one morning, in the middle of the Civil War, six months after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, something remarkable happened on the Combahee River, near where Drew and I stand now.
Drew Lanham: In June of 1863, Ari, Harriet Tubman commanded a raid on this river and liberated estimates upward of 700 enslaved Black people. This extraordinary woman who was in command, who knew the land, and had the courage to move forward in ways that others hadn’t.
Ari Daniel: After the break, how Tubman pulled it off, and how the legacy of the people she encountered along the Combahee lives on today, through the birds darting above the water and singing in the marsh.
Ari Daniel: Welcome back. We left off on the bank of the Combahee River when in the summer of 1863, Harriet Tubman shows up on a Union flotilla leading her team of spies, scouts, and pilots. The ships are gunboats, and despite the name, they’re synonymous with freedom. Board one and make it to safety, and you’re free. Most of the soldiers accompanying her are formerly enslaved Black people from South Carolina volunteering to fight for the Union.
Edda Fields-Black: They arrive at 6 AM. And the enslaved people were already in the rice fields. They were already working.
Ari Daniel: Edda Fields-Black is a historian at Carnegie Mellon University, and a descendant of the enslaved laborers in the rice fields.
Edda Fields-Black: The people who were on the plantations knew that the boat was coming. They heard the uninterrupted steam whistle blow. So it was a long sound, but a very distinctive sound.
Ari Daniel: Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people ran from the rice fields towards that whistle.
Edda Fields-Black: And there were boats sent out to bring people from the riverbanks onto the gunboats. There were so many people who came down to the river that they were having trouble loading people onto the boats and taking off. There just wasn’t enough space. And people were holding onto the sides of the boats to prevent the boats from leaving without them. They were sitting ducks, basically.
Ari Daniel: If they hang around too long, then Confederate reinforcements might show up. So the decision was — save those aboard, or lose everyone.
Edda Fields-Black: Colonel Montgomery asks Tubman to sing to “her people” and tell them that everything was going to be okay. And she does. She literally sang about the federal government basically having good intentions for them, that the US government was actually going to protect them and pay them and employ them. The melody would have been familiar to people, but she changes the words. And so at the end of a verse, they were to say, “Hallelujah.” And people said, “Hallelujah,” and raised their hands. And when they raised their hands, they let go of the boats. And that’s when the boats started to take off.
Ari Daniel: So those in the water were left behind. But that singing allowed the 756 people already aboard to depart. In this raid, Harriet Tubman, called the “Moses of Her People,” was the first woman to ever lead US military forces — this group of spies, scouts, and pilots. And their success was astonishing. As part of the Underground Railroad, Tubman freed 60 or 70 people over nearly a decade. But that morning on the river?
Edda Fields-Black: In the Combahee raid, they freed 756 people in six hours. And they did not lose a single life.
Ari Daniel: The raid devastated the plantations.
Edda Fields-Black: Without the enslaved labor force, the land was really worthless, especially the rice fields, because they had to be maintained.
Ari Daniel: In fact, the African-American infantry regiment opened those water control gates…
Edda Fields-Black: And allowed the salt water to ruin the rice that had just been planted in the rice fields. Right, that rice would have fed the Confederate army.
Ari Daniel: Ornithologist Drew Lanham gazes out across the Combahee, to where Harriet Tubman and her armada pulled that steam whistle, that piercing cry of liberation.
Drew Lanham: History is here. You can walk in the footsteps of all these people. So when you hear the bird song, trying to imagine what it must have been like for a dream to come true for freedom. Of making the decision to strike out, to dive in, to wade in, to go.
Ari Daniel: Those who were freed here and elsewhere became refugees of a sort. Some joined the Union forces and fought the Confederacy that had shackled them. In 1865, the Union won. The Civil War ended. And the formerly enslaved fanned out across coastal South Carolina and beyond, forming what’d become known as the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor — which stretches from Wilmington, North Carolina to St. Augustine, Florida.
The United States is a country built on the backs of enslaved people. A deep wound that’s never healed, one that continues to define us. At the polls, on social media, and in our communities.
Those who were enslaved on a place like this — what’s now the Nemours Wildlife Foundation — sacrificed their lives to transform this landscape. And the legacy of that transformation, remarkably, lives on today. Which brings us back to those water control structures — the dikes, trunks, and gates.
Beau Bauer: Hundreds of years later, we’re still using the same fundamental principles to manage these old rice fields now for waterfowl and other water birds and other wildlife. Would you like to see the inland field this is feeding right now? And there might be some birds or something out there.
Ari Daniel: Oh yeah, that’d be great.
Ari Daniel: Wildlife biologist Beau Bauer leads me further inland, along a muddy path, flanked by pockets of chorusing green tree frogs. The scene here pretty closely resembles what things would’ve looked like during the rice-growing era, minus the rice.
Beau Bauer: So when the rice culture collapsed in the early 1900s, these plantations found new value as recreational hunting areas. And imagine hundreds of years of growing rice, how many ducks that attracted. It’s phenomenal numbers, likely altered migratory routes of many of these species.
Ari Daniel: The hunters wanted to keep those ducks and other waterfowl coming here. So the hunters learned how to use the water management system to flood and drain the area in order to propagate native plants like widgeon grass, and create the right habitat for these birds. These vast wetlands have since become part of places like the Nemours Wildlife Foundation. And Beau and his colleagues are managing way more than ducks in what’s become a living laboratory.
Beau Bauer: Why these managed wetlands are so critical for conservation is that this provides a stable environment for these birds that are especially migratory birds, that you can time these management activities to facilitate those birds.
Ari Daniel: The team here is taking the water control systems once manipulated for rice and using them in a new way — to attract different birds at different times of the year.
Beau Bauer: So in the spring, you can draw the water levels back down to just an inch or two, what we call skinny water. And now you’ve timed that water manipulation and that water level with the arrival of spring migrating shorebirds.
Ari Daniel: Tens of thousands of these shorebirds arrive in enormous flocks. And they forage in the skinny water, in the mud, to make the rest of their migratory journey to breed.
Beau Bauer: It’s hard maintaining skinny water unless you have a managed wetland. And then, fall comes around, you start bringing your water levels back up to 8 to 12 inches for growing your widgeon grass and your spikerush for the ducks will be arriving in the winter.
And in the meantime, you’re having all these different herons and wading birds — you know, storks, Roseate Spoonbills using these wetlands.
Ari Daniel: The American alligator and Bald Eagle can both trace some of their recovery success to these old rice fields. Also the Black Rail, a small, rare, and secretive bird with ruby eyes that loves shallow water.
Beau Bauer: And that’s been like the last refuge for those birds, at least in South Carolina.
Ari Daniel: Not to mention entirely new species drawn to the managed wetlands. But despite everything that’s been achieved here, this place continues to transform, again at the hands of human beings. Climate change is making tropical storms more frequent and intense.
Beau Bauer: So when those storms occur, it’s pushing large wedges of water up the river, these large tidal surges, and those will overflow the dikes and even cut into the dikes and cause what we call breaks. You might even lose some of your rice trunks.
Ari Daniel: Sea level rise is making it harder for managed wetlands closer to the coast to drain off their water in the spring. And the water flooding these areas is increasingly salty.
Beau Bauer: So if we lose these managed wetlands, we lose those birds and that biodiversity. A whole suite of species you’ll find out in these managed wetlands that you’re not going to find in a tidal marsh.
Ari Daniel: But at least for now, the management continues. The legacy of the people who once worked the low country here endures.
Drew Lanham: Because so much is unseen, because so many stories are untold…
Ari Daniel: Drew Lanham again.
Drew Lanham: …many don’t know, but it’s important to not forget, to not bury that history under the plough or let it be drowned out by the water, but to amplify it. Those Black hands that created so much are still working. And I get that here. I get that here. I don’t have to see a single soul, other than birds flying, but then I know underneath those bird’s wings — look at that, those are Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks that just flew by us. And so the birds are symbols — the Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, the Black Rails, the Black-necked Stilts, the Red-winged Blackbirds. I can never see a Black Rail, which is an extraordinarily rare bird, to know that the hands of Black people helped create a land that makes Black Rails possible. The very same systems that created suffering are now saving birds. The work of force has become the work of goodwill for wildlife. And so this is a place where you come to expect an overwhelm of ornithology.
Ari Daniel: Like you say, we don’t see the people. And yet we’re standing upon the ground that they shaped. And so it’s like you have to know what you’re looking for.
Drew Lanham: Ari, you have to know what you’re looking for, but sometimes the best way to see it is to close your eyes. And if you close your eyes, and just listen, and just let yourself be in this place, you can almost feel it come up through the soles of your feet.
Ari Daniel: This is our final episode of the season. To learn more about “plantation ecology,” as Drew Lanham’s coined it, visit our website, birdnote.org.
Across this season of Threatened, we’ve seen case after case of how people alter landscapes — and that impacts birds. They must share their world with us, for better or worse. And let’s face it, usually it’s for worse. But not always. We can find ways to coexist, to encourage comebacks, to create and restore habitat. And make things just a little less … threatened.
This episode was produced by me, Ari Daniel, and edited by Caitlin Pierce of the Rough Cut Collective. Audio mix by Rob Byers, Johnny Vince Evans, and Michael Raphael of Final Final V2. Our theme song and original music were composed by Ian Coss, with additional music by Blue Dot Sessions. Threatened is a production of BirdNote and overseen by Content Director Allison Wilson with production assistance from Sam Johnson.
Thanks so much for listening.
Host & Senior Producer: Ari Daniel
Editor: Caitlin Pierce, Rough Cut Collective
Audio mix: Rob Byers, Johnny Vince Evans, and Michael Raphael, Final Final V2
Theme song and original music: Ian Coss
Additional music: Blue Dot Sessions
Content Director: Allison Wilson
Audio and Video Editor: Sam Johnson
Fact-checker and Digital Producer: Conor Gearin
Artwork: Clint McMillen at Braincloud Design
Threatened is a production of BirdNote. Learn more about the BirdNote team.
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