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Faces of Nature

See the wild side of three locals.

More than most places, the Lowcountry is defined by its nature. When development came to our area, it came with an eye on preservation. Ours was a duty to build alongside nature, in the hopes of keeping the shores, rivers and forests as undisturbed as possible, even as more and more people came to call it home.

The philosophy is reflected in the people who call this place home. To some, nature is a way to connect with the greater forces that shaped it. To some, it’s a bounty of inspiration. To some, it’s a home for a wide diversity of creatures that holds endless fascination. It’s our own uniquely preserved piece of the natural world.

Here are a few people who call it home…

Roberto Rodriguez is a certified personal trainer and mushroom hunter. He was born in Argentina, then moved to Uruguay when he was 11 before moving to Hilton Head Island 20 years ago.

Roberto Rodriguez

This personal trainer hunts for wood instead of animals.

For Roberto Rodriguez, going out into the wild and bringing back its bounty has been a lifelong passion. It’s just what he brings back that has changed. Growing up in a family of butchers in his native Argentina, he had long grown used to seeing animals die. Tromping out into the field with a slingshot, he thought nothing of the wildlife he’d mow down. By his own admission, it was a hobby born of ignorance.

“I grew up and started hunting bigger game, going after hogs with dogs,” he said. “A few years later, I was having mixed feelings. I saw dogs being killed by hogs and I saw a lot of suffering. I started thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?’ I discovered I was doing it because I was prideful. So one day I kneeled down and I prayed to God, promising I wouldn’t hunt again. That was very much the end of that.”

Ninety percent of the wood I find has potential.”

But the end of his hunting days brought a void into his life. He still yearned to head out into the woods, but without game to conquer there was little reason. Until a YouTube video changed his life. “I watched a video of a guy from New Zealand transform a piece of wood into something beautiful. I thought, ‘I can do that.’”

Today, his works litter the grounds of his small work shed, tucked away in the woods off of a dirt trail that snakes out to S.C. 46 on the far fringes of Bluffton. There are shelves upon shelves of bowls, their shapes and edges predetermined by the contours of the living wood from which they were carved. A towering sculpture, flowing with the grain of a felled tree, stands there. The beginnings of what will be a bathtub, hewn from a mighty trunk, is underway. Through his company, Wild Wood Rescue, he sells these works at Palmetto Bluff Provisions and online.

“It’s wherever my imagination takes me when I look at a piece of wood,” he said. “Ninety percent of the wood I find has potential.”

The key there is “find.” Rodriguez is ever cognizant of the destructive role man plays in nature, so he prefers to source his wood from felled trees or larger hunks of driftwood he comes across. Just outside his work shed is a stack of planks destined to be a floor, milled by hand on the far end of his complex and drying out in stacks. They came from a massive red oak, torn down by a heavy storm a few weeks prior.

And it’s not just trees he finds in his sojourns. Rodriguez also has become an expert on the edible bounty our forests produce – everything from wild garlic and chickweed to purslane and chanterelle mushrooms are out there growing freely.

“We can walk through the woods for an hour with a basket and we can come back with it full,” he said. “Plus, it’s free, organic and better for us than what we buy in the store.”

If you want to know his secret foraging spots, you need only ask. “To begin with, it’s not my spot. God allowed me to find this; I don’t mind sharing.”

Author and artist Michele Roldán-Shaw’s hometown is Long Beach, Washington. She now lives in Levy. Hobbies include hiking, kayaking, camping, and studying ancient discourses of the Buddha.

Michele Roldán-Shaw

Nature fuels this rambler’s artistic spark.

If there’s a single word to describe Michele Roldán-Shaw, it’s one that she uses herself: rambler. It might be slightly reductive – after all, this is someone who has established herself as a well-known writer, artist and martial arts instructor. But at the root of all her ventures is the journey, the ramble she has taken through jungles, cliffs and rivers from here to Peru, and ultimately into her own soul.

“The big internal shift happened when I started practicing meditation,” she said. “The journey is within, which is a cliché, but it’s really where I’m at.”

Nature is the constant, and I just find nature is stripped of artifice.”

The journey within began when she was just two weeks old, on an international flight from her birthplace in Colombia to California. It continued through her childhood, roaming the cliffs and oceanside forests of Washington State where she grew up. “I would just go out and bushwack, or ride my bike through the woods looking for Sasquatch. I’d go scrambling up cliffs, and I remember just hanging by the pads of my fingers.”

Fifteen years ago, her journey brought her to Hilton Head Island, urged on by a call from a second cousin she’d never met. “I bought a one-way ticket and didn’t bring a sweater or anything. This was before Google or anything, so I wasn’t able to look up much about it before I arrived. I thought it was a tropical island.”

While the Lowcountry served as her home base, her young adulthood was defined by a singular wanderlust, disappearing for months on end in her adventures into the wild. There was the trip to Peru where she wound up stranded at some ruins, navigating a cow path to the nearest village as darkness fell. Closer to home, there were trips through the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, cycling a path through marshland and maritime forest with two scared friends along. “We wound up carrying our bikes through the brush; they were so mad at me,” she said with a laugh. “People have learned don’t ever go hiking with me.”

But throughout her travels, there was one constant. “Nature is the constant, and I just find nature is stripped of artifice. Nature is just observable truth, so I never get tired of that.”

These days, she rambles closer to her home in Levy, stretching from Hunting Island to a spit of land called Jake’s Island she’s claimed as her own. “I don’t have that lust for experience I did in my twenties,” she said. “I’d rather focus on what I care about, and what I care about right now is the Buddha’s teaching, and service, and making sure I have enough stability in my life to focus on what I care about.”

The Buddha’s teachings inform her on her many projects, including a series of children’s books that detail his teachings. Her love of nature, on the other hand, fuels her artistic spark. “Nature has been the number one inspiration for it. A lot of the things that I painted were scenes that I witness in nature. Nature is truth. That’s what I try to discover and that’s what I try to put out there.”

Tony Mills is the education director for the Lowcountry Institute on Spring Island and hosts the TV show Coastal Kingdom. He lives in Beaufort with his wife, Kathryn Madden, and enjoys fishing, exercising and reading.

Tony Mills

This educator is in love with the Lowcountry’s biodiversity.

Bouncing around Spring Island in a pickup truck, Tony Mills can’t hold back his excitement at the world around him. With each turn, something draws his attention: A pocket of spoonbills wading in a coastal marsh; a skink clambering up the tabby wall of a plantation house’s ruins; a shallow trench along the side of the road, the burrow pit of a seven-foot alligator he was hoping to see on this trip.

He’s truly a man in his element among the 1,100 acres of nature preserve on Spring Island.

Trained as a naturalist, he spent 21 years working at the Savannah River Ecology Lab. It was when he started leading educational seminars, highlighting the local wildlife with living props from his herpetology lab that he found his calling. His classes, and the boundless enthusiasm for local wildlife they contained, caught the attention of Chris Marsh, executive director of Spring Island Trust. He asked Mills to come to Spring Island, and the rest is history … or biology.

As an educator, I just want people to know what they have here.”

“When I got here, I just absolutely fell in love with it,” he said. “Some people love Beaufort County because of its history or its cultural heritage. Some people love it because it’s pretty. I love it because of the biodiversity.”

His love of our region’s wildlife, and his unique skill at presenting it in an approachable way would not be contained to the classroom for long. A chance meeting with Rob Lewis, long-time videographer for ETV and Beaufort County, sparked a partnership that would take Tony’s love of wildlife to the airways.

“Three weeks later, we got together and filmed our first episode,” said Mills. That show, Coastal Kingdom airs on SCETV on Wednesdays and Thursdays as well as the local Beaufort County Channel. Over the course of 27 episodes, hosted by Mills and produced by Lewis, they’ve educated thousands on the astounding biodiversity of the Lowcountry, racking up an Emmy along the way.

“It’s based on the experiences I’ve had here. Lots of snakes, turtles, alligators, marine invertebrates, fish… This is an amazing part of the world and people here don’t know what they have.”

Each episode focuses on a different segment of our area’s diverse wildlife. One episode might find Mills on top of a fire department cherry picker, returning an injured eagle to its nest. Another might find him up to his neck in the Savannah River, picking water snakes off of tree limbs. Another might find him fishing for longnose gar with a frayed rope, humanely snagging them by their sharp teeth.

“We never know what’s going to happen. I’ll write a script and I have a pretty good idea of what we’ll see, but sometimes something entirely different happens,” said Mills. One example, when they were filming fox squirrels, a hawk in a nearby window caught his eye. They filmed it for 20 minutes before it swooped down and picked up a four-foot snake. It makes for exciting television, but more importantly, it serves as a window into the natural world that surrounds us.

“As an educator, I just want people to know what they have here,” he said. “Anything I can do to show people what’s around them in the Southeast. And it’s a little selfish, because this is what I love to do.”

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