Almost How It Was
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