Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Venuses on the Wyboo


            We call ourselves “The Venuses of Willendorf Book Club” an unsuitably highfalutin name for the group of eight of us women.  Our ages span decades and our careers range from financial planner to retired teacher to hardware store owner to artist.  During the past 15 years we've read hundreds of books together and met for monthly discussions full of scholarly and artistic insights. And many conversations about life and love. “It's no use,” Florentino Ariza explains in our current book Love in the Time of Cholera, "Love is the only thing that interests me." 
            We've taken several trips and outings together to enhance our reading experiences.  Cold Mountain was discussed as we steeped in hot tubs in Hot Springs, N.C.; we toured Mepkin Abbey as we walked in the footsteps of Clare Booth Luce and took the obligatory trip to Savannah after reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. We've discussed books while picnicking at Cypress Gardens, Brookgren Gardens and Buck Hall Landing. Our members’ birthplaces range from Cuba to England to several Northern and Southern states but we all share a keen interest in exploring South Carolina.  So after reading about love and life in the Caribbean and South America we came, of course, to Lake Marion.  Actually it turned out not to be as incongruous a choice as it seemed.    
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s sweeping narrative mixes the mundane with the supernatural and realities with fantasies. This magical realism overtakes us at Martha’s family’s cottage.  The past percolates into the present.  In the cottage’s stash of old magazines Jacqueline Kennedy is still a stylish first lady. Recipes with jello are the latest thing.  The house envelopes us in its musty embrace when we arrive for our highly anticipated weekends each year.  With only the quiet lapping of the wake from passing boats to distract us, our minds clear a swath for us to be creative.  We sometimes spend hours making marbleized paper out on the patio or cover tables with art supplies and make altered books or paper flowers.  Not exactly “Girls Gone Wild.”  More like “Girls Gone Wyboo.” One Saturday afternoon Martha tinkered with a shadow box “museum” made from items she’d unearthed in a bathroom drawer: give-aways from the radio station, Man Tan, a piece of soap to which her mom Lucinda had painstakingly glued a cut-out bouquet of flowers, a small plastic statue of a pregnant young girl provocatively captioned “Kilroy was here”.   In Martha’s hands symbols from the past became art, folding time again.

Captain Richard of Fisheagle Tours told us an allegory about the past resurfacing.  Before Lake Marion was built in the 1930’s, only three percent of the state’s citizens had electricity.  To speed the building process that would produce hydroelectricity, the WPA cut down the cypress trees, chained them together and submerged them.  Eventually the chains rusted and one by one the trunks bobbed, and continue to bob, to the surface.  “It blows my mind to think these trees are older than the lake,” Richard says.  “Cypress trees can actually live to be over 1,700 years old.  They’re cousins of the sequoia trees, those huge Redwoods in California.”  His eco tour is full of stories that inspire us.  He passionately describes the prevalent osprey that construct gangly 1,200 pound nests to which they return every year to live with their life-long mate; stories of how  osprey band together to drive away bald eagles that venture into their territory.  Despite the rivalry, the bald eagle has rebounded from less than 100 in the state to over 400, he recounts.  On cue, Mary spots one on the horizon so he quietly cruises the boat through the carpet of water hyacinth to where we can observe it through his high powered binoculars. 

As we glide on the surface of the lake, our imaginations are fueled by his stories of what lies beneath us:  farms, forests, cemeteries and fields that were buried when the Lake was built.  “They paid the landowners 75% of market value plus 100 chickens,” he says.  The government built them new houses, or moved theirs, which included a screened porch which was the clincher for the deal since mosquitoes were so prevalent.  Six-thousand graves were moved but many still remain beneath the water today with ominous signs warning of disturbing them.  Graves sometimes emerge when the water level drops, he says. Supernatural sparks of creativity ignite in our imaginations.
All of the Venuses are nature lovers.  Yvette and I have a tradition of swim hikes.  We loop swim noodles around us in inventive ways and swim parallel to the shore past the raucous campers at Bob Cooper or over to Scarborough’s Landing.  An hour of swimming justifies the cocktail hour to come.  Sometimes we bring kayaks and we go sightseeing along the shore admiring the variety of houses and making up our pretend futures there.  Feeling particularly ambitious one year, a couple of us joined a kayaking expedition to Sparkleberry Swamp.  Imitating the locals, we’ll occasionally drag fishing poles out from under the house and try our luck.  Sandra and Martha enjoy early morning swims or evening dips to bracket the relaxing day.  On chilly nights we delight in making a bonfire and roasting gussied-up s’mores constructed of homemade peanut butter cookies, Swiss chocolate and marshmallows.
        Sometimes I bring a couple of bikes and explore the area.There are some nice trails in the Santee State Park but my favorite biking destination in the area is the Cuddo Unit in the Santee National Wildlife Refuge. On an early morning ride there, the only other living thing I saw was a huge alligator lying across the trail ahead of me. As I barreled towards it I shrieked “get out of my way you alligator.” He lumbered into the marsh as I sped on.  Mostly we stay in our bathing suits, our make-up packed away, drifting from one reclining position to another:  a chaise in the sun, a couch in the shade.  The dock is our living room. We drag a table out there for lunch or toast the sunset from its benches, waving at passing boaters. 
The stars are brilliant from the end of the dock.  The water shimmers in the moonlight.  We always comment on how dark it is away from the city lights. Early risers like me can enjoy the sight of the mist-shrouded lake greeting the sunrise, snowy egrets wading majestically on our beach, geese honking by in V formation.
      Walking and hiking in the area is easy to do.  Santee State Park has trails and lovely picnic spots by the water.  There are three one-mile hiking trails and a 7.5 mile biking trail there which are clearly marked and well maintained.  There’s also an informative visitor’s center with a display about the area’s history and ecology and cabins to rent.  Nearby the cottage, picturesque acres of unpicked cotton delight us in the fall. Flocks of migrating birds squawk as they fly overhead or land to forage in the fields.  A short walk away is Scarborough’s Landing where we sometimes have breakfast.  All eight of us could eat heartily there for about $50.  The short path there goes through a fish camp of trailers and mobile homes for vacationers.  Sitting on a porch that they’re proud to tell us they built themselves, a cuddling couple told us they come most every weekend from their farm in Bishopville to enjoy the fish camp and its bar’s karaoke.  Were we missing some exciting nightlife we wonder?  But we prefer our own cocktail hour.  We leaf through a crate of old LP’s someone has left behind and put Wilson Pickett on the aging turntable.  The past bubbles up again as we tell stories of high school proms, first dates and young love.  Showered and relaxed from a day in the sun, we unselfconsciously dance in our pajamas.  “As soon as I drive up here I feel it,” says Kimberly, “There’s no pretense.  If you want to stay in your pj’s all day, no one cares.”  We are, as the sign on the house next door aptly says, on “Idle Speed Only.” 
The cottage’s décor is a chronicle of years of playfulness.  The artist Carol McGill has spent several days here painting plein air.  It’s a location that calls to her repeatedly.  Several of her creations adorn the cottage walls. In one she did from the shore of Santee State Park, her passionate strokes of high contrast color beautifully capture the unusual landscape of the trunks that protrude from the Lake.  Her paintings incongruously share wall space with paraphernalia from the family’s history:  assemblages of sun hats, and insignia boasting “pride in tobacco”, a “Wyboo World” plaque, “Go Cocks” license plates and photos of Martha’s parents shaking hands with Fidel Castro.  It’s a creative hodge-podge with the Lake as its muse.
Martha jokingly says about the cottage’s kitchen:  “Just remember when you have something at your house that you really don’t want anymore, bring it here.”  Deep fryers, punch bowls, scores of beat-up pots and pans and enough plates to feed an army crowd the old wooden cabinets.  But we manage quite well to serve wonderful meals that draw from the book’s settings.  Over a Caribbean themed dinner of mangos, avocados, shrimp and rice pudding we recount the final, beautiful chapter of the book: two elderly lovers lie side by side in their cabin on the riverboat, holding hands as the boat drifts.  They’d spent a lifetime waiting for this moment. Fifty years, nine months, and four days to be exact.  Florentino was patient throughout Fermina’s fifty year marriage replete with its passion and disillusionment, adventures and estrangements. So, inevitably, we are back to the subject of love again:  of love-sickness and obsession, the vicissitudes of long marriages, the agelessness of desire and the friendships that help steer the course in life’s rushing currents.

If You Go:
Fisheagle Tours:
Santee National Wildlife Refuge and Cuddo Unit:
Rental cottages on the

This article was originally published in the May/June 2014 issue of S.C. Wildlife Magazine

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