Pugilists in Pluffmud

On Fripp Island South Carolina, where I spent the best part of my boyhood, there is a small dock on the island’s westernmost promontory that stands above a tidal estuary known as Old House Creek. A decade ago, this dock was rebuilt to accommodate the aesthetic preferences of a bustling real estate trade, but in the mid-60’s, it reflected that haphazard manner of construction familiar to watermen up and down the Carolina coast. That is to say, its pilings were hewn from the rough trunks of palmetto trees that were set into the alluvial mud of the creek bed amid oyster rakes and wading birds, then framed out in railroad cross-ties. True to the style, this structure was planked in a millrun of ancient cypress and daubed with creosote that, when heated under the bright lowcountry sun, spread to impart a rich mahogany stain. Atop each palmetto piling—installed inverted with the skinny-end down—a cap of galvanized tin was fastened as a kind of barrier against rot. These made comfortable stools from which to fish on all but the hottest days. By long custom, handrails were assumed superfluous, but mooring cleats sufficient to secure a fully laden shrimp boat in a gale were not, and it was likely that more than one trawler captain penciled the place into his charts. Where the dock joined the shore, its builders furnished a narrow apron of crushed oyster shells to stabilize the bank and buffer the structure from brushfires, but in all other respects they left it to weather the years untended. And until the site was selected for a small-boat marina and commercial hub, untended it was.

In those days, you approached Old House Creek by a mile-long dirt track that wound among the scrub oak and palmetto thickets of the island’s “backside,” a densely wooded preserve that seemed impervious then to development. Separated from the main body of Fripp by a narrow canal, the backside was the last acreage to be surveyed and it remained home well into the ‘70s to a population of feral boar and rattlesnakes that would have been at odds with the resort’s carefully groomed persona. To travel the backside in those days required 4-wheel drive and a certain fearless disposition regarding quicksand. Where it was common to become stuck in sand anywhere along the island’s paved roads, on the backside this was inevitable and for a time the resort management actively discouraged exploring there. If you braved these things and arrived at the island’s westernmost edge though, you would be rewarded with privacy, quiet fishing and the best sunsets north of Harbor Town. For ten long summers, I clung to that dock as my fortress of solitude and learned to live in rhythm with its tides.

Last summer, I had an opportunity to visit Fripp Island again after an absence of nearly two decades. I found much about the place that still enchants, though change was everywhere evident. A forest of edifices has replaced the woods of my youth, and good roads traverse the island’s backside where feral hogs are now just a rumor. Today, the ancient tidal slough my brothers knew as the Duck Pond anchors a condo village and a great scrim of townhouses guards the Point, where northeasterly storms once tossed their spray and we learned to shag in a long-ago burnt-to-ashes clubhouse.

Like most of these islands, Fripp’s beaches have suffered from thirty years of hydrographic experimentation and the immutable logic of beach erosion. Today, the dunes where we awaited better surf and romanced girls lie beneath a stout wall of granite riprap. Change is especially evident at the old dock, whose original structure was gradually incorporated into a modern Old House Creek Marine Center, complete with wet and dry storage for boats, a seafood restaurant, and gasoline facilities for both cars and boats. Most jarringly, streetlights illumine the western promontory now and country music issues from a second-story deck above the pilings.

Still, the place retains its magical footing in the lowcountry landscape and I returned to it eagerly my first afternoon back on the island. Walking onto the refurbished dock at Old House Creek, I admired again its swaybacked progress above the estuary and noted the increase of wire and lead fishing pendants draping those hoary palmetto pilings beneath the original structure. Fishermen will recognize these as the detritus of a thousand unlucky casts and for me they brought back memories of summers spent bottom-fishing from the old creosote planks, awaiting that sudden tug that marks the feeding of croaker or whiting or the greedy meddling of an aptly named toad-fish among the noonday shadows. During my very first summer on the island, my line was the first to foul these pilings and I remember backing down the dock, taking a strain on my leader until it parted with a snap. I remember, too, the injustice of leaving my entangled bait hanging dry above the creek, untasted and unrecoverable. Now there are dozens of these rigs, some showing the dried husks of frozen shrimp that betray their recent origin, others grown pale and hard in the lowcountry sun. As a convenience to modern fishermen, a bait and tackle shop sits astride the landward end of the dock and dispenses cold beer to mitigate embarrassment.

Then as now, at high tide the dock seems to be sailing above a sea of marsh grass that is elegantly awash as far as the eye can see, interrupted here and there by the meandering clarity of a navigable channel. Along the wooded shore, where the grass archipelago gives way to the island proper, thick levees of dead reeds still trace the high-water mark. On rising water, these garlands float, giving the shoreline a fetid brown collar to buffer the wakes of speeding boats and, on the island’s Atlantic side, providing nesting amid the riprap for plover and other small sea birds. To look west across Old House Creek is to appreciate at once the precarious nature of a coastal barrier island. Observed from its edge out near the Atlantic, the grassy archipelago is seen as a great savanna extending for many miles westward, interrupted only by the gaps that mark estuaries or by the tiny wooded islets that appear at intervals throughout the lowcountry. Fully four miles of spartina and water stand between the dock and produce farms on St. Helena Island that, but for Fripp’s thin scribbling of beaches, condominiums and vegetation, quickly would become ocean-front real estate. From the air, the marshy plain resembles nothing so much as a lush web of dendrites, curling and writhing in some fractal discipline immune to navigation. A matter of touch and go for the saltiest mariners, aquatic creatures chart these headwaters by instinct, and the narrowest rivulets teem with shrimp and other fine things.

As it was two decades ago, the rising tide is a time of movement, when Old House Creek runs fast beyond the dock’s deep end. Leave it for just an hour and the view will be transformed as the planet’s great aqueous bulge seeks equilibrium. From long practice, I know that a patient watcher with time to kill can sense the exact moment of tidal satiety, when the plastic floats marking a line of crab pots along the opposite bank cease to strain and float gently with whatever breeze might lift them. Until this happens, if you stand quietly over the flood, you will hear the tide gurgle and separate, straining a handful of small craft and more recent floating docks against their pilings. Sever their lines and this fleet would move briskly, invasively into the swelling tableaux, like some Dunkirk of ghosts. My mother likes to say that high tide is for watercolorists.

Only with the ebb tide does it become apparent that three quarters of the old dock spans a rich mud flat of the sort embracing the landward sides of most barrier islands. Proceeding from a zone of dry, black hardpan overrun with succulents and foolhardy shore plants, the bank eventually yields to soggier stuff that is the natural habitat for bedding oysters. Black as pitch, this alluvial mud is far slicker than wet clay, and it offers scant footing to creatures larger than raccoons. Bogging in it is considered great sport by young boys in the lowcountry, and it is they who have given it the distinctive name “pluff mud,” a name that evokes its quicksand propensity to draw you in until waist-deep and, more usefully, its ability to stick to everything it touches. Few boys there have resisted the temptation at one time or another to become Tar Baby, swathing themselves in slippery black ooze from head to foot, eyes shining like demented minstrels high-stepping amid the grass. Except for a shadowy strip beneath the new marina, the pluff mud along Old House Creek is densely crowded with tall follicles of green spartina. If Old House Creek resembles a surging river on the rising tide, it ebbs as a lazier current whose surface lays fully five feet below the barnacles populating each seaward piling. From down there, in a bateau lying low among the oyster rakes and sandbars, nothing can be seen of the fractal landscape and the landscape, like time, appears to stand still. But beneath those cliffs of grass and mud, smaller wonders reveal themselves.

As much as I would counsel the visitor to arrive in the lowcountry at high tide when the islands stand apart from each other, it is the twice-daily ebb that makes me feel most at home there. That is when the salt marshes stink with fecundity and, to the close observer, when they come alive with a thousand protean species that use the mud flats as habitat. Of these, the humble fiddler crab has long been my favorite, advancing as he does in wordless armies from among the tall grass onto a muddy plateau pocked with the blow-holes of buried bivalves. I marvel at the way each bull waves a single elephantine claw above wary eyestalks, how his trencherman’s mouth foams in mock rage while he skitters side-wise across the pluff. These creatures are rarely larger than an inch across, but they come in ranks, and watching their martial progress over successive low tides, I long ago began to think of them affectionately as crustacean herds. Each rank is led by a distinctive bull, possessor of the most formidable claw, and if you examine their twice-daily pursuit of the receding tide, you will soon discover other herd-like behaviors.

Of course, Fiddler crabs are as common as mosquitoes along the coastal Georgia Bight, but I never really paid them attention until one summer when I stretched myself prone on the old dock during a long neap tide, and watched the little armies advance and retreat in silent synchrony, individuals stopping now and again to stir their smaller extremities amid damp spots in the soupy pluff mud. What became clear at once was the marvelous theater in their territorial clashes. Where their lines intersect, pairs of aggressive bulls can be observed engaging each other in single combat while the “cows” watch and wait. For the most part, this consists of bluffing, with each male waggling his exaggerated member at the other until one should back down and retreat with his cows to another grazing area. Occasionally though, two bulls will lock claws and commence a kind of titanic “king of the hill,” backing and whirling, and muscling his nemesis away from the prized tidal silt. When this happens, the vanquished pugilist sometimes detaches himself from his fighting claw altogether, and bereft of further offensive capacity, skitters into the shadows beneath the flotsam line, abandoning his herd to graze with a victor that invariably holds the severed member aloft, flaunting it this way and that as a testimonial to his one-armed prowess. Taxonomists term one branch of these tiny monsters Uca pugilator and it seems a fitting reference to their ritual shadow boxing. As to their common name though, only pacifists will watch these creatures for more than a few minutes and see mere fiddling in their art.

One summer when I was about sixteen and high on possibilities, I lay prone in the pluff mud for better than an hour peering through the lens of a battered 8mm movie camera borrowed from my father’s closet. I believed that if I lay perfectly still like a kind of Gulliver in ragged cutoffs, the crabs would advance into my frame and permit close-up cinematography like the sort we see on television nature shows. Rather than those documentary paeans to, say, tiny arboreal titmice or The Secret Lives of Clams, I saw in the combat of Uca pugilator and Uca minax a hilarious War of the Worlds, in which the antagonists weren’t special-effects gadgetry but real flesh-and-blood oddities. It remained only to shoot them from below, or at least at ground level, to raise these creatures to monstrous proportions in the frame and assure my cinematic reputation. But, alas, my ambitions as a cineaste were exceeded only by the discomfort of my vantage point, and when no crabs came nearer than six feet after an hour, I gave up the enterprise and swam a few turns beyond the “no wake” buoy at mid-channel, happy to be rid of the itchy mud and a halo of sand fleas it attracted.

The next day at low tide, the spread-eagled form of a skinny 5’8” biped could be viewed embossed on the mud-flat where I’d lain, and it remained there for more than a week like a pitch-black asphalt “snow angel.” Just when I was certain that wading birds and the tidal currents would blur it beyond recognition, my warring crabs overcame their shyness and incorporated my dark doppelganger into their bizarre pageant. Advancing again from the cover of spartina, their regimental line of battle faltered for an instant and closed ranks above the gorge. As if awaiting some signal across the field of pluff, they paused then advanced. Dropping over the precipice where my forearms had earlier gouged the soft mud, companies of crabs were seen to oblique left across the interior chest cavity and to clamber at the quickstep around my knees. Back and forth the battle raged during a long summer afternoon, and more than once I wondered how this would have played out on film. An hour before the rising tide would flood the “mud man” for a last time, a pair of jubilant bulls was observed grappling spiritedly in the apex of the depression that most clearly corresponded to my crotch. Say what you will about the glorious flood, but in the South Carolina Lowcountry, it’s the falling tide when Art, Life, and Metaphor will most often get together for a laugh.