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Lowcountry grandeur committed to film

The birth of ‘Traditional Wild America’

Living within reach of saltwater marshes and protected woodlands seems commonplace to those born into it; it is simply a part of how one grows up. Venturing away from it, however — even for a short time — makes us profoundly aware of its absence. Before going to college out-of-state, I don’t think I fully recognized my adoration of spreading oak trees and the smell of a bonfire by the ocean. The thought of paddling into a creek at rising tide accelerated my drives home. The mountains of Virginia offered their own reprieve during my studies, but the irreplaceable wetlands fed a longing that always brought me back to Charleston.

Most places value tradition as a unique representation of their people, their land and their history. Tradition is honored and shared with pride like a gift centuries in the making. And perhaps the greatest traditions are those that connect man to nature and teach boys and girls to be careful stewards of its bounty.

If ever there were a place built on tradition, my biased opinion would say it is Charleston, South Carolina. There is a reason no high-rises exist on the peninsula — as much as our city grows, we desperately fight to maintain dignity. We are proud of the land and water surrounding us. We protect our natural treasures and teach our children to do the same at a young age. Six months ago, a television show called “Traditional Wild America” premiered at the Charleston Music Hall. Hosted by some local faces, it grew out of a chance meeting and a desire to protect the wildlife and sporting lifestyle we hold dear.

Two years ago, Ron Small produced “To Auschwitz and Back,” a documentary about the local Charleston Holocaust survivor Joe Engel. He was so moved by the experience and the film itself that he decided to create the Holocaust Education Film Foundation. But he knew these stories needed to reach an audience with many backgrounds and he looked for ways to spread the word well outside the Jewish community.

After a conversation with Mercury writer Stuart Kaufman, Ron found himself in Charles Waring’s living room discussing ways to connect around Charleston. Before the meeting and mightily impressed by the documentary about Joe Engel, Charles saw “tremendous depth, commitment to integrity, a fearlessness of purpose and an appreciation for nuance.” This particular meeting became the fortuitous launch of a friendship between two men with many ideas.

A further conversation during lunch gave Charles the opportunity to speak with Ron about his preliminary thoughts on a unique outdoor television series. Ron listened and considered the potential success of such national content coming out of Charleston. When Charles finally asked him to produce the show, he agreed to go for it.

Charles arranged to visit Pierre Manigault at his property on the Santee River delta and ventured onto historic Lowcountry acreage along with Ron Small and Gus Smythe. There, in the observation tower, overlooking swaths of rice fields and woodlands, like-minded spirits decided to make a series dedicated to honoring our wildlife traditions. And the wildlife they gazed upon would soon be featured in the pilot episode. Back on the ground, they toasted to their new endeavor in the golden hues of afternoon light, sharing drinks on the tailgate of Charles’ truck.

The group wanted to create short films that would engage the audience in different ways. Despite their focus on the outdoors, they envisioned a show with elements for a variety of interests that all tie back to tradition. Whether it be food and drink, art or education, the show caters to the audience while upholding its mission. However, its primary objective is instilling a greater appreciation for old-school sportsmanship and conservation in the next generation. As Charles Waring states, “showing youngsters the right way to hunt, fish and enjoy the outdoors is a big goal of Traditional Wild America.” Conservation efforts aim to maintain our lands for years ahead; let us also perpetuate our values.

Soon, Charles began discussions with investors. Any sort of production needs people who believe in its mission and in Charleston, the simple word “tradition” stirs the collective soul. We are steeped in tradition, from the Santee to the Edisto and beyond. Our landscape wears the mark of our forebears like a hand-carved piece of driftwood that is both wild in beauty and intricately shaped by humanity. Tidal rivers flow just the same, but abandoned rice fields have gradually settled into a state reclaimed by nature. With the help of many local conservationists, these areas have become unique sanctuaries for waterfowl and peace-seekers alike.

However, in the same way that managing these lands is a constant labor, producing a television series that accurately captures an appreciation for them would not be simple. Thankfully, Ron Small carries years of experience in media and television. In addition to his role as producer, he helped assemble the best crew for the job, pulling together people from various places. The film crew came from Boca Raton and Las Vegas; the production team traveled to New Orleans to work with editor David Jones; and a number of local people assisted with film segments, logistics, meals, etc. This was wholeheartedly a group effort.

How do you arrange cameras and microphones around a duck hunt without interfering in the activity itself? The short answer is you can’t. The filmed duck hunt will never be the same as when you retreat into the field with a couple friends and know the place is momentarily your own. But the team worked hard to capture an authentic experience. They wanted to portray the reality of shooting where hunters hit their targets but also miss. The perfect hunt you hear about tends to be fiction. That said, on the morning they chose to film, the ducks were flying and responding to calls and our hunters took their limits.

Men like Michael Prevost, the land manager at Pierre’s property, figured out how these technical aspects of sound and video could be positioned while remaining hidden. Charles recounts that it was strange to shoot on camera — some shots were solely for video while others aimed for birds. And of course they maintained their roles as hosts of a television show, educating the viewer on types of birds they shot, the shells they used and benefits of good hunting ground. But regardless of the lens, the men were there for ducks.

The pilot episode branched off from the duck hunt into a few related segments. The gun segment, led by Harris Jordan, discussed the aesthetic and historical value of each gun used. To a seasoned sportsman, the right gun can be like an old friend, aptly suited to its owner. One can hardly miss Charles’ boyish grin as he listens to the praise of his own Parker Bros. shotgun. The decoy and duck call segments add depth to the sport’s artistry, teaching about American folk art and calling techniques. Richard Porcher spoke about the history of the rice culture in the Santee Delta and Virginia Beach read from her book Rice and Ducks; the pace moves to toe-tapping music.

Oysters and dark liquor become Charleston staples as the weather cools into fall. The oyster roast segment features whiskey writer Hans Offringa and a sampling of Blade and Bow Whiskey amidst plenty of shucking. Whether or not you’re a fan of bivalves, the oyster roast is a classic example of life in the Lowcountry. Preston Wilson, an enthusiastic game chef, sears lightly dredged duck breasts in a cast iron skillet and tops them with a blackberry reduction and rosemary. If not for a love of sport, we at least hunt for a love of food.

The pilot episode premiered at the Charleston Music Hall on April 16. Charles, Gus and Ron all stood on stage and addressed the 540 guests. Ron recalls the enthusiastic responses he heard during the reception. For him he says, “It proved to the audience that we can produce world-class television right here in Charleston. We don’t have to be in L.A. or anywhere else.”

The future is looking bright as the team plans seven more episodes to finish the season. They plan on filming in North and South Carolina as well as Georgia but will go across the country as the seasons continue. The schedule involves fly-fishing, turkey and quail hunts and appearances by a number of youth sportsmen and perhaps the odd celebrity. “Pulling this together demonstrated the importance of a quality team,” says Charles. “Everyone has continued to bring their A-game.” Enthusiastic support from investors and a spirit to keep tradition alive has made this process possible.

Meanwhile, you may view a rollout of many “shorts” on the TWA website, including cooking segments at Preston Wilson’s Big Dam Plantation where the fruits of the hunt are heartily enjoyed. Produced this summer, these shorts also include an introduction to the Bloody Mary and gun safety tips, especially geared toward youngsters, with Harris Jordan — “The Gun Guy.” Early shorts from late spring include profiles of five classic double guns.

The memories of being young in the woods last a lifetime; as we grow older they are enhanced by the appreciation gained over years of returning to the same place. Though our reasons for seeking peace and beauty may change, the thrill of the chase never seems to waver or diminish in meaning. Food, art and people all converge in our ambition to understand better and work within the outdoors. It is a pleasure to watch and an even greater pleasure to take part.

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