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Wayback Lowcountry: Lowcountry Dreamtime

Surveying our geologic history through the lens of perpetual creation myths.

Story + Artwork by Michele Roldán-Shaw

The Australian Aboriginal people conceive of the world in Dreamtime. Everything they know — the plants and animals; the rocks, rivers and sacred sites; themselves, their ways and their stories — came into being by the power of Ancestor Spirits that moved over the earth during Dreamtime. The Ancestors shaped the land, populated it, set down laws to govern its inhabitants, then became features of the geography themselves. 

But Dreamtime never ended. It is a continuum — past, present and future combined — throughout which creation never ceases. There is no word for time in any of the hundreds of Aboriginal languages. “Dreamtime” is just an English approximation, but to Aboriginal people the Dreaming is now, then and forever. It is who they are. With the longest unbroken cultural history of any people on earth — an estimated 50,000 years — the Aboriginal people have no need of distinguishing eras. 

What would a Lowcountry Dreamtime look like? How would we understand this place if we’d been inhabiting it continuously? The forces that shaped this land in a remote past continue to work on it today, even if we conceive of them in scientific terms rather than as mythical marsupials or the Rainbow Spirit.

An artistic imagining inspired by Australian Aboriginal paintings and a local nautical chart.

Millions of years ago the grinding and colliding of tectonic plates produced a fiery birth of mountains, including the ancient Blue Ridges. These were once tall and mighty crags. Constant weathering of the ages has worn them down to gentle, rounded shapes that invite us to stroll through them today, listening to birdies chirp and picnicking in airy forests. As these mountains eroded, rivers carried off their sand and clay, depositing sediments over the land below.

Throughout prehistory, sea levels rose and fell repeatedly, creating some of the most distinctive features of the Atlantic coastal plain. The Carolina Sandhills, today an inland ecosystem of piney woods, were once wind-blown beach dunes. At other times the coast was even further out than it is today, clear to the Continental Shelf. Such epic receding tides left deposits of limestone here and there and exposed layers of sediments that had been deposited by rivers on the ocean floor. 

During the last period of glaciation, cold temps prevailed in the South, and more of the Earth’s water was locked up in ice. But as temperatures warmed and the ice melted, our barrier and sea islands formed when rising ocean water cut them off from the mainland. Rich briny stews formed the basis of an incredibly diverse habitat that we witness today. Such endless creative processes go on — sea levels rise, barrier islands are enriched or eroded, the stumps of ancient ranges get worn down even as the conditions for new mountains percolate far below the Earth’s surface. 

When Aboriginal people go on Walkabout, they travel alone into the bush for weeks or months. They learn to survive on the land, getting in touch with themselves and their origins by following the paths of the Ancestors. Songlines, or Dreaming Tracks, connect sacred sites and record the movement of ancient creator-beings; they have been preserved for millennia in songs, stories, dances and distinctive Aboriginal art, which appears abstract but can actually contain secret meanings. 

If one were to go on such a Walkabout in the Lowcountry, it would equally be a Swimabout. Starting from the highest peak of Mt. Mitchell in the Blue Ridges; descending through the mineralized Piedmont and the ancient dunes of the Sandhills; covering the vast, flat coastal plain with its swamp bottoms and intricate estuaries; floating out on tidal rivers and drifting among the Sea Islands; jumping from barrier beaches to swim over the limestone bed of the Continental Shelf; and at last entering the ocean deep that would swallow one’s Dreaming completely…

These are the Lowcountry Songlines.