Friday, April 24, 2009

Swamp Stomp

The largest cypress tree on the Beidler property.

While this blog post may not have much to do with photography, it's another reason why I love the lowlands. A coworker of mine showed me this tree about three weeks ago since it's one of the biggest on the Beidler Forest property. Getting there is an adventure, trudging through waist-high black water and battling the swarms of noseeums. Surrounding this woody behemoth, contorted cypress knees seem to bubble like lava from the water's surface. Generally speaking, the older the tree, the more gnarly the knee. And when played with a hand or a stick, their varying sizes and shapes offer a wide range of organic tones from deep baritones to tinny tenors. I had the idea to bring out a few friends to make some real swamp music, with real swamp instruments. So without further ado, I bring you Swamp Stomp.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Virgins in the Swamp

On March 2nd I started a new job working with the Audubon Society in the Francis Beidler Swamp located between Charleston and Columbia, South Carolina. The town I live in is called Harleyville. We have one traffic light, but it sits above a train track and always blinks yellow, so I’m not sure if that counts. There’s a bar, a Chinese restaurant, a motorcycle shop – which is currently holding a 50% sale on all leather, a store called “All Kinds of Things,” and a bustling Ace Hardware. On the road through town, everyone flashes the obligatory two-finger wave over the steering wheel. Regardless of the dried limestone and mud mixture caked on the sidewalls of my truck, I’m sure they all know I’m not from around here. Perhaps the Gators sticker gives me away, or maybe it was the time I bought a Starbucks vanilla frappuccino at the local gas station. Either way, I receive a wary welcome from the locals who comprise of mostly farmers and cement plant workers.

Harleyville exudes the traditional, the grit, the hospitality, and the simplicity of the rural south. It’s the kind of town that still sells beanie babies, “Pride of the South” t-shirts, and of course, beanie babies wearing mini “Pride of the South” t-shirts. It didn’t take me long to familiarize myself with the area. The roads in this backwoods hideout all stem off in an inbred fashion, eventually leading to the same intersection where a silhouette cutout of a kneeling soldier sits on one side of the street and on the other, an elaborate life-size display of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Parking spaces located on the left. 

Tucked away on the fringe of town (if there is such a thing) sits the Francis Beidler Forest. As the world’s only virgin cypress and tupelo swamp it comprises only a small section of the conserved land belonging to National Audubon. Most of the large cypress trees in this area are 1,000 years or older. 

The old growth constitutes roughly 1,600 acres in the heart of Four Holes Swamp, which in its entirety stretches for 60 miles before draining into the Edisto River. Once owned by a wealthy logging family, Beidler Forest came under a conservation easement in 1970 with the help of the Nature Conservancy and the National Audubon Society.

My official title is “seasonal naturalist.” I live in an Audubon staff house located on swamp property. In the house there are three bedrooms, two bathrooms, one roommate, and strange stains all over the brown carpet. It's absolutely perfect, not joking. When I turn on the faucets a pungent fart smell lingers in the immediate area. Even after a month I still have trouble brushing my teeth without gagging. My front yard looks out into an upland forest and from my back porch, Mallard’s Lake. At my daily disposal, a fleet of 5 canoes and 5 kayaks rest on wooden support racks. Although, not a lake by normal standards, it’s one of the deepest spots in the swamp (6 feet), so in our little circle we call it a lake. Last week I took a group from Michigan on a canoe trip and they had a good laugh at this. 

My typical workweek involves four days of canoe or kayak trips through a 4-mile channel in the swamp, leading school groups on a 1 ¾ mile boardwalk tour, aiding biologists with fieldwork, designing promotional material, and photographing along the 16,000 acre property.

Currently I am working on a new brochure and guidebook for Audubon in order to attract more visitors to the area. It seems every week we have at least 10 people from the surrounding towns show up for their first visits. I figure that with some powerful imagery, people will drop their preconceptions of a swamp being bug-infested, inhospitable, and crawling with bloodthirsty reptiles. If this doesn’t work, however, I’m prepared to take the next step and run a slightly different campaign:

 Live! Barely Legal! 100% Access! Get intimate with South Carolina’s oldest virgins!

I doubt this will fly with Audubon but could very well bump up the attendance of college students.

From what I hear, spring provides the best conditions for visiting the swamp. Reptiles begin to emerge from their warm hiding spots and the lush light green of muscadine grape and ivy dapples beneath breaks in the canopy. 

Many migratory birds nest and breed here. The more famous birds being the barred owl, yellow crowned night heron, and the prothonotary warbler. I think I’ll dedicate a separate blog to these creatures on a later date. There is just simply too much to talk about.

We have five species of aquatic snakes: the brown water snake, banded water snake, red-bellied water snake, greenish rat snake, and my favorite, the water moccasin. A typical day on the canoe trail we’ll see at least 10 snakes and sometimes even 20. I’ve become very efficient at finding and grabbing these reptiles. Still, no bites to worry about. 

Occasionally green and gray tree frogs cling to cypress knees or poison ivy vines. 

So yeah, I love my job. I encourage, with the utmost sincerity, for anyone to come and visit the swamp. Beidler Forest joins the ranks of one of my favorite places for solitude and witnessing wildlife truly as nature intended.