We are pleased to share with you an Earth Day essay written by Thomas Wentworth, PhD, inspired by his experience at the "Three Sisters Swamp" of the Black River in eastern North Carolina. Tom is Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor, Emeritus, Department of Plant & Microbial Biology, North Carolina Statue University.
I visited BLK227 on a Tuesday for an interview. BLK227 is a Baldcypress tree (Taxodium distichum for the botanists) in the Three Sisters Swamp section of the Black River, a bit west of Burgaw, North Carolina. BLK227 was so named by Dr. David Stahle, who runs the Tree Ring Laboratory in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. BLK227 holds the current world record for documented age of any Baldcypress tree, 2,629 years old this year. That’s a minimum age, by the way, because Dr. Stahle had to core BLK227 at a height of 10 feet above the swamp floor, and it is unknown how long it takes for a Baldcypress seedling to reach 10 feet in height. That minimum age is impressive - that’s 629 years Before the Common Era. BLK227’s age firmly establishes Baldcypress as the oldest wetland tree species on Planet Earth, and number five on the worldwide list of the oldest known continuously living, sexually reproducing, non-clonal tree species based on dendrochronology, the scientific study of tree rings. < click "Read More" below right >
I then told Two-two-seven that my goal was to get their takes on some selected topics for an Earth Day service I would soon be leading at my church, and I suggested that we begin with Beloved Community.
Two-two-seven replied, “Ah, yes, Beloved Community, one of my favorite topics. . . . It’s hard to underestimate the value of community, whether it be my fellow Baldcypress trees or any of the other residents of this ecosystem. Although I had to compete for space and light with my peers when I was young, today I value the intact forest canopy that protects the entire stand from the ravages of hurricanes, and I’ve seen quite a few in my lifetime. Our interlocking roots and knees anchor the stand in our wetland soil and help us persist during periodic floods. Like other members of my plant family, I partner with fungi that colonize my roots, facilitating the uptake of scarce nutrients from this mucky, acidic, nutrient-deficient soil. My benefits to other members of this ecosystem are many: eagles and ospreys have nested in my upper limbs, and generations of owls and wood ducks have found shelter and nest sites in my gnarly trunk. Squirrels feed on my seeds, and fish spawn among my roots. Spanish moss thrives among my branches. You may already know that intact swampland Baldcypress stands are of immense value to Homo sapiens, too. Such stands buffer and slow flood waters, helping to mitigate downstream flooding during periods of intense rainfall, then releasing water slowly to maintain surface flow during dry periods. Baldcypress swamps trap sediments, improving water quality for both humans and wildlife who live downstream. By sequestering carbon in living and dead wood, we help reduce the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. As we take up carbon dioxide to produce wood, leaves, and reproductive tissues, we also maintain the atmosphere’s oxygen content, something that oxygen-consuming animals like yourself surely appreciate. My kind have provided your species with rot-resistant wood for building homes and boats. In short, you, my friend, and I are part of an interdependent web. We give and we receive; together we persist, and alone we most certainly would perish.”
I reflected on this wisdom for quite a while, and then said, “My church values lifespan sexual education. Indeed, we have a curriculum that helps participants of all life stages make informed and responsible decisions about their relationships, sexual health, and behavior. Thus, I’m sure my congregation would be curious about your sex life.”
Two-two-seven replied, “I’ve enjoyed a healthy sex life, although you might consider Baldcypress sex a bit promiscuous by your standards. Each spring, I and other Baldcypress throughout the United States and Mexico produce male cones that shed massive amounts of pollen, much like pines. In this way, I may reach sexual partners tens or even hundreds of miles away under the right conditions of wind and weather. I also produce female cones, containing eggs that are fertilized by the male gametes in pollen reaching me. My female cones thus sample the gene pool of Baldcypress in a vast area, allowing me to stay in touch, if you will, with a much wider population. Mature female cones containing seeds may float long distances during flood events. During Hurricane Florence, for example, my young even traveled to nearby watersheds before settling down to germinate and grow. Not bad for a plant that can spend millennia growing in the same spot!”
I next asked Two-two-seven for their take on ecology. They replied, “My needs are simple. Like every organism on the planet, I must maintain an ecological perspective if I am to survive. This is doubly important because my kind lives outside with no shelter and can persist in the same spot for thousands of years. Just like you, I have an absolute need for a reliable supply of clean air and water. Although I make my own food from air, water, and sunlight, I need small amounts of essential nutrients to survive, grow, and reproduce. Within reasonable limits, I can tough it out during hurricanes, floods, and droughts.”
This reply led me to ask Two-two-seven about their environmental concerns. They replied, “Frankly, Tom, I am deeply worried about the future. For many millennia, you humans took small amounts of wood and other natural products from swamp forests for medicine, construction of homes, and boatbuilding. The harvest was sustainable and always done with the greatest of respect and gratitude for the forest and its inhabitants. Then, about 400 years ago, all this began to change. The harvest accelerated, aided by huge machines and other technology. This rapacious harvest occurred without respect for nature and with no view to long-term sustainability. Did you know that, according to my friend Dr. Stahle, less than 1% of bald cypress forests have survived the recent era of heavy logging? The vast postglacial Baldcypress swamps of eastern North America are mostly gone, save for a couple of relictual stands. The Three Sisters Swamp where we are today, and other old-growth stands along this stretch of the Black River in North Carolina, represent one of the two largest intact old-growth Baldcypress swamps remaining on Earth. Thanks to the intervention of environmentalists, particularly The Nature Conservancy, there is now hope that the Black River swamp forests will be preserved forever. I am thankful that I have been spared the fate of becoming cypress mulch in somebody’s garden.”
Two-two-seven continued. “Sadly, though, there are larger changes that even the mighty Nature Conservancy cannot control. Excessive loading of sediments, nutrients, and toxic pollutants entering the watershed upstream of us would threaten the ecological integrity of this swamp. My tree rings document a continuous record of climatic events over nearly three millennia. I can tell you that, beginning with your so-called industrial revolution, the climate began changing, slowly at first, and now faster than previously experienced at any time in my record. Atmospheric carbon is well on its way to doubling by the end of this century, triggering catastrophic warming and other climate changes that spell trouble for both of us. I will also remind you that this Three Sisters Cove is only 2 meters above mean sea level, about the height of a tall Homo sapiens. The lower reaches of the Black River are already tidal, and it won’t take much sea level increase to drive intermittent pulses of salt water into this swamp. I can assure you, Tom, that a steady diet of sea water would kill me as soon as it would kill you.”
At that point, despite the pleasantly warm air and sunlight sparkling on the water, I was feeling a bit glum. My colleagues were putting away the remnants of their lunches and preparing for the rest of our downstream paddle. I told Two-two-seven that I had to leave soon, and I asked them if they had any words of hope that I could share with my congregation on Earth Day weekend. Two-two-seven reflected for a moment, and said, “Please tell them this. You and I, Tom, are extraordinary. I am extraordinary because I am among the oldest of a rapidly dwindling number of my kind, and I live in one of the last remaining intact habitats that support my community and ecosystem. You and your kind are extraordinary because within just a few millennia, less than a blink of an eye in Earth’s history, you have become the dominant species on the planet, unleashing destructive forces that threaten to destroy much of Earth’s life and its life-support system. Your vision and mission must be this: find a way to return the two of us and the other members of our two amazing species from extraordinary to ordinary. Making me ordinary would mean that once again Baldcypress swamps filled with ancient trees would return to the 99% of our former range that existed until just a few hundred years ago. Making you ordinary would mean that Homo sapiens would return to a sustainable population peacefully contributing to the incredible beauty of this planet, as a cooperative and coexisting player among the millions of plants, animals, and microorganisms that exist here and nowhere else in this vast, unforgiving universe.
I thanked Two-two-seven for taking time to speak with me, and I promised to carry their message forward. I fist-bumped their ancient trunk and pushed my kayak away and downstream. Two-two-seven’s parting words continued to ring in my ears, though: “Goodbye, Tom, please visit again soon, and do what you can to make the extraordinary ordinary.”
Happy Earth Day weekend, my friends. I have brought the wisdom of the ancient forest to you today, as I promised Two-two-seven. Let us endeavor to carry out their request to make the extraordinary ordinary once again.
© 2023 Thomas R. Wentworth
When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.... Conservation, viewed in its entirety, is the slow and laborious unfolding of a new relationship between people and land."
There is in fact no distinction between the fate of the land and the fate of the people. When one is abused, the other suffers.
From the President
SCP President Chuck Roe looked at land conservation along the route of John Muir's "Southern Trek."
This blog offers views of our Board and partners. We invite your viewpoint on the following questions: