And I live…in the sand hills
Prob’ly die in the sand hills…
I grew up on Bridgewood Road, a hilly road in a hilly part of town, off North Trenholm Road. Friends who visit Columbia are surprised at how hilly it is here. And I say, “it is called the sand HILLS.”
One end of Bridgewood runs in to Rockbridge Road right across from the top entrance to Rockbridge Club, about a third the way down that great big hill we loved as kids. The elevation drop from the light at Trenholm to the bottom of the hill is over 100 feet. As kids we not only took advantage of this drop by flying down Rockbridge hill full throttle on our bikes, but also by sledding down Rockbridge golf course from the very top near Trenholm all the way to the green at hole #2 along Spring Lake. Not too shabby.
All the sand had its advantages for us kids. In “The Woods” below St. Michael’s church we dug huge foxholes which we used for protection in local pine cone and dirt clod wars, and for hanging out. Sometimes we dug underground tunnels connecting these fox holes. Yes I know that was very stupid. Thank goodness for the tree roots holding the sand in place.
It was always fun to turn on the hose as high as it could go and just push it into the sand. Down down down it would go as sandy water bubbled up. It seemed sometimes like the entire hose would disappear into the ground. That was some serious sand.
The top of Bridgewood is part of a sand hill plateau that extends across Trenholm and along Meadowood and the cross streets to Sylvan. Columbia has a lot of these sand hill plateaus. I am sitting on one as I type over here on South Edisto Drive in Rose Hill. I would type the official name of the neighborhood, which is “Hollywood/Rose Hill,” but Hollywood is not on the plateau (sorry, Hollywood).
There is another very large such sand hill plateau off Forest Drive across from AC Flora, along Dalloz and the various side streets. There is that huge long plateau which Two Notch Road follows past Sesqui State Park. Downtown Columbia is on such a plateau as well.
I mention these plateaus because they tend to exhibit some of the older original attributes of the Sand Hill regions. Longleaf pines, ideally adapted to dry sandy conditions, dominate (that is where pines have not been cut down as they were in my neighborhood). Longleafs on these plateaus are somewhat squat in form with long side branches. Scrub oaks abound. Lawns tend to be hard to grow. It is a bit of a desert on these high sand hill regions as the rain just soaks through so fast.
Long ago the native Americans avoided these regions because they were so barren. De Soto’s men about starved making their way from near what is now Augusta to near what is now Columbia. Interestingly those marauders crossed the Broad River north of Columbia and took the high sandy ground, quite possibly right through what is now downtown Columbia, on their way to the Santee area looking for the chiefdom of Cofitachequi. The sand hills were not amenable to supplying invading armies.
We had scrub oaks in our yard on Bridgewood, out by the street. Those scrub oaks were there when we moved in in 1960 and they are still there today. We also had a beautiful long leaf pine tree.
As most of you are reading this who live in Columbia know, there is clay in our sand hills. In my neighborhood it was a white clay, slippery and slimy when wet and rock hard when dry — perfect for “dirt clod” wars. I had never seen so much of the stuff as when they brought the sewer lines to Bridgewood Road. They had to lay the pipes very deep to accommodate all the houses on the down hill side of the road. And they made huge piles of dirt that seems to stay there for months. In those piles of sand was a lot of clay. This was kid heaven, a good time in the sand hills.
This clay is very very important to the natural history of the sand hills.But here I must digress. I have said nothing about where all this sand came from or why it is still here.
The traditional and likely explanation is that a very long time ago (about 85 million years ago – yep, when there were still dinosaurs afoot), the sea level was much higher, extending even further inland than Columbia is today. And over time then, just as today, rivers were eroding the rocks of the mountains and Piedmont and depositing sediments into broad delta like areas in the sea. There over the eons wave and tide would pound and pulverize. In time the sea levels fell, exposing this sediment to the further action of dune-producing winds, much like what is continually happening at the coast today. And as the sea level further and more quickly receded, it left these large dunes stranded, to be invaded by plant life, locking them in place as it were for millions of years to come.
I have often wondered how this sand – and these sandy hills – could actually have remained in place for such an incredibly long period of time. The mountains and the Piedmont erode away, but the sand hills remain? I never knew the answer to this question until recently, and I do not even remember where I read it. But the secret of longevity is in the sand hills’ porosity. The rain just pours right through the sand rather than running rapidly off it. This constant flow of water through the sand does erode, all the stuff in the sand that is, leaving amazingly pure silica dioxide, otherwise known as, well, sand
Mixed into the sand of course was clay, clay that was also eroded from the mountains and Piedmont, different kinds of clay in different parts of the sand hills region. And this clay has had an incredibly important role in shaping the ecology of the sand hills.
It is a curiosity how there are so many streams in sand hill country given the tendency of water to drain straight down to the water table. But within the hills of sand are lateral sheets of clay redirecting the flow of water underground. Just below the Saint Michael’s woods, in the backyard of a house on Shorebrook Drive, were two bubbly little springs.I was fascinated by those springs. The homeowner had taken advantage of them and dug a couple of little ponds. The water from the spring and the ponds changed the flora and fauna abruptly from what it was just fifty feet up the hill. And these two little springs meant a lot to my dog Clancey. As the water from the springs was piped under Shorebrook Road it formed first a deep pool and then a creek which ran into the lake. On hot summer days Clancey would suddenly get up, want out, run to the back of the yard, jump the fence and disappear. We knew where he was going. He was going for a swim in that pool of cool spring water. I thank the clay for that.
There are little springs like that all over the region, forming or feeding into the larger creeks, which in our case were Jackson Creek and Gills Creek. Yes, these creeks do cut into the sand hills, maiking them well, even more hilly. The water from these springs and creeks then allow for different types of plant communities, and denser growth of plants, which then itself adds organic matter and nutrients to the soils in the low lying areas. Add to this the natural diversity of plant and tree life depending on the northward or southward slope of a hill, and suddenly, in a region known mainly for sand, is an amazing diversity of small local ecologies, with diverse plant and animal populations. We lived this diversity from one end of Bridgewood to another, as there is another spring in a yard in the lowest part of Bridgewood feeding a small creek and wet land that extended at one time to Jackson Creek, but which now empties into Spring Lake. From bone dry sand plateaus at the top of Bridgewood to a wetland, in a few hundred yards – that’s the sand hills!
My backyard was in the bone dry zone, and when I started gardening when I was a kid I realized very quickly the wisdom of the advice to add organic material to aid water retention in the soil. I could water tomatoes planted in that sand and the sand would be dry as a bone again in no time. But peatmoss was expensive. Over in the woods down in the damper section were a lot of old pine stumps which had been decomposing for years. I had already discovered that I could split kindling off those old stumps, and knew that there was a lot of fluffy loose decomposed wood material. So for years I took my wheelbarrow over, filled it up with this natural organic matter, and added the stuff to my garden. I had a compost pile of straw and leaves and weeds, and in time had some pretty darn good dirt, if I may say so myself!
And this brings me to a central fact of gardening in the sand hills. Amending soil is so important! And since our sandy soil over millions of years has leached out almost all calcium based materials such as calcium carbonate, the sandy soil tends to be naturally acidic. Porous, dry and acidic soil brings unique gardening challenges, which we will explore in a future article.