To fully absorb and advocate for the upland lifestyle, one must be a student of etymology, or at least a hobbyist, because the subtle distinctions between preservation and conservation frame the family photo of the many generations and iterations of the activities and traditions that bind us together. Upland hunting, for example, is necessarily tied to place. It’s tough to quail hunt along Madison Avenue in Manhattan, but it’s also tough not to in the piney woods of the South Carolina Lowcountry.
The upland experience also draws from traditions that have spanned generations and stood the test of time. The strength of these traditions and their unique siren song draw our hearts and our dogs into the woods in a pursuit that, without fail, thrills our senses and quiets our souls in reconnection with nature. The areas must be preserved, sheltered from the many human forces that measure the highest and best use solely by profit margin and return on investment. Traditions fall prey to fashion and trends, often slipping down the slope of irrelevance into the ditch of the quaint and quirky idiosyncrasies of the landed gentry.
We must have the vision to preserve traditions in a manner that makes them approachable to the next generation and aspirational to the ones after that. And we need this vision to both preserve the physical spaces and conserve the limited resources that foster the growth of the lifestyle we cherish. And that’s where Brays Island comes in. More than just an inviting place to chase birds, dogs, and golf balls, Brays is a living, breathing embodiment of the nuanced distinction between preservation and conservation, a community that connects people to each other and to the outdoors in uncommonly commonsensical ways.
It is the combined vision of Sumner Pingree and Robert Marvin that propelled Brays Island into landmark preservation territory. Pingree’s life of affluence and adventure—including a rather quick departure from an 85,000-acre stake in Castro’s Cuba—cast him ashore on Brays Island in the early 1960s, and for more than two decades he farmed and raised livestock and cultivated an ideal way to steward his 5,500-acre plantation into the future. Marvin brought the practical vision gleaned from his design work on other large Southern tracts such as Callaway Gardens. Together they determined from the very beginning that no more than 325 homesites would be developed, all on 1-acre circular lots buffered by green space—an idea credited to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonia concept from the early 1930s in Pleasantville, New York. The remaining 90 percent of Brays Island Plantation would thereby remain public space for all 325 families to share and enjoy. While the ultra-low density of such a development did little to fortify the financial return on his investment, it did allow Pingree to preserve both the visual aesthetic of the land and the human experience of a Lowcountry plantation well into the future. The connection to place is made even more palpable by the ever-present and largely unobstructed marsh and river views, reinforcing an awareness and a need for both preservation and conservation.
The Brays Island community embraces the preservation mission, and it is the concept of community—as opposed to a private club—that puts a human face on the successful fulfillment of Sumner Pingree’s vision. It is, after all, a working plantation with a shared ownership structure that works. Decisions have to be made, of course, and boards elected, committees formed, staff managed, and bills paid. Even a utopian upland experience can’t fully escape reality. But the owners have cultivated more than just quail woods and golf courses. They’ve joined together in community, and they shoulder the burdens as their strengths allow, deferring to neighbors as circumstances require. Such a unique ownership experience is obviously not for everyone.
Even beyond the financial hurdles—as it turns out, a 1-acre circle is not geometrically inexpensive—the Brays community attracts those drawn to the outdoors. While the amenities and offerings are diverse, they offer little to the recliner set. If you’ve imagined walking your dogs or horses along quiet dirt roads into a gorgeous sunrise or sunset, hunting quail or shooting clays at a moment’s notice, fishing in all types of water, or golfing in a wildlife sanctuary right outside your back door, then these might just be your people. The Brays community works very hard to preserve the plantation aesthetic that fosters your outdoor interests.
Conservation, the more demanding sister to preservation, is also foundational to the Brays Island community, and their commitment to it is manifest in almost every aspect of the plantation. The architectural review board, for example, that regulates the built landscape of the community, requires houses be substantially screened from view by natural vegetation. In many cases, a passerby must look back upon the dirt road to scour the scenery for a home possibly passed. They also choose public lighting that is only downward facing, decreasing the light pollution substantially and ensuring the vibrant pop of the starry night skies.
Back to the lived community, food and beverage choices are locally sourced and often made with sustainability in mind, despite the extra cost. They’ve also established a community garden and hired a young farmer with organic skills and tendencies, and that patch of dirt has borne fruit and vegetables for the restaurants and the resident owners. The golf course was designed to be hidden among what is, in essence, a wildlife refuge that stretches over roughly double-the-acreage usually allotted by developers. They’ve also built vegetative buffers along the ponds and marsh areas to absorb the small amount of fertilizer they use during the growing season, conserving the natural integrity of the water. Even the sporting-clays range, which also resembles a wildlife sanctuary, is designed and maintained in concert with the natural world that envelops it, including annual recovery and repurposing of excess clay target remains.
The most prominent opportunity, of course, is the hunting, and the expansive hunting areas—the bulk of the original plantation—are emblematic of the conservation initiatives that carry on Pingree’s original vision. While Brays remains a working plantation, active timber and land-management practices, such as their longleaf pine restoration program, produce beneficial outcomes for wildlife, including the red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW). Some developers are trying to protect themselves from this bird and the trials and tribulations associated with its endangered status. Brays takes a different position, though, actually working with the South Carolina RCW Safe Harbor program in order to attract and provide habitat for this native species. A part of their management program that favors the woodpecker, and one that is also rare among developers, is their annual prescribed burning, a process that resets the piney woods every three years or so, alternating parcels so that the many species that thrive in a fire-dependent ecosystem—quail, turkey, and deer, among others—always have a safe place to land. It is the right conservation tool, and the Brays community is committed to it.
Their commitment, though, goes even a step further to include a staff naturalist. In addition to managing ponds and programs like the Safe Harbor initiative, the Brays naturalist designs and implements educational programs across generations, maintains an impressive collection of natural artifacts from the local area, and even coordinates owner involvement in a number of conservation initiatives, such as controlling invasive species, maintaining any of the three historical cemeteries on the property, establishing pollinator gardens, and setting up bluebird houses. The takeaway from meeting this important member of the Brays staff is that the community walks the walk instead of just talking the talk. Conservation of their natural space is important enough to the community that they fund a professional to help them be better at it. Ultimately, we should all be better stewards of our natural world, and Brays Island shows us how one community can make that worthy idea actionable.
More than just tending the natural spaces around us, humans should do a better job of conserving the resources within us, preserving the sense of joy and wonder that followed us out of the womb and into the light. All too often we get caught on the treadmill, looking through the glass at a world just begging us to come out and play. Maybe it’s something akin to conservation, but the pace at Brays Island seems to compel you to make the most of your time, even if you completely lose track of it. The paradox doesn’t stop there. The dirt roads hearken back to a bygone era, but they also offer a gentle reminder of the connection we necessarily have with the earth. They provide a soft place to walk, but they also reveal the footprints we leave behind, reminding us all to tread lightly and make the most of our time here.
Originally published in Volume 9, Number 3 (April-May 2021) of Covey Rise.
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