Among the Majestic Trees in Congaree, Slipping Into Silence

Living in the heart of Atlanta, I’m used to the white noise of distant traffic, transit trains and a million hungry lawn mowers. The low, omnipresent hum seeps through windows and doors and blends with the rush of air from the vents of our HVAC unit. So, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why I was hearing it in the penumbra of an old-growth floodplain forest in South Carolina, a forest that once stretched as far north as Upper Virginia and as far west as East Texas.

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Rosalind Bentley
, New York Times

Living in the heart of Atlanta, I’m used to the white noise of distant traffic, transit trains and a million hungry lawn mowers. The low, omnipresent hum seeps through windows and doors and blends with the rush of air from the vents of our HVAC unit. So, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why I was hearing it in the penumbra of an old-growth floodplain forest in South Carolina, a forest that once stretched as far north as Upper Virginia and as far west as East Texas.

For centuries, more than 35 million acres of beech, oak, holly, sycamore, tupelo, cypress, maple, ash, sweet gum, pawpaw and loblolly pine covered that stretch of land. But in the name of progress, people did what people do. Decade by decade they cut down the trees to make room for dams, cities, roads and houses and furniture to fill them.

Just after Easter, on the first of a two-day trip, I found myself in central South Carolina in a canoe gliding down Cedar Creek in Congaree National Park. It’s the last continuous stand of that primordial, bottomland forest. When the Congaree River, which forms the southern border of the park, floods, usually in late winter or early spring, its waters inundate the roughly 26,000 acres of this monument. When the water recedes, the remaining black silt feeds the land.

Craning my head upward, I marveled at what this fertility cycle has borne; trees not quite sequoia or redwood height, yet staggering in their majesty. Some as high as 16 stories, old-growth specimens that cover the park. This is why Congaree long ago earned the nickname “Redwoods East.”

In the canoe with me was Guy Jones, our guide for the afternoon and the owner of River Runner Outdoor Center, 18 miles north in Columbia. A few yards away, my partner skimmed along in a kayak. Her face registered nothing but bliss. We moved at an easy pace, the day temperate and the umber current gentle. No mosquitoes, no gnats to nag us, but there was that murmur. On either side of us, the fluted ankles of bald cypress trees waded into the creek. Tupelo trees, with bottoms like upside-down funnels, rose next to them. Every now and then, the trunks of the two species twined into hulking, wondrous masses. In just a few weeks, the trees would leaf out, forming a canopy that spans the width of the shallow waterway, which eventually joins the Congaree River at the lower end of the park. But when we were there, the trees were budding, suggesting the promise of cool, dappled shade to come. Beyond them, on the north bank of the creek, beech and oak trees bore tender, green leaves. Farther in were loblolly pines. They seemed to tickle the blue sky.

Bunches of butterweed, lanky and yellow, lit up clearings in the late morning sun. Native azalea, in its final blush, peeked out near great patches of dwarf palmettos. We went a little farther, past a turtle sunning itself.

In three hours, we saw few people. Just ahead of us in the stream, two park rangers were giving a creek tour to a dozen visitors. Later, a family of four rolled by us, their own little flotilla. The youngest child warned of “a big snake” ahead. We greeted a young couple in a canoe, their dog seated between them and their cooler. Apart from them and two kayakers, we had the water to ourselves for long stretches. The chirp of summer tanagers and warblers, the rare bloop of fish jumping in the stream and the strokes of our paddles were the only sounds to break the quiet.

Except for my yammering. It was hard to break the habits of the city. I fidgeted with my phone. I asked Jones to identify trees or bird songs. Whenever we passed something delightful such as a brace of ducklings, I said something insipid like “Wow,” or “So beautiful.” It was as though I’d never spent an afternoon in the woods. Finally, my partner, a woman of few words, had enough.

“I’m just enjoying the silence. It’s nice.”

“Yeah,” Jones said. “I’m trying not to talk too much because the silence is really nice.”

People come to Congaree National Park for the quiet of the big trees, to see the nation’s last-of-its-kind forest and to hike the flat terrain. And yet, compared with other national parks of its size, few people visit, and when they do, even though there’s a campground, they usually stay half a day, maybe two. There are nine marked trails and a popular boardwalk loop: a raised, accessible wooden pathway that begins at the visitors center and winds 2.4 miles through the woods. Most of these routes are in the park’s northwest quadrant. The rest of Congaree isn’t within a half-mile of a marked trail.

Attendance since the early 2000s has usually hovered between 100,000 and 120,000 visitors a year. That has picked up but only a bit: 159,000 last year, the first year that the tally topped 150,000. In contrast, Sequoia National Forest, home to the world’s largest tree, had just under 1.3 million visitors last year.

The park has tried to step up its social media game, but with only two full-time rangers (at the time of my visit), outreach has been difficult. An army of volunteers keeps the place going, picking up trash, maintaining trails, hosting seminars, running the gift shop. Locals use the picnic area regularly — it was busy the Saturday we were there — and the boardwalk is a popular and easy fitness trail. Yet Congaree remains something of a secret.

A few weeks after my visit, I spoke with John Grego, the president of Friends of Congaree Swamp and a professor of statistics at the University of South Carolina, about why this gem remains obscure.

“There’s some hesitation about visiting some place that’s a swamp,” Grego told me. “The park doesn’t have that kind of awe-inspiring scope, like Yellowstone or Glacier. Now, its rewards may be less tangible than other parks, but people who come to Congaree enjoy what they see: the solitude.”

I remember that kind of peace. When I was a child, it enveloped me on weekend visits to our family’s farm in the Florida Panhandle, a region that once formed the lower edge of the original forest from which Congaree is carved. I tangled through thickets of pine, oak, holly and mossy cypress. Afternoons were spent fishing with my great-aunts on one of our ponds. On the rarest of occasions, swaddled in a life jacket because I couldn’t swim, I went out in a canoe with one of my elders. I came to appreciate the stillness, broken up by the trill of birds and soft lapping of water against the wooden oars.

Thinking of this on Cedar Creek, it hit me. The whisper I thought might be faraway traffic was not that at all. It was the breeze creeping through the canopy, not immediately above us — a rush I recognized — but for miles beyond. Had I really become that disconnected from the natural world? The question caught me short. For a good while after, I had little else to say.

John Cely, our guide for the second day of our trip, pointed to a mammoth loblolly pine trunk lying on the moist forest floor. Others lay nearby.

“That log, that’s from Hurricane Hugo; ’89, Sept. 22 is when it came through here, about 2 o’clock in the morning.”

When he spoke of the destruction wrought nearly 30 years ago by the Category 4 hurricane, it was as if he was reciting lyrics to a folk ballad he penned himself.

“You see, they’re all pointing south. That was the counterclockwise winds that came out of the eye of the storm. The eye passed to the east of us about 8 miles.”

“This is all Hugo damage?” I asked.

“This is all Hugo. This looked completely different 30 years ago. It was completely open. Daylight everywhere.”

We had just finished a nature stroll along the boardwalk, led by Cely. He is 70 years old and something of a park legend. Rangers refer to him in hushed tones. For Cely, a retired biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources and the former head of Friends of Congaree Swamp, the land has been a part of his life since he was a 19-year-old college student at Clemson. He volunteers at the park regularly, leading guided walks on the second Saturday of every month.

Along with lightning strikes, pine bark beetles and old age, wind is among the main causes of felled trees in Congaree. Hugo hacked the canopy, downing champion trees, the tallest of their kind in the state or nation.

Congaree has rebounded. The gaps are filled with saplings. The Hugo casualties are scattered along the forest floor, their carcasses left in situ where they now nurture their own micro-ecosystems. Cely is most at home when he’s alone in Congaree’s depths. His knowledge is so deep that he has rendered two hand-drawn maps of nearly every acre. They are so accurate, copies are sold in the park gift shop. He stands in a long line of people who have loved the land; the Congaree, a Native American tribe that first called the lowland home; European explorers and plantation owners, emancipated African-Americans who bought some of the land they had once worked while enslaved; and Chicago lumber baron Francis Beidler. He bought nearly 160,000 acres in the late 1890s when acreage was cheap and Southerners, black and white, had to sell it to survive. Beidler tried to log it but by 1915 had given up because it was too difficult to get logs out of the forest. The family held onto some of the land, allowing a portion of it to be leased as a hunt club.

Harry Hampton, an editor and columnist at The State newspaper, was an advocate for the forest’s preservation, especially in the 1960s, when the Beidlers began logging again. A duck hunter and outdoorsman, Hampton took his message of conservation to anyone who would listen, from the Garden Club of South Carolina to the readers of his “Woods and Waters” column. Cely was his acolyte. Congaree Swamp National Preserve Association formed. Some landowners around Congaree told the press that the preservation campaign was full of a bunch of “outside agitators” whose efforts were “pure and simple socialism.”

But in 1976, Congress passed the Congaree Swamp National Monument Act, and President Gerald Ford signed it into law. Local newspapers at the time reported that the Beidlers were paid about $30 million. The visitors center was built in 2001 and named for Hampton. Two years later, Congaree was granted national park status.

“Never underestimate the power of what an engaged citizenry can do in terms of writing letters, making phone calls, talking to our elected officials, because it took literally an act of Congress to create this place,” Cely said.

We were sitting on the patio of the visitors center, waiting for a group to gather for Cely’s “Big Tree” walk, a 5-mile hike to see more prodigious timber. Once assembled, we set off on a ramble that required no more than athletic shoes and a water bottle. Persimmon trees dwarfed us. Pawpaw saplings bent like licorice sticks in my hands. I stood in wonder under a loblolly older than the county it towered over, a 300-year-old beauty. And I learned, luckily before I touched it, that poison ivy grows into mighty ropes, a hairy vine that scales into a tree’s canopy.

But there was a couple behind us who would not stop talking. They yakked about nothing and everything, except what was around them. Finally, the husband said, “This is the forest primeval.”

“The what?” his wife replied.

“The forest primeval. You’ve never heard that before?”

“No, never. I guess I’m not that well-read.”

I wanted silence; me, the person who never seems to stop babbling. For once, the space didn’t need to be filled. So, I ran ahead and fell in behind Cely. Unless he was describing a champion tree, he barely uttered a word.

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