Monday, February 27, 2012

Cypress and Moss

Returning from our two-day food break, we return to our writings on the Atchafalaya Swamp Tour (begun on 2/24).

The Atchafalaya River Basin's wetlands, bayous, and marshes are home to 300 species of birds, 90 species of fish and shellfish and 54 species of reptiles and amphibians, including the great American alligator. It owes much of its haunting and mysterious beauty to the towering, moss-draped bald cypress trees that thrive in its swamp waters (

We saw egrets (above), herons, and cormorants as we toured the swamp, but we were provided with many examples of the moss-draped cypress trees.

"Nothing characterizes a southern swamp more than a giant moss-draped cypress tree standing knee-deep in a backwater slough. Technically known as baldcypress, these survivors of ancient life are native to river bottoms and swamps in the Deep South and along the Eastern Seaboard north to Delaware.

"Cypress trees once grew to seventeen feet in diameter and 140 feet in height. They were the largest trees in the South and lived to be four hundred to six hundred years old. A few were estimated to be more than one thousand years old.

"Scientists have often pondered the functions of the unique root-like growths commonly known as cypress knees. Once thought to be structures to help the tree breathe, knees are now believed to be storage areas for starches needed for growth" (from a program on KEDM 90.3 Public Radio, Monroe, LA, called
“Bayou Diversity” [date unknown]).

For hundreds of years, the Basin's human dwellers—from the Native Americans who harvested its timber to the present-day Cajuns who hunt alligators in its murky depths—have subsisted on its many bountiful resources. In the second half of the 18th century, the region became a refuge for several thousand French colonists who had been expelled from Acadie, part of present-day Nova Scotia, for refusing to swear allegiance to the British crown and church. Known as the Acadians, the settlers adapted their way of life to the changeable nature of the Basin's wetland environment, where water levels fluctuate depending on the season, by favoring houseboats and campsites to more permanent homes. Many began growing sugarcane and other crops in the fertile bayou soil, while others made a living as loggers, hunters, trappers or fishermen.

The Acadian community grew and prospered, eventually giving birth
to the distinctly Louisianan "Cajun" culture, known throughout the world for its food, music and unique dialect. Today, the Cajuns make up a significant part of southern Louisiana's population, and many continue to embrace the lifestyle and traditions of their ancestors.

In spite of the region's natural bounty and unmistakable splendor, swamp living has never been easy for the Cajuns and other residents of the Atchafalaya Basin. For instance, the disastrous Great Flood of 1927 decimated many communities, sparking a mass exodus that dramatically reduced the region's population. But to many people born and raised in the
cradle of the lush and majestic Atchafalaya, the dangers and challenges they face are an accepted--and even welcome--part of life (

"Historically cypresses have been very important to man in Louisiana. The wood is easy to work and very at-tractive,...(and) the most famous characteristic is the durability and resistance to decay that develops in the wood of trees several hundred years old. Native Americans were the first to realize this and in northeast Louisiana, as elsewhere, routinely used cypress for dugout canoes.

"Early colonists were quick to discover this trait.... In the late 1800’s the demand for cypress lumber for boats, furniture, pilings, trim, shingles, siding, and coffins was great. It was during this period that the vast virgin stands were logged over. By 1925 the once thriving cypress industry was in a spiraling decline as the last of the raw products were exhausted.

As the sun appeared from behind the clouds, a different
"person-ality" of the swamp was beginning to appear" (from a program on KEDM 90.3 Public Radio, Monroe, LA, called “Bayou Diversity” [date unknown])..

(to be continued.)

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