Sunday, November 23, 2008

Just Another Day at the Swamp

There is something about a swamp that draws me to it. It's the type of attraction that one experiences when facing the Unknown--the combination of the Unfamiliar, which creates interest, and Mystery, which is associated with 1950's monster movies, "swamp gas" and "Big Foot" stories. The choice facing us was: take a tour with a zoology/botany guide who knows the area or rent a boat and head into the swamp at night with only a flashlight.

We opted for a 2-hour tour in a Cajun crawfish skiff with "Butch" Guchereau. Whether or not the third person in our party, Jan, from the northwestern part of France, faced the same decision was left unresolved. Jan spoke English, but it was interesting to hear Butch using his Cajun French to describe events and customs and Jan "translating" terms into continental French.

We had wanted to see the swamp in all its natural beauty. A scene like that on the left fit my image of the trees growing in a swamp. The closer the trees are to each other, the shallower the water is.

A lot of the color is missing at this time of year, but the afternoon sun highlighted some of the features of the bald cypress trees. At the base of the cypress, the reddish color of the wood places it in the redwood family.

There are different explanations for the existence of these "spikes" or "knees" at the base of the tree's trunk. Some believe they help the tree "breathe" and others believe the tree stores extra food in the form of starches in these knees.

At this time, the purpose of the knees is unknown--"one of the Good Lord's mysteries for us," as Butch put it. For the photographer, the reason is less important that the mere existence of the knees for the creation of a more interesting picture.

Butch pointed out some indicators of the health of the cypress trees. The tree at the left is dying as indicated by the bare portion of the trunk rising above the rest of the tree. A parasite attacks the cypress and hollows out the tree, beginning at the center and working its way to the outer bark. Since the diameter of the trunk is smaller at the top, the parasite reaches the outer layer of the tree sooner at that part.

This tree (right) is also dying. The flattened appearance of the top branches of the tree indicates that the upward growth has slowed or stopped. Butch described trees in this condition as looking like Bonsai Trees.

This tall tree is an example of what the healthy cypress should look like.

A relatively recent addition to the swamp is the Willow Primrose or "swamp daisy." As is evident in the photo, the single flower creates a nice picture. But this is a fast-growing plant and over time it can form a blanket over sections of the swamp, cutting off food supplies for creatures living in the water.

Tomorrow: Meet some of the residents of the swamp.

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