“Red bird came…firing up the landscape…as nothing else could.”
A poet friend sent me a book this week called Red Bird. It is a book of delectable poems by Mary Oliver, who also lives by the sea. On Edisto Island, we catch glimpses of red, blue and yellow feathers, in the quick sparrowed flight of the painted bunting, rare jewels of this jungle. But Red Bird also carries another, historical story of this place. It’s a story in our South Carolina history that talks of the Red Bird’s legendary role in Native American culture.
In 1675, a letter went out from our eden shores to England, on a wooden ship like this one, from Dr. Henry Woodward, to John Locke, the philosopher, who was curious about the religion of the Native American or Amerindian. John Locke at the time was physician and secretary to Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, whose legend continues in Charleston to this day, for our two major rivers are named Ashley and Cooper. Dr. Henry Woodward had been left with the Amerindians in 1666 by Captain Robert Sandford when his expedition came from Barbados to Edisto Island. Woodward was to eager to learn the culture and language of the Port Royall Indians, the Cusabo, and establish trade for the colony.
Henry Woodward was my grandfather many generations ago, and because it was the habit of South Carolinians to know their family history by heart, I heard of him at an early age. His intriguing story includes priests and pirates, kings and Indians, and it fueled my early interest in South Carolina’s colonial history. He is considered the first English settler in South Carolina, and it is no small thing that I have come to live in near these old creeks that beckon me to tell these stories. The following letter about the Red Bird exists in the journals of John Locke.
Dr. Henry Woodward to John Locke, 12 November 1675
I have made the best inquiry that I can concerneing the religion and worship. Originall, and customes of our natives. especeally among the Port Royall Indians amongst whom I am best accquainted. they worship the Sun and … acknowledge the sun to bee the immedeate cause of the groth and increse of all things whom likewise they suppose to be the cause of all deseases. to whom every year they have severall feast and dances particularly appointed. they have some notions of the deluge, and say that two onely were saved in a cave, who after the flood found a red bird dead: the which as the pulled of his feathers between their fingers they blew them from them of which came Indians. each time a severall tribe and of a severall speech. which they severally named as they still were formed. and they say these two knew the waters to bee dried up by the singing of the said red bird and to my knowledg let them bee in the woods at any distance from the river they can by the varying of the said birds note tell whether the water ebbeth or floweth.
Yours to command,
Hmmm. So the Red bird knows the ebb and flow of the tide. Surrounded by the lush green marsh of these curving tidal creeks, I think I will and listen more carefully to this red bird’s note as I drop my new cobalt blue kayak into the ancient tributary. One of my friends on this island swears he sees canoes at times, at dawn, paddling silently out in the marsh. Perhaps it is they. Listening for the song of the Red Bird.
I call you to be Wonder-filled and beautifully aware, as Charlotte will be when she launches the Low Country wish of her cobalt blue kayak on the dream-rolling waters of the ancient tributary that of a mythic and ever- dawn morning she will meet paddling out of the swamp’s house of the rising sun the canoes of Edisto’s first seafarers and find them in her painter’s imagination to be more real than real can be.
Thank you, dear poet friend, for these lyric comments. Thank you for introducing me to Red Bird in poetry. What a volume by the amazing Mary Oliver. It may be my favorite of all her books already! And it inspired this piece about this place. With fondness, Charlotte
Interesting piece Charlotte. There is a book by a missionary named Don Richardson called, ETERNITY IN THEIR HEARTS” which has collected origin and flood stories from all over the world, showing that all cultures know these things, yet the original account has morphed down through the centuries according to cultural norms and practices.
That’s interesting that they were so in tuned with nature that they connected the song of the bird, to the rise and fall of the tide. I suppose its like my relying on the sun rather then a watch. It was a interesting story. Hope you write more about the Native population of South Carolina. I’ve really don’t know that much about them.