"State of the Heart: South Carolina Writers on the Places They Love"
Edited by Aïda Rogers
University of South Carolina Press, $39.95
Reviewer: TOM HENRY
This isn’t an environmental book per se. But it reminds you why good environmental writing matters: It’s because, at the root of every pollution controversy, there’s a longing for a sense of home.
One of the nation’s best fiction writers, Pat Conroy ("The Prince of Tides," "Beach Music," "South of Broad," "The Great Santini," "The Lords of Discipline"), sets the stage with a taut, heartwarming tribute to the Palmetto State with passing references to albino porpoises, fish, shrimp, osprey, bald eagles, deer, feral hogs, sharks and one particular Bengal tiger that kids were once allowed to feed chicken necks.
“Nature is everywhere in South Carolina and there is no escape or any reason to do so,” Conroy wrote in a splendid foreword that also touches upon the character of South Carolina’s people, its food and other things that make it distinctive.
Following Conroy are short essays from 35 lesser-known, but talented, South Carolina writers who offer their thoughts, usually in two to four pages.
The book is thematically organized, with some essays focusing on beautiful marshy landscape and tranquility; others on birds, fish and water; others on history and bygone landmarks; and even a couple on sports venues, food and coffee shops.
One author focused on no place in particular, but the serenity of tobacco roads. Others wrote eloquently about shacks, beachhouses, churches, fort ruins, oysters and their favorite porch swings.
Consider this excerpt from Sandra E. Johnson’s essay about the Congaree River boardwalk, in which she writes about how images of great blue herons, snowy egrets, and trees along an everchanging, “timeless yet constantly evolving” shoreline ecosystem have had almost a spiritual, healing effect on her:
“Each moment here is a reminder that everything is in the process of being created, existing, then dissolving; and recognition of this often softens the sharp edges of my pain over the unexpected death of my 47-year-old brother and other losses.
“Yes, this is a source of solace,” she continues.“No man-made structure, not even the most beautiful of cathedrals, could give me what this place does because despite all of our knowledge and skills, we humans cannot create nature. We can only be a small part of it. So I keep walking through the park and drawing sustenance from it, and as I feel a breeze from the river, inhale the fragrance from honeysuckle, and hear the chirping of mating cardinals, my problems lessen and my head clears. And I am reminded that life is truly good.”
Through it all, the reader gets not only a sense of place – but also rich insight into the charm and occasional wackiness of South Carolina.
“State of the Heart” is a big, collective love letter that makes South Carolina more distinctive but also shows a commonality of what binds people from all walks of life together.
It makes South Carolina feel more real. It breathes more life into the type of state that tourists and outsiders often don’t see.
Tom Henry covers energy-environmental issues for The(Toledo) Blade. He is a member of SEJ’s board of directors, SEJournal’s editorial board, and is SEJournal’s book editor.
* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Fall 2013.  Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here  or learn how to join SEJ.  Past issues are archived for the public here.