Ghost Trees and Swishing Wind

Black and white drawing of eyes floating in blobs of color

Kelley Chipps

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 8 No. 3, "Growing Up Southern." Find more from that issue here.

Life in the lowcountry of Beaufort County, South Carolina, is marked by dramatic extremes of wealth and poverty. For example, while most of the inhabitants of Hilton Head Island qualify for welfare, the annual median income is about $50,000 per family. The small school serving the nearly all black population of Daufuskie Island[1]* stands in sharp contrast to the resort hotels and condominiums on Hilton Head. Growing up on these islands, rich and poor youngsters alike experience acute isolation and provincialism. Yet, like other visiting artists who work in the area’s schools, I’ve found that while these conditions often affect a child’s academic performance, his or her artistic sensibilities and powers of expression can remain amazingly fresh and compelling. In fact, it often seems as though the provincialism of Beaufort County children has given them an openness, an appetite for new aesthetic experiences which their more sophisticated urban peers often lack. 

The little community of Dale is less than five miles off Highway 21, the main route linking Beaufort with the rest of the state. Yet it too might as well be sur rounded by water. Many of the children I met at Dale Elementary never leave the county; ironically, when they do leave, it’s often a radical move to New York City or Philadelphia to visit their parents who have migrated in search of jobs. Only 12 out of 478 students are white; the language of many of the black students reflects their Gullah heritage. 

Visting writers who have worked in Dale Elementary agree that the quality of the children’s creative work is nothing less than astounding. They draw richly on the imagery of the surrounding lowcountry environment of swamps, pine trees, Spanish moss, snakes, fish, and of course the ocean. Visiting artists are also amazed at the children’s receptivity to strange new ideas. For instance, in Shaun Farragher’s poetry classes he shows slides of paintings by Picasso, Dali, Klee, Van Gogh. The students — most of whose prior artistic experience has been limited to an occasional class in finger-painting or puppet-making — respond to these painters’ images with poems and pictures of their own, and demonstrate vivid and original perceptions. 

Because of Hilton Head Island’s large financial resources, more students in the island’s schools are exposed to the visual arts than elsewhere in the county; even very young students pick up on the rather avant-garde techniques of the visiting artists. Despite their access to artists, the wealthy children of Hilton Head are in many ways as provincial as their peers in Dale or Daufuskie. For the most part, Hilton Head youngsters have a very limited circle of friends and an equally circumscribed perspective on the world at large. Entire cities are dismissed with a summary phrase. Savannah, I am told, is “seedy;” there’s “nothing to do” in Beaufort. Yet underlying these adolescent biases is a fundamental interest in new experiences and a desire for real, original self-expression. 

Historically, few cultures have been strong enough to sustain themselves in total isolation. As a result, they have learned not only from the riches of their own pasts but also from unique or exotic encounters with the outside world. In a sense, individuals resemble such cultures because, although we each have the fundamental knowledge necessary for survival, we also need outside stimuli to trigger this knowledge into action. If judged by their receptivity to new experiences, ideas and people, the students in these lowcountry schools may be the most worldly, the most sophisticated of people.

Fat Scrubble (a monster) 

He swallows buildings, the universe, the whole planet

His mouth burns up when he drinks the sun like a coke

He has three heads so he can see everywhere he goes

He has rubberband legs and one plastic leg

He’s so round he can hardly hold himself to the ground

Gravity and ropes freeze him there

He’s a good monster, for when someone robs the bank

before the thief can get caught he swallows the robber,

the building and the money.

Class poem, grade 1, Mossy Oaks Elementary



Quiet, a dead town

All you see is gnats and skeeters


Folks hoe the field

Ghost trees like a swishing wind


White church like a spook house

full of bats and vampires,

skeletons playing piano


All getting up on their graves

Worms coming out of the eye

Bones from dinosaurs, years ago

Ponds with grass and water moccasins

that hang like slime on a pine tree;

That reminds me of a Witch

while bluebirds fly and buzzards eat

the eyes of dead dogs. . . .

Class poem, grade 5, Dale Elementary


Mr. Sun 

He be hotter than a pot of boiling, steaming orange juice

I’d slap him, knock him in his nose

until my hands swell up and burn.

I’d be blind from the rays.

It would be dark like a thousand nights.

I’d ride my rocket ship home to Earth

where everybody would stare at me, welcome me


Me friends would take me home, fix my hands

take me all around the earth.

And I’d be happy, glad,

like I just been to visit Santa Claus.

Class poem, grade 2, Shell Point Elementary


The Sea

By Ricky McArthur, grade 6, Battery Creek Elementary


The sea roared and the fire raged out of control

The city blazed and the earth cracked.

The sea sank.

It was something like a draining tank.

Now, it’s all over and the world is gone

and very contented.



After Lawrence Ferlinghetti

 By Stacey Payne, grade 8, Beaufort Junior High


“Christ climbed down from his bare tree”


He wandered in the darkness.

He sat down and rolled dirt into the sun.

He put it in the dark sky and formed light.

As Christ wandered, he became very lonely

He formed a Man out of sticks

and began talking to him.

As he talked and talked,

the stick came alive.

The man opened his eyes and thought,


Christ and Man joined hands

skipped into the darkness of earth.


Graves of My Grandparents

By Margie O Brien, Battery Creek High


As I walk to my grandfather’s grave

It starts to rain as if God turned on a faucet

In the distance churchbells ring

As if to say, “I’m here!”

Fog rolls in like a steam engine letting out mist

My heart is beating faster, faster

Snakes come close; they hit and make a sound of swords

All of a sudden a figure stands before me

My grandfather slowly sits down

“Leave this place my dear for you have little time”

In a flash he is gone

A jet flies past

I jump and run as fast as my feet can carry me

Somebody’s pounding on my head.

I crash to the ground

Doors are closing.