As I watched two young men digging for clams near the banks of the Ashley River, one wearing knee-high boots quickly discovered waist-high waders would have provided much better protection. The pluff mud had claimed another victim. His partner eventually wrestled him from the gooey gunk, but by then, they both were covered from head to toe.
Any Lowcountry local knows its characteristics. It will definitely stay with you whether you smell it or step in it. The Colonials spelled it "plough." That spelling doesn't begin to describe its nature or nastiness.
Pluff mud is part of who we are. The odor is pungent and the consistency distinctive. Ever lost a shoe in it? Maybe both?
Whether from Fripp to Folly or Daufuskie to Dewees, there likely isn't a tidal creek dock that at some point hasn't displayed a pair of tennis shoes caked with grey, glistening gunk that would soon dry into sun-baked concrete.
Most who get stuck in it don't make it back to the dock or the boat with their shoes.
Pass the smell test
Some call pluff mud's odor revolting, others say it's rotten and a few more just claim it's rank. Depending on the tide and the wind, it might just be all of the above.
The dark, soft sediment found in the marshes of South Carolina is the product of decay, including spartina grasses and fish, crabs, shrimp and other marine life. As anaerobic bacteria is doing the work, hydrogen sulfide is released - thus the smell of rotten eggs.
This marsh mud also happened to be perfect for growing rice in the Lowcountry's past. What it's good for these days is uncertain, unless you happen to see somebody step in it. Then it definitely can provide a good laugh.
The Lowcountry is so familiar with this slippery, shiny, smelly stuff that its name is attached to various businesses. There's a Pluff Mud art gallery, a Pluff Mud Alley and a Pluff Mud magazine. Some restaurants offer a specialty of the house called Pluff Mud Pie. Thank goodness it tastes and smells nothing like its namesake.
Recently, while researching far and wide the scope of all things pluff muddy, I asked some folks on Facebook to share some of their experiences.
Susan Hunley says while in it, she "definitely lost her shoes, and almost a kid, or two!"
Alma Greer would love to capture the smell in a bottle.
From Georgetown, Paige Sawyer shares some bumper stickers from the annual Winyah Bay Heritage Festival.
Pluff Mud: Tastes better than it smells.
Pluff Mud: It keeps sissies in the boat.
Pluff Mud: Through my toes, up to my nose.
Smells like home
How can something so offensive still be so endearing? In some ways, the dark, gooey substance seems to suck us right back to the reasons we love this place.
In some ways, I've always thought pluff mud smelled like a combination of oysters and boiled peanuts. Nothing wrong with either of those, right?
When you take that misstep and sink below your knees, once the cussing is over and the laughter from others subsides, it's not that big of a deal.
Admittedly, if your keys fall out of your shorts and immediately disappear in the gunk, that can mess up your weekend.
I've never seen anything heavier than a fiddler crab have any success walking across the top of it. And even they don't linger, they keep moving.
Pluff mud is just part of the experience of living here. You'll know all is well when you take a deep breath and say, "Wow, that smells like home!"
Reach Warren Peper at 937-5577 or wpeper@ postandcourier.com