Cypress Swamps of the Atchafalaya Basin: What Wood We Find There?

 

Cypress trees
A wide base on often soft, marshy ground helps the cypress maintain it’s competative edge.

Human beings have a complex relationship with the outdoors, especially when it comes to swamps.  With their dark shadows and moss-bearded trees, swamplands can generate fantastic tales as well as extraordinary plant life—such as the cypress tree.

In the family Taxodiaceae(which includes the redwoods, the sequoias, and metasequias) cypress is, frankly, a remarkable tree. Wonderfully useful as a raw material, the beautiful wood combines a number of practical traits with aesthetics.  They are superb at resisting rot (and flooding), can survive well in low oxygen situations, and can grow to very respectable size.  Cypress is also valued for their honey-like color and, in the wild, their majestic, shadowy, moss-draped outline at the edges of meadows, marshes, and swamps. These living things help create a beautiful living environment.

Early settlers in New Orleans often awoke to the sound of cannons being fired in the vicinity of Canal Street, in the hopes that their sulfurous smoke would cleanse the air .  .  . 

B.E. Fleury inThe Cypress-Tupelo Swampwrites “before the advent of modern medicine, residents believed that ‘vapors’ [particularly from swamps] could literally make you sick. Early settlers in New Orleans often awoke to the sound of cannons being fired in the vicinity of Canal Street, in the hopes that their sulfurous smoke would cleanse the air and prevent ‘mal – aria’ and other diseases.” Indeed, wanna-be European Henry James has his heroic 1878 American character in Daisy Millercontract “Roman fever” and die of mal aria, victim of a willingness to take in the night air. Swamps had the reputation for coddling and killing, side by side.

Cedar lumber
Lumber – cedar, cypress, chestnut, oak – each has it’s particular profile of attributes and characteristics.

Today, better informed, we glory in the pageantry of these noble trees, with the Atchafalaya River Basin (as unique in its way as the Grand Canyon is in its) being the most glorious gem in the setting.  Indeed, the region ranks with a precious handful of similar unsurpassed natural sites—the Amazon Basin, the Everglades, the Okavango Delta deep in the Kalahari of Botswana, the remarkable Carmargue of France. And in the Atchafalaya Basin, you are never more than an hour or two from the world-class cuisine of the Crescent City.

The Atchafalaya Basin in South Central Louisiana is a vast and varied, scenic semi-wilderness area that includes bayous, copses, ridges, sloughs, hardwood forests, cypress & tupelo swamps, marshes, and seasonal ponds.

 

The Atchafalaya Basin in South Central Louisiana is a vast and varied, scenic semi-wilderness area that includes bayous, copses, ridges, sloughs, hardwood forests, cypress & tupelo swamps, marshes, and seasonal ponds. Indeed, the Basin’s more than three-quarters of a million acres are home to some of this country’s most productive habitats for fish and wildlife.  The Atchafalaya’s stupendous landscape, adorned with moss-festooned   cypress swamps, has long fed the hearts and souls of visitor and resident.

Re-Building the Past

Historically, the chief consumption of the Basin’s beautiful cypress wood was probably in construction, especially in the fanciful and lavish architecture of ante-bellum mansions, homes, and related structures. Cypress stock was used principally for building—a utility that Henry Ford was purportedly wise too.

One often told tale claims that industrialist Henry Ford, once he’d decided to stuff the seats of his famous Model-T’s with Louisiana Spanish Moss  .  .  .  specified, down to the size, shape, and materials of his shipping crates .  .  . 

 

One often told tale claims that industrialist Henry Ford, once he’d decided to stuff the seats of his famous Model-T’s with Louisiana Spanish Moss, also set about “pulling the moss” over the eyes of his Louisiana suppliers.  Presumably, the long-dead, zealous multi-millionaire specified, down to the size, shape, and materials of his shipping crates, how the moss should be delivered to his loading docks.

Cypress swamp
A beautiful cypress glade, host to an enormous variety of life.

The rascal was really, if the tale is true, after wood for the door and floor structures in his mass-produced cars. His moss supply crates provided cypress panels in addition to the stuffing for the seats! So, if true, Ford not only cheated—or perhaps “finessed”—honest workmen out of their just reward, he also participated in the wholesale destruction of Louisiana’s once beautiful cypress forests. As is often the case with precious resources, it was cypress wood’s wonderful qualities, which led to its literal downfall.

Taxodiaceae– the Noble Cypress

Because cylinders of wood and walls of stone both press heavily on a relatively small area of the earth, and that surface can be soft and yielding, the earth may sometimes be unfit and unable to support the weight. To compensate, cypress trees grow buttresses—radiating arms similar to stone half-arches—which distribute the pressure, and thus provide necessary support in an otherwise hostile setting.

Anyone who has seen the swallow tail flying buttresses of Notre Dame or the similar arching stonework of the cathedral in Le Mans  .  .  .  would immediately perceive the similarity with the cypress.

 

Anyone who has seen the swallow tail flying buttresses of Notre Dame or the similar arching stonework of the cathedral in Le Mans — pretty much any kind of masonry buttress—would immediately perceive the similarity with the cypress. Cylinders of wood and walls of stone both press heavily on a relatively small area of the earth. Often, that earth is soft and yielding, unfit and unable to support the weight. Buttresses distribute the area upon which this pressure is put, and thus provide necessary support in an otherwise hostile setting.

industrial logging
More typically, on firmer soil logging was done factory style, often with track laid and narrow-gauge engines tugging the wood.

Although it may be hard to tell at first, pretty soon you can see the shapes and the relationships. The buttresses in the cypress, and in the stone curtain walls of a wonderful cathedral, do about the same job. The buttress is, for all intents, a half arch, the other half resting at the wall. Right where the feature “springs” from the wall, pressure puts the stone in jeopardy. Essentially, the half arch leads this terrific pressure away from the wall, where it could otherwise buckle, and safely deposits it in the foundation.

Sometimes, the arches descend (as tiers in today’s elaborate wedding cakes) into fancier shapes.  They are still efficient conduits of energy transition. In the case of the cypress, the “ribs” radiate out, redistributing the weight and tying the tall tree into a wide base, with the help of its shallow root system. Wonderful architecture like the Gothic piles of Chartres, or Le Man’s Cathedral as well as crusader castles in the Mediterranean exemplify buttresses that allowed builders of that time to do wonders with materials available.

Stone had great crush strength, but exhibits others failings as a building material  .  .  .  the masons could make very tall, but not necessarily thin walls.

 

Stone had great crush strength, but exhibits others failings as a building material. As a result, the masons could make very tall, but not necessarily thin walls. Relying on buttresses allow reductions in wall thickness. These could be opened to the light with enormous windows. Cypress trees can grow, with the help of their buttressed bases, to great height in order to capture light, very much in the same way that the gothic windows captured it to create their well known mystical interior values, resonating with spiritual meaning. Cypress grows slowly, so it has to depend on gaining and keeping a competitive an edge, literally, over faster-growing trees. The tree’s slender trunk is still hugely heavy, and it rests in a small footprint on soggy soil. The radiating supports allow this fanciful tree to survive.

Factory style logging
Outside the swamp, it was possible to employ these huge wheels and powerful, robust draft animals. The muck of deep marsh forbid such devices and aids.

These “impressive” trees are carefully designed for this often wet environment. The soil is poorly drained, with water at or above ground level a portion of the year.  Nevertheless, for generations people harvested cypress swamps, despite the daunting conditions.

Life and Labors of Lumbering Cypress

Logging has always been a tough way to serve the Lord, and when settlers in Louisiana first arrived, logging the towering cypress in its boggy havens, rife with reptiles and itchy with insect life, was perhaps even more so. To work in the daunting swamps, it was necessary to develop specialized gear and materials. In other regions, traditional big tree loggers often used one of a variety of contraptions involving huge wheels.  One of these devices is on display at England’s Weald & Downland Open Air Museum, in Chichester.  There, and often elsewhere, the log end was winched, levered, or tackled up to the cross bar. The long tip end slid along under the oxen power, in the fashion of an American Indian travois.

In the Atchafalaya Basin  .  .  .  the marshy ground would often have made short work of these enormous wheels, to say nothing of the heavy hooves of ox or even mule team.

 

In the Atchafalaya Basin, however, and pretty much anywhere cypress is likely to thrive, the marshy ground would often have made short work of these enormous wheels, to say nothing of the heavy hooves of ox or even mule team. One alternative method was to use existing waterways.  Sometimes natural streams, bayous, or rivers were convenient, but often it was necessary to cut chutes from these, or to create man-made canals for the purpose of logging. Running off at right angles, the woodsmen shot sometimes astonishingly long cables from their “pull boats.”  In the same way that lines are led around deck or rigging obstructions on a sailboat, the foresters sometimes used heavy, strong “snatch” blocks or “fair leads” to guide the thick lumber cables.

Rural sawmill
Everywhere and anywhere, sawmills could be transient things, set up for failry short-term use, designed to be broken up and moved.

 

The work gangs were composed of rough men, toiling in a hostile, unremitting world of mud, foliage, and dangerous tools. They forged not only a local economy based on the forests (cypress was just one of Louisiana’s products which include lumber, pulp, turps, tung, and so on) but also a culture of humor, oft told tales, songs, and colorful mythology. They were as inventive in life as they were in work.

Repairing These Fragile cypress Swamp Environments.

John Kemp’s Saving a Cypress Swamp, which ran in the Southern Louisiana Universitymagazine in 1996, goes into some detail about the difficulty inrepairing these surprisingly fragile cypress swamp environments. Describing the Manchac area, but in terms all too typical, Kemp explains “loggers criss-crossed the swamp, digging canals to move their steam-powered pullboats deeper and deeper into the swamp. From each canal, small feeder ditches radiate off in every direction like spokes in a wagon wheel. From the air, these surreal and watery radiants glisten like silver starbursts in the late afternoon sun.”  Such practices indeed make for difficult rebuilding.

Rural saw mill
This huge blade, in a mill which looks hardly more than what today would be a bar-b-q cabana cut hundreds of thousands of board feet of lumber for fast growing towns and cities.

Popular culture occasionally offers convenient examples of swamp logging, such as the classic film Nevada Smith (1966) directed by Henry Hathaway. The popular Steve McQueen vehicle, with its characters loosely derived from The Carpetbaggers, has young (played by a mid-thirties McQueen) Max Sand avenging his ‘kilt paw.’ In one of the three film segments, originally shot in a vast wide-screen style, McQueen “schemes” his way into the obviously Angola-like Louisiana prison camp in order to kill a villain.

He and co-convicts work a quite authentic lumber “skid,” pulling logs through the mire (thought probably for safety sake they were more suitable for the hearth than the mill). The floating barge with wire ‘gin, widow maker, and come-alongs, would have been noisier, bigger, and of course more dangerous in regular production, but the lumbering scene in Nevada Smithis nonetheless surprisingly authentic from a material culture point of view.

The most dangerous work associated with cutting cypress in the swamp was at the last, right when the tree was ready to fall. It could kick back, or it could fall on one of the workers .  .  .

 

The most dangerous work associated with cutting cypress in the swamp was at the last, right when the tree was ready to fall. It could kick back, or it could fall on one of the workers.  Fortunately, with only two men on site, each was pretty well aware of when the thing was ready to go, and which way it was going to fall. Perhaps once a week or so, it was necessary to take the cross cut saw to the sharpener, the guy in town who did that kind of thing, for all the tools.  It depended on how much work was being done, and, of course, on the texture of the wood, which could be very different.  Some trees dulled the cross cut saws much more quickly than others.

Every Timber Tells a Story

Each piece of increasingly scarce cypress woodcrafts evokes a story.  Who harvested the tree?  What building, boat, barn, or bureau might it has come from?  Who shot that bullet lingering deep inside the trunk?  Indeed, while the outdoors represents unfettered nature, humans continue to want to use the swamp, even if only for a story—or film setting, or classic tale.  We tell short stories, historic narratives, and novels about ghosts, doers of evil deeds, highwaymen, and nere-do-wells lurking about in the ooze.  Even Dante Alighieri, in his Divine Comedy, sets aside a freshwater swamp in Hell, adjacent to the awful Upper Styx.

We say we are “mired,” or “swamped” with work, “slogging” through red tape, “bogged” down with details.

 

Not only in our stories and literature, but also in our daily language, we reserve a special place for swamps.  We say we are “mired,” or “swamped” with work, “slogging” through red tape, “bogged” down with details. Fleury opines that even our “Boogie Man” myth may devolve from “bog man,” a hermit-like figure fit for life in that gloom. Our everyday language reflects naïve social feelings about these unique spaces: we hear of “mud slinging” political campaigns, and “muck raking” journalists.

But even while our metaphors depict swamps as sinister, as “home to snakes and vermin, haunts of werewolves, vampires, and voodoo queens,” as Fleury writes, we now know how very rich and important these environments are to human happiness and health, to say nothing about being treasure troves of useful products and goods—and stories.

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