It was early March when Andrew and I received an invitation to come to Bonny Hall Plantation deep in the heart of the ACE Basin. Once a thriving rice plantation before the Civil War, Bonny Hall sits along the Combahee River, a place owned by a series of northerners in recent years. You might say it was rescued by ducks.
Once the war ended its days as a rice plantation were pretty much over. Without slave labor, there could be no more rice. Carolina Gold rice made Charleston the wealthiest city in the country but the Civil war had brought the South to its knees.
This is where slaves stirred the pots in the plantation house, taught the plantation owners not only to cook but how to grow and harvest the Carolina Gold. Their influence has been the greatest influence on Southern food and remains so to this day. One of their most important contributions was one-pot cooking.
In the early 1900’s, Northern sportsmen began buying up all kinds of land, islands, and old run-down, overgrown plantations. Captains of industry and finance, Henry Food, Bernard Baruch, Andrew Carnegie, the Guggenheims – they all came and purchased land for pennies on the dollar. There was nearly a total changeover of Northern money for Southern land.
Bonny Hall Plantation in the ACE Basin just below Charleston, South Carolina
By 1920 hardly any estate along the South Carolina and Georgia coast remained in local hands. With them, the Yankees brought redemption. Entire fortunes were squandered for the love of sport; dikes were repaired, canals and ditches re-dug, gamebirds brooded and released, and shotguns were ordered custom made, only the finest were found acceptable.
Walking in the footsteps of history through acres of camellias and azaleas, we discovered this garden gate.
Bonny Hall stands majestic along the banks of the Combahee River. The current Victorian structure replaced a Federal style plantation house burned in 1875. Under the ownership of publisher Nelson Doubleday and his wife Ellen, the house underwent significant alterations and nearly doubled in size. Doubleday altered the interior layout and converted the style to colonial revival.
Our visit was joyful and the time spent there memorable. Little did we know on that day the extent of what our country would be facing in the weeks and months ahead. We never thought that we would soon be losing our freedom and that our lives would be threatened everywhere by an invisible enemy.
Cooking and writing about food is what I love to do but it has become more difficult than ever. There’s always that one ingredient – a very necessary ingredient that is missing when I get into the kitchen. I usually end up not cooking rather than using a poor substitute or having to make a trip to the grocery store and arm myself with bleach spray, a mask, gloves, and take that descent into COVID-19 reality. A trip to the local grocery store is no longer an easy experience.
I believe it was George Bernard Shaw who said; “Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.” I also believe a fine photograph is one that allows us to see what is invisible to others. It transports us to another time, another place and restores the soul.
STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN Andrew Branning, Branning Fine Art
While walking the grounds at Bonny Hall we stood where Somerset Maughan once lived and wrote The Razor’s Edge. Congressmen and elites from around the world once gathered here, hunted ducks, wild turkeys, and deer. It’s possible this tree stood tall during the Revolutionary War, provided shade for slaves coming in from the rice fields behind it, and protected generations of young children who played and grew up beneath its branches.
Andrew felt a huge responsibility to capture its majesty in one single image. After waiting for the afternoon light to fade, he approached and angle that turned each limb of the oak into a rung of what appeared as a staircase. In the days that followed that afternoon, he decided to name this image Stairway to Heaven in honor of those we have lost to COVID-19. It is his hope that each victim will each climb the rungs of this ladder into the arms of a loving God. As generations come and go, this mighty oak with roots running deep will remain to tell our story.
Leonardo de Vinci said; “Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art.”