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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2008
Table of Contents
Ice Manliness Cometh
A Six-Dog-Power Engine
I (Heart) Snowshoeing
Skiing Yellowstone
Welcome Back to the World
Rotten Fish Tales
Big Fun in the Green Zone
Hey Mr. Green
Comfort Zone
Mixed Media
Last Words
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Sierra Magazine

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Call of the Congaree

The antidote for civilization.

by Rick Bass

It’s no news that the Sunbelt’s population has exploded over the last 15 years, but I was astounded by all the shrapnel in Columbia, South Carolina. There for a three-day literary festival, I spent my free time wandering a maze of strip malls, stoplights, and fast-food restaurants punctuated by old brick houses whose yards bloomed wild with vibrant azaleas, camellias, and pear blossoms—a brilliance and fragrance that was saddening for the juxtaposition. Creeping through traffic, and witnessing every available woodlot being knocked over and bladed for construction of another store or parking lot, I was struck by the notion, perhaps unreasonable and earth-fairyish, that my deep discomfort was coming not from my own crowded spirit but from the soil itself. Some part of me was picking up on the emanations from a distressed earth—the red clay, visible in cuts almost everywhere I looked.

Just when I was yowling about how much I missed the forest, and how unsettling I found the karma of all that new-cut clay, the swamp rescued me. English professor Keen Butterworth and his wife, Nancy, made plans to whisk my daughters and me 20 miles to Congaree Swamp National Monument, home of the last virgin forests of loblolly pine and bald cypress in the state: land that had been saved by its own ungovernable reckless biological passion—wild low swampland emerging from the spillage of the exuberant joining of the Broad and Saluda Rivers, at whose confluence is birthed the Congaree River, which sprawls for 60 miles until mingling with the Wateree River, thence to form the Santee, which searches for, and finds, the Atlantic.

Like one creature wild in love with the shape of another, the Congaree River’s currents reverse and flop and twist, seeking the swales and bellies of the land, changing course often—leaving pools of oxbow lakes in a patch of verdant woods, then abandoning a trough and sauntering laterally, serpentine, to carve new ones. The Congaree floods on average about ten times a year—gathering nearly all of the rains in the mountains of northwestern South Carolina and western North Carolina—swallowing, absorbing, filtering all that liquid. The great waves and sheets of floodwaters pulse through the swamp, depositing in their sojourn the richness, the funk and rot and marl, upon which the immense forests then grow in organic bounty.

Loblolly pines, 300 years old and measuring more than 15 feet in circumference and 150 feet tall, tower over the high hardwood canopy of giant sweet gum, black gum, sycamore, oak, hickory, elm, and sugarberry, forming dense groves of the coolest shade. This is one of the only places in the world where giant loblollies dominate in such a mix.

Where a giant tree falls, a slash of light is introduced into the previously darkened forest. New species scramble to drink in the rays and convert them into a lower-canopied forest, still nursing on the great muck of time and floods. Red mulberries, red maples, and American hollies leap into these new columns and strafings to form a second, less stately vaulting, quickly slowing any sunbeam that attempts to make it all the way to the swamp floor.

By the time any light does reach the ground, it has a quality like no other: cleansed and purified by its passage through countless translucent sheaves of green. The understory plants that suck on this soft green-and-gold glow are as specialized and beautiful as jewels: spicebush and papaw, strawberry bush, water elm, dwarf palmetto, ironwood and switch cane; holly, green ash, and swamp chestnut. In all, there are approximately 90 known species of trees in the Congaree, many holding the state or national or world record for size. Thank God it is too mired and muddy, too wild and glorious, for us to get our roads into it, to grind this masterpiece to pulp.

I’m not sure what it is about wilderness that touches my ragged heart so deeply. Perhaps it is the gentle comfort provided by its almost overwhelming efficiency of design. Or perhaps it is the delicious specificity of the wild world’s beauties, particularly in a landscape as rich and varied as a swamp. But whatever the reason, upon sighting the Congaree I’m in love with the world again, my eyes widened with awe and alertness.

We step onto a boardwalk and enter the leafy woods as if into a warm green swirling dream of light. Cypress trunk flutings and druidlike knees rise everywhere, and mud turtles paddle clumsily through the tannin-mirrored waters. Butterflies swoop, rise, and fall as if conducting the notes to some inaudible melody. I feel at peace watching them, and it pleases me just to lean over the boardwalk and feast upon the fallen giants clad in emerald moss, already in full rot, sinking slowly into the marsh’s embrace.

I need the real and the specific. Watching the hallucinogenic yellow butterflies move in all dancing directions across that black water, it seems that a thousand or more scents and odors are rolling past in waves of invisible current: sunlit pine needles and poison ivy along with alligator snapping turtle, magnolia, and great blue heron. Odors I’ve never smelled, and scents that stir my brain with their elegance, their complexity, their wild fragrance.

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