What do you see as you motor past roadwork projects? The graders and dozers pushing and pulling earth into place? The compactors and cold planers and other safety-hued members of the “I wonder just what that does” family of heavy equipment? Perhaps you’re just trying to follow the clownfish-colored path of safety barriers through the maze of temporary rearrangement. Perhaps you don’t see them at all ... a good way to get a few points taken from your license!
So long as they get from “Point A” to “Point B” in a reasonable amount of time (best of luck with that, Lowcountry drivers), I’d wager most folks don’t think much about roadwork projects at all. But ask John Smoak what he sees therein and he’s quick to tell you — It’s not the equipment or the asphalt capturing his eye, it’s the grass and the trees. It’s the final steps of landscaping that can take a gritty and arid scar across nature and bring it all back to life.
Smoak saw more than his share of such projects, growing up with a father in the construction industry. It was that last step in the building process — “the greener side of the equation,” as he calls it — that has long spoken to him and led him into the unique place he is today.
Back in time down Bears Bluff
Taking the long wooded drive down Wadmalaw’s Bears Bluff Road to meet John and his brother, Sam, is a too-brief taste of the best of what’s left of our local outdoors. Crossing the Esau Jenkins Bridge, the diminutive two-lane connection linking Wadmalaw and John’s Islands, the Kiawah-bound shuffle of “Cadillacs and contractors” falls away. The tract homes and transplants that add a long-unknown bustle to John’s Island fade in the rear view mirror. After Bears Bluff Road branches off Maybank, I could count on one hand the number of cars I pass on the way to the Smoak brothers and still leave a few fingers on the steering wheel. Soon enough I arrive at the farm where their company, Charleston Green, is headquartered.
The offices — sheds really, though trim, tight and well-appointed — reflect the tenants well, outfitted with just the right balance of boyish charm and ready-for-business maturity. Desks are tidy and whiteboards plot out the duties of the roughly 25-person staff; steer horns and toy tractors make up the decor. A kindly golden retriever greets visitors with a few unobtrusive sniffs (the Boykin spaniel, having rolled in some particularly pungent fertilizer, was disinvited from the interview).
The brothers grew up near that lone bridge I’d recently crossed, their childhood home on the John’s Island side. “We were the first dock above the bridge,” John said, “and the last one for a loooong way.” Their front yard was a soybean field; behind their home, the Bohicket. It was a youth of simple pleasures. “We must have put a million miles on an old six-and-a-half horse Evinrude, all between the Church Creek Bridge and the North Edisto,” Sam says with a smile.
Those were the days when simply getting a cheeseburger necessitated a trip across the Stono River — a time not all that long ago, really. “Much has changed on the Sea Islands,” John offers, “... but one thing that hasn’t is my love of the land.”
“Love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life” is the kind of motivational-poster nonsense that induces eye-rolling at best and swinging fists at worst (and I write this as someone who loves what he does for a living). Still it is obvious the brothers Smoak enjoy what they do. Perhaps it is in their blood. For many years, John states, “on both my parents’ sides of the family have been ‘keepers of the land’ here on the Sea Islands.” Their grandfather, William Allston, farmed on Yonges Island and Edisto; their great-grandfather, Preston King, farmed Ashe Plantation on Edisto.
And of course, there is their father. John talks again about his early days with construction projects. “Whether the job description required trees be installed per the specification of the county … or the owner simply wanted to aesthetically make the project look ‘complete,’ trees were getting planted.” It’s unsurprising this would lead to a degree in horticulture and, eventually, a thriving business in growing trees.
At its peak, they had nearly 100 acres of magnolia, holly, oaks, crepe myrtles and more on offer. But the work of Charleston Green goes well beyond roadwork and trees. What they excel at is something that covers a wide range of activities — seeding, wetlands management, water control, wildlife plot management, et cetera — things some might call “plantation services,” but what, it its heart, is simply thoughtful, skillful land stewardship.
Listening to the land, living with the land
Stewardship is put into practice in ways both large and small, with no two projects being exactly the same. Traditional Lowcountry rice trunks were the mechanical device that allowed that famed “seed from Madagascar” to thrive in our region. Functional and beautiful, they can still be found around the Lowcountry in all sorts of places where dependable water management and irrigation control are needed.
Just because the technology of a rice trunk is centuries old doesn’t mean their replacement or installation is a simple affair. Old dikes may need clearing, rebuilding or stabilization. Care must be taken when excavating the spot where they’ll be placed. Sam tells me of excavating down on one such project and hitting the stump of a long-felled cypress tree a full eight feet in diameter. An interesting find, to be sure, but one that necessitated moving the whole trunk to a different spot, as the ground would be too compromised for it, even if the stump were removed. “Trial and error are great teachers,” notes John.
They aren’t just playing around, though: Often they are rebuilding history. When new owners have purchased long-dormant plantations, someone needs to get them back up to speed … clearing underbrush, securing old embankments, restoring fields and canals and the like. Just as generational changes to Charleston have renewed and secured the historic homes of the Holy City, so too does the critical work of Charleston Green restore the rural lands of the Lowcountry back to their glorious peak of natural and human co-operation.
Artists of the outdoors
They say true artists work with their hands, their heads and their hearts. This is surely true of the Smoaks. An 18-wheeler arrives filled with straw, leading to a happily animated conversation about hydroseeding and wheat grass. John Smoak is the type of fellow who has animated conversations about hydroseeding and wheatgrass; I find this to be quite wonderful. We are soon out of his office and touring Bohicket Farms; he’s quick to point out bales and bales of aging abruzzi rye, explaining clearly the hows and whys of using it as a protection for seedlings can be superior to hydroseeding.
The three of us — four, really, counting the retriever — hop on a side-by-side ATV and tour the property, an old overgrown tomato farm just a few years back, but now protected by the
Lowcountry Land Trust and brought back to life by the Smoaks. Riding the land with John and Sam is an invitation to see the world through their eyes. What makes for adequate deer fencing, what olive trees take to the Lowcountry climate and which don’t, the sad state of affairs when people lose the connection between their food and their farmers.
As befits Lowcountry gentlemen, their service goes far beyond their personal demesne. John serves the Charleston Soil and Water District, works with the Lowcountry and Edisto Land Trusts and is part of the South Carolina Agricultural Society. It’s why — pointing to a few rows of recently-turned dirt — he says as an aside, “Going to plant a few pumpkins; don’t know why the bug bit me, really … maybe some school kids will want to pick them come Halloween. It’d be good for them to see a farm.”
When asked pointedly why he does what he does, he’ll put it simply. “It’s all to support this special place God has blessed us with.”
No matter how times and places may change, such sentiment will always be most welcomed in the Lowcountry — and God bless the Smoaks for living up to it.