This blog originates on the banks of the Atchafalaya River, in Louisiana. It proposes to share the things that happen on and by the river as the seasons progress. As the river changes from quiet, warm, slow flow to rises of eighteen feet or more, there are changes in the lives of the birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles that use the river. And the mood of the river changes with the seasons. I propose to note and comment on these things.

My Photo
Location: Butte La Rose, Louisiana, United States

I transitioned a few years ago from a career as a water-pollution control biologist. I want to do this blog to stay in touch with a world outside my everyday surroundings, whatever they may be. I like open-minded company and the discussion of ideas. Photo by Brad Moon.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Almost How It Was

As you move around the Atchafalaya Basin these days you see many places where the sand has filled in what was open water 80 years ago. The forest you see on that newly created land is mostly made up of willow and cottonwood and a few other things. It is a short forest and new on those sandbars but it is the most that the species growing there can do. But if you stay near the east or west levees confining the Basin you can be where the old, original forest was and is no more, being replaced by new trees under new conditions. And once in a while among the second growth you see an old, thick, twisted, sometimes burned, cypress. It is all that is left of the trees that covered the Basin for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Oddly, it is what many people now consider the nominal cypress tree, but it is not. Not any more than an old, withered and crippled, three-legged dog is representative of dogs. Instead, they are trees the loggers left for us 130 years ago because they were considered unfit for harvesting for some reason; maybe they were hollow or lightning scarred or double trunked. My friends from the west coast tell me that there is a name for these surviving rare, massive trees – they call them wolf trees out there, and so the name fits and we use it too. Wolf trees, perhaps meaning coming from the “lone wolf” we meet in stories. Because these are truly lone trees. They are always much more massive than the second growth cypress that they oversee. They are usually hollow and charred from the frequent lightning strikes that they invite by standing taller than the surrounding forest – many no longer live. Yes, you can find these and marvel at them and wonder what they would be if they truly looked like the ancient cypress that once shared the soil they grow in today. I am always grateful when I can get close to one of the wolf trees, and touch it, and smell the resin that still bleeds out of it sometimes. And I had become resigned to taking that measure of satisfaction from the old wolf trees and thought to never experience the old forests, since they were gone. But I was wrong. You can still do it, and in Louisiana, but not in the Atchafalaya Basin.

There is a place called Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge just north of Baton Rouge, near St. Francisville. Treewise, it is known for having the most massive baldcypress still living, the so-called champion cypress, and it was the reason for my friend Brad and I to go there a few days ago. Cat Island is not on the way to anyplace. You don’t arrive there by accident. It has to be a destination all its own. Angola State Prison is the nearest location where there is an accumulation of human beings. So we went and drove the long gravel, bumpy roads to the place where the champion tree lives. You park near a gate that marks the trail leading ½ mile back into the forest. You begin the walk in an oak, hackberry, hickory forest and it is a pretty thing to see – big mature trees. About half way you begin to notice that the species are changing and evidence of flooding is visible from the cracks in the soil and the patches of drying duckweed that floated into the forest in this year’s high water. The duckweed looks out of place there on the bare, dry forest floor. As you look around you notice that the hardwoods have given way to the water trees. Cypress and tupelo gum now shades the path. You can’t help feel an excitement for what you anticipate lies at the end of the trail. And at the end of the walk you do find the tree for which the path was built, but there is a little bit of disappointment too. The base of the tree is huge, but not beautiful. It is a very large mass of living tree tissue, but not one that gives you the feeling of being in the presence of a tree that rises out of the earth to spread branches that soar. Perhaps it deserves the title of “champion” for its size alone, and we have to grant that it is in fact big, but for the rest of the things that a tree does for the human soul, it is lacking. I will not show a picture of it here.

But, looking to the right of the big tree you see among the trunks of cypress and tupelo something that is oversized compared to the surrounding forest. It draws you to it, and suddenly you know that something of great age and dignity is in front of you. It is a huge trunk that rises thirty feet before splitting into two massive trunks that rise upward for 100 feet. The base of the trunk alone is at least ten feet in diameter. “Wow!” comes to mind but doesn’t even touch the expression you need at that moment. Remembering those wolf trees in the Basin, I am again in the presence of a cypress tree that was growing here before Europeans stepped foot in North America, probably well before. Is it a replica of all that it could be? No. It too was bypassed by the loggers because it did not meet the needs of the lumber industry. It has that double trunk. For some reason that feature was enough to spare it while its more uniform kin were all cut down.

Admiring the tree, you see another one 50 steps away and you go there to find the same great trunk, this time dividing many feet above the ground. The forest floor is clear and easy to walk due to the annual flooding of eight feet or more. And another big tree is there a little farther into the forest. And another, and on until you realize there must have been a whole grove of these ancient trees that had split trunks or hollow bases, existing today because they were not perfect. There is a difference between the experience of seeing one wolf tree in the Basin, and seeing ten or more within easy walking distance of each other. The latter gives you the feeling of actually being in a forest of the old trees. It is a grand thing to be able to do. If that “champion” tree is publicized for no other reason than to quietly call attention to the magnificent neighbors that it has, it is worth all the publicity it gets.

One of the difficult things in photography is to take pictures of very large trees and have the pictures convey the real size in proportion to the surroundings. If you back away far enough to show the whole tree it reduces the whole thing in size so that you lose the emphasis of comparison. For that reason, the pics used here emphasize the base of the trees more than the upper trunks and limbs.

Another point to be made is that the surrounding forest is a mature forest in its own right. It may contain the truly ancient members, but the other trees are very large too. Many cypresses have trunks four feet in diameter at breast height. Many tupelos are at least three feet as well. Those are very large second growth trees, and seeing others that size is possible, but not easily done in Louisiana.

As though to point out the cycle of growth that builds a forest, we found seedlings beneath the big trees. Tiny trees six inches high, carrying the same capacity for a thousand years of growth within them. Will they get the chance to live out a millennial lifetime, no, probably not. Tree people say that in order for a cypress tree to survive it must be big enough to extend above the annual flooding. These trees cannot grow enough in one year to do that. Should the annual flooding skip a year or two, maybe, but not likely.

So, transpose the Cat Island grove of ancient cypresses to the Atchafalaya Basin, and spread it out to cover hundreds of square miles, and a small insight can be imagined into what it must have been like before the forests were cut. You would think that you could see pictures of the old trees and then successfully imagine this, but I don’t think so. For some reason you have to be there, in their presence. The imagining has to start there, not in the mind only, but in the mind and with the trees, touching them and turning around and around and seeing them all around you. Then you might take that feeling and combine it with the wolf trees and let them carry you to a place that is no more. It is as close as you can get to almost how it was.

The river is at 4.3 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge. The Ohio and Mississippi are taking their fall siesta. Wake up time is probably at least a couple months away.

Rise and Shine, Jim