Back at the Fall Line: A Comparative Geography

I recognized something as I sped along the deserted highway and deeper into the sandy swamps of northeastern South Carolina: I will never permanently return to Delaware, “home” for the first twenty-odd  years of my life. Of course, I had come to this conclusion, reluctantly, years earlier while I was in grad school in Indiana. What astonished me during my Sunday drive, then, was the awareness that my new, South Carolina home could be so foreign yet so familiar.

CC-licensed photo by flickr user Albowieb. A car's steering wheel against the light.

CC-licensed photo by flickr user Albowieb. A car’s steering wheel against the light.

I was back at the fall line, I realized, as I surveyed the perfectly level farmland rolling out from either edge of the highway. This is the place where the coastal plain rises and plateaus into a geological formation called the Piedmont. Put plainly, the fall line is the point at which the flat and featureless earth ascends and begins to define itself.

Of course, I’m not speaking technically: in my South Carolina location, I’m surrounded for miles by coastal plain. Still, looking to the west, the fall line is not far away, and I’m certainly closer to it than I had been during the last nine years when I lived in the Midwest.

Like the fall line to the west, the ocean to the east also is not far off. I haven’t had much occasion—or more importantly, time—to go see it, but I’m comforted in knowing the coast is close. When I lived in Indiana, large bodies of water were few and far between. Truth be told, I was only ten miles from sprawling Lake Monroe, but lakes are not oceans, and to further complicate matters, Lake Monroe itself is merely a reservoir, carved out from Salt Creek by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1960s.

A finished PhD and full-time job took me from the Midwest back east, although this time further south. During my  new (and much longer) commute, I pass an infinite chain of hospitals, schools, drug stores, car lots, and fast food burger chains. Except for the palmettos that periodically punctuate the landscape, my new home betrays little allegiance to any identifiable geographic or cultural region. Sometimes I feel as if I’m in Anywhere, USA. This is not to say my new town is different from or worse than other municipalities of comparative size. Rather, my new home simply has been subjected to the same homogenizing cultural and market forces that have beset smaller-town America since the rise of suburbia in the 1950s. Just ten years later in the 1960s, John Steinbeck made a similar observation about the American landscape in Travels with Charley.  

That Sunday, as I traded the city streets of my commute for the area’s back roads and byways, I was afforded an entirely different perspective of my new home. The area reminded me very much of Delaware, as strange as this may sound. Despite its tupelo-cypress swamps, alligators, cotton fields, poisonous snakes, and “hey ya’lls,” my Pee Dee home is quite similar to Delaware, at least geographically speaking.

CC-licensed photo from the Wikimedia Commons. Location of the Atlantic Coastal Plain.

CC-licensed photo from the Wikimedia Commons. Location of the Atlantic Coastal Plain.

That is to say, my part of South Carolina is on the Atlantic coastal plain, sandwiched between the Piedmont and the Atlantic Ocean. Most of Delaware is on the very same coastal plain that defines the topography that I now wake up to every day. Indeed, the Atlantic coastal plain is striking in its immensity and scope: it begins in Florida and extends northward to the area where central New Jersey abuts New York.

Because most of Delaware is engulfed by coastal plain, the majority of the state is as flat as a board; the same seems to hold true for South Carolina. However, just as upstate South Carolina is defined by noticeable changes in elevation, so is northern Delaware. There, in New Castle county and not far from the Pennsylvania state line, the land suddenly rises over the course of a few miles and then levels off. This rising marks the fall line and the beginning of the Piedmont Plateau.

I remember my mother telling me about this geographic peculiarity when I was a child. We were in the car, as I recollect, and we were probably headed home, having just come from the town where she worked, I went to school, and on Sundays, where we went to church. Several of the roads connecting our home and town run perpendicular to the fall line. So as we drove, instead of hugging the fall line, we climbed up it, or depending on where we were going, we sloped down it. We were traversing not some random hill, my mother told me, but instead an important geographic and geological boundary.

Living in such close proximity to the fall line, then, is a powerful reminder of Delaware—a place I’ll always call home even if I claim another as home, too. Living so close to the coast also reminds me of Delaware, which is to say, “home.” In high school, I went to the Delaware beaches: Rehoboth, Dewey, Bethany, and even Cape Henlopen. Due south of these areas lies Ocean City, Maryland, where for one summer during college I waited tables at a local pizza and pancakes chain. When I recall the hustle and bustle of some of these places—the outlet shopping, pirate-themed mini-golf, and boardwalk arcades—I see in my mind’s eye Myrtle Beach.

CC-licensed photo by Jason Barnette Photography. Pawley's Island, South Carolina.

CC-licensed photo by Jason Barnette Photography. Pawley’s Island, South Carolina.

Most of my life, though, has been defined by a different kind of coastal area. One that is not the beach but  something affectionately called “the shore.” While I’m referring to the Jersey shore here, I’m not referencing the one made famous by the TV show (which for the record, I like). My Jersey shore is Stone Harbor, a quaint and quiet barrier-island community. When I look at images of Pawley’s Island, a quaint and quiet community south of Myrtle Beach, it’s almost as if I’m looking at Stone Harbor.

In fact, water, in general, is an important connection between the two geographies that define my life: both Delaware and South Carolina are dominated by rivers and wetlands. While Delaware is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay, it has many marshy areas, including those created by the Christina and Brandywine Rivers in the north. South Carolina also has its fair share of wetlands, including the blackwater swamps created by the Great and Little Pee Dee Rivers and their tributaries.

As my Sunday drive came to a close, I again paused to observe that after nine years of Midwestern life, I had returned to the coastal plain: I was once again near the coast, but also back at the fall line. In this in-between-zone, I not only see Delaware, but I also perceive myself.  Despite the fond memories I have of Indiana and grad school, I still view that landscape of my life as a largely flat and featureless existence. Because, when it comes down to it, I was waiting to ascend to other things: the PhD; the job; the steady income. Now that I’ve achieved those things, I realize we always are at the fall line. I believe that we can’t choose between waiting for something to happen and making it happen; however, we indeed can be deliberate in how we spend and enjoy that time.

In an upcoming post, I discuss Carolina bays and share some photos from my recent trip to Woods Bay Natural Area. Carolina bays are an elliptical wetland and another geographic similarity between Delaware and South Carolina.

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Posted in Life of the Mind

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Dr. Amy Rubens
I'm an "ambulant scholar," and I move among several worlds. As a professor of English, I research and write for audiences within and outside of academia. As a teacher of writing, literature, and culture, I facilitate learning. As a blogger, I critique, question, and reflect. Learn more about this blog and the work I do as a professor and workplace writing consultant.

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