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Rooted in time.

Gifts in our family are often events rather than things. That has its noble side, but it is also a practical necessity in the life of an amateur naturalist and freelance writer. Yet I was a little embarrassed when I suggested to my daughter Sylvan that as a bon-voyage gift to her we spend a few days canoeing on the Black River. The trip would be a far cry from the one she was about to embark on--a journey along the Amazon. In contrast with the world's longest river, the Black is short, flat, and almost unknown beyond coastal North Carolina.

Still, some of the trees along the Black River may be older than any found along the Amazon, and in the last few years the Black's trees have become E an important window into the history of the world's climate.

The Black River runs a mere 60 miles from its origins in North Carolina's southeastern coastal plain to its union with the Cape Fear River near the Atlantic Ocean. In dry weather, it is often clogged by sandbars.

As soon as Scots-Irish settlers moved into Carolina's coastal plain in the early 1700s, they began to log the Black's bottomland forests. Nineteenth-century steamboats hauled off the big stands of gum, live oak, and longleaf pine. In 1885 during a five-day study of the river's navigation possibilities, Captain W.H. Bixby of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported seeing rafts carrying "about 620,000 feet of timber and about 10,000 barrels of rosin." To build bridges and docks, loggers took baldcypress out of the seasonally flooded swamps beside the river, but they left the largest trees because the bell-bottomed giants had been hollowed by dry rot.

The last steamer left the Black River in 1926. The sandbars returned, the land was too wet to clear, and trees once more arched across the river. Local people assumed the remaining cypresses were no more than a few hundred years old.

Today, as the cypresses probably did then, the old silver-barked trees tower over the rest of the forest. The lower branches are often broken, and those on top are flattened as if they,d met an invisible ceiling. Some trunks are cracked open from crown to buttress. Every one of the cypresses seems to have been hit by lightning or survived a Civil War artillery barrage. This kind of "overmature" old-growth makes some foresters talk of silviculture, but as our worries about the global climate grow, these once useless trees have taken on an important role in helping us measure the seriousness of today's environmental problems.

In 1986 scientists from the University of Arkansas found one big cypress that time had not hollowed. Its annual growth rings revealed it to be the oldest tree east of the Rocky Mountains, having taken root some time before 364 A.D.

The trees of both the Amazon and the Black cannot be separated from their river. In both places floods rise so high that large portions of the forest become navigable by small boats.

The Black was in flood on the cold morning in early February when my daughter and I put our canoe in the water. Within minutes we were off the main channel, pushing our boat through thickets of pop ash (the local name for Carolina ash) and tangles of cat briar and poison ivy. Dead branches and dry leaves covered the bottom of the boat. We ducked, we poled, we pushed off tree trunks. The main channel disappeared from sight, and we were lost. We would worry about that later.

All around us rose the silver-gray and moss patched trunks of baldcypress trees. We were looking for one in particular. It would be four feet thick above its buttresses and have a slight lean and two distinctive burls. It would be labeled with a small aluminum tag inscribed, "BLK 69." It was the tree the scientists had discovered in 1986 the oldest known living tree east of the Rocky Mountains. Other trees either along the Black River or in other cypress swamps--may in fact turn out to be older, but BLK 69 is the one that has won new respect for this almost-unknown forest.

We found many larger trees, but when I struck the trunks with my paddle or even my fist, they echoed like a drum. I asked several local people how to find BLK 69. Each of them had read about it in the newspaper, but no one was sure how to find it. Fishermen who string their shad nets and herring lines across the mouths of creeks and coves say the tree is in an area called "Three Sisters," a system of old channels and ponds on the west side of the river. But channels that are distinct at one water level disappear at another. Getting in and out, even in a canoe, can be a little like squeezing down the passages of a cave. Even old-timers going in to fish, hunt or gather mistletoe sometimes got lost.

Like several other searchers I know, Sylvan and I never found BLK 69, but paddling the main channel, the quiet coves, and through the woods we traced a story that cannot be told by a single tree. The Black River cypress forest stands almost as it did a thousand years ago. Even the Indians rarely visited the swamps, and logging has had little impact on the areas where the cypress grows.

Although the rest of the Cape Fear drainage basin--from the Blue Ridge foothills to the ocean--is heavily polluted, the web of life that supports the Black River's forest remains unchanged. Local people boast that they would not think twice about drinking the Black's dark waters.

In 1981 researchers for the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program published a report on the nearly pristine river system and its old-growth cypress. The report caught the eyes of David Stahle and Malcolm Cleaveland, dendrochronologists at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Stahle and Cleaveland had the backing of the Climate Dynamics Program of the National Science Foundation to core trees in the Southeast, looking for clues to weather cycles. They had cored hundreds of baldcypress trees, but the oldest went back no more than 700 years.

The first Black River trees they cored took the story back another 500 years. Then in May 1986 they paddled into the Three Sisters area where Sylvan and I were to become lost, and there they cored another 30 trees. Examined under the laboratory microscope, the core from the tree tagged BLK 69 revealed rings going back to 372 A.D.

BLK 69 is even older than the ring count indicates. Malcolm Cleaveland says the coring instrument did not reach the exact center of the tree, and the cores were taken 10 to 15 feet above the base of the tree in order to avoid distorted wood in the swollen buttress .

Other trees along the Black River may be much older. Says Stahle, "It's not stretching credibility at all to believe they,re over 2,000 years old."

Growth rings in trees generally vary with annual rainfall, and at first glance trees that spend their lives rooted in saturated ground would seem a poor place to look for growth rings affected by moisture. In the Southwest and in tropical rainforests, trees that grow with their roots in the water table produce "complacent" rings with little variation. But for unknown reasons the baldcypress, Taxodium distichufm, responds positively to changes in water levels.

Baldcypress resists rot and decay, especially when it becomes water-logged and sinks. At the bottom of the Black River and other rivers and swamps across the Southeast, researchers expect to find logs that are several centuries or even more than 1,000 years old. Stahle says that it "is realistic to think we will find material 5,000 years old." Radiocarbon dating of some 40 dugout canoes found in North Carolina's Lake Phelps has revealed ages that range from 400 to 4,000 years, Stahle says. He hopes that he and Cleaveland will eventually be able to trace rings from sunken trees back 10,000 years.

When Stahle and Cleaveland correlated the ring pattern in BLK 69 with 88 other ring series, they found a climate history that may change the way we plan for forestry and agriculture in the Southeast. This history also becomes an important part of the larger global-climate story being pieced together by scientists working around the world. Ultimately the global history will help prove whether recent climate changes are as radical as some people believe or fit within normal parameters of climatic cycles.

When extreme droughts in 1985 and 1986 devastated crops in North Carolina and other southern states, many people saw this as a manifestation of global warming. Indeed, the South had experienced no comparable droughts since 1887. Seen in the context of the 1,613-year climate history stored in cypress rings, the 1985 and 1986 droughts are unusual but not alarming. Still, back-to-back droughts have occurred only five times since 372 A.D.

A graph of wet and dry cycles over the entire life of BLK 69 and other cypresses shows alternating wet and dry periods ranging from 21 years to 63 years long and averaging 34 years. The droughts of 1985 and 1986 came at the end of one of the five wettest periods in North Carolina since 374 A.D., 1956 to 1984. The droughts may mark the end of a typical wet era.

This local history allows us to calculate odds on wet and dry years and may be of the most interest to southern farmers and foresters. In any 10-year period the chance of a severe drought is 56 percent. During a wet cycle, however, the chance falls to only 26 percent. During a dry cycle it rises to 78 percent. If we are entering a dry period with increased drought potential, trees will grow more slowly. On farms, investment in crops becomes riskier and development of irrigation more desirable.

Information unlocked from the ancient cypress trees is not the only thing of value in this forest and its river. Wildlife biologist John Alderman says the Black River and, its cypress swamps are now the last preserve for many species that were once abundant in the rest of the Cape Fear system, especially the freshwater mussels that used to grow shoulder to shoulder in most of the basin's rivers. The rivers of this system drain 20 percent of North Carolina, some 9,223 square miles, and if water quality is improved, biologists will look to the Black River for the resources to restore aquatic ecosystems. Few people realized the importance of this complex woodland-water system until state officials began a natural-heritage inventory in the early 1980s.

One afternoon on the river, Sylvan and I paddled out of a cove and came upon the first and only person we met during our trip. Doyle Rutherford, a retired paper-company worker, was setting his first shad nets of the season. His wife Kelly, her father, and her grandmother all grew up on the river near a large stand of old trees, but Kelly says she took them for granted until she read a newspaper article about the research being done at the University of Arkansas.

For our last afternoon Doyle took Sylvan and me up and down the river in his flat-bottom skiff. Like many locals, Doyle knew every snag and sunken log in the river and any number of nearly invisible passages through the flooded forest. But he had never seen BLK 69.

We searched hidden ponds and small coves he knew. We found trees that Cleaveland and Stahle had tagged, but not BLK 69. We checked the shad net and the herring lines. Doyle admitted it was early for the fish, but he likes being on the river. He likes it even more now that he knows how old the trees are.

His attitude is similar to other locals for whom the river has always been special. T. Nelson Squires and his wife own a 23-acre tract in the Three Sisters area. Squires said he was "astonished to find out that I had such old trees on my property. Their age makes me feel very humble." Squires has given The Nature Conservancy a conservation easement to protect the cypress stand on his land.

Across the river from Squires, land at Three Sisters lies a 7,000-acre game preserve owned by Ben Cone Jr. When his father purchased the land for a few dollars per acre during the Depression, family and friends called it Cone's Folly. Today Ben Cone Jr. encourages his employees at Greensboro's Cone Mills to take their rest and relaxation on the river among the cypresses

Only 150 miles away from the urban world of North Carolina's booming Piedmont Crescent along Interstate 85, Deborah Wood, a credit manager for Cone Mills, felt that she had been transported 1,000 years back in time-no "beer cans, potato chip bags, old tires . . . no massive A-frames with fancy piers." Remembering her trip for the company's newsletter, she wrote, "I don't think life could be any better than it was at that very moment."

A-frames and beer cans, however, may not be long off. As pristine rivers and giant trees become ever scarcer, demand increases. Even the growing fame of the cypresses will attract more visitors. In 1978 the state wanted to add the Black River to its natural and scenic waterways, but the fiercely independent locals, feeling that the state had often ignored their poor region, didn't want anything to do with a project that gave the government ally right to take their land.

Today The Nature Conservancy is talking to some 40 landowners about donating easements on a total of 2,000 acres. Ben Cone Jr. has not yet given easements on his property, but he has assured the Conservancy that, as his father did in the past, with or without an easement he will continue to preserve his land.

Doyle Rutherford says all conservation efforts may come to nothing if the chairman of the county commissioners has his way and locates a new garbage dump upstream from the cypress stands. The prospect of the dump has knit residents into an ad-hoc conservation group. In the first skirmishes at public meetings, they chose as their spokesman Bob Murray, a former Marine pilot and now a hunting guide and manager of Cone's Folly.

Chances of beating the dump and other threats to the Black River and its trees are better now than they would have been before Cleaveland and Stahle unlocked the river's secrets. Their work has stimulated what can only be seen as a rediscovery of a river whose importance in the state's economy seemed to end when the steamers disappeared. Now the seemingly useless old trees have suddenly become not only a valuable part of the economy but also the keepers of knowledge that will be of value to the whole world.

My daughter Sylvan will soon be a professional biologist. As she and I paddled among the giant trees at dawn of the frosty morning of our last day on the river, I hoped she or some young scientist like her would be working among the cypress trees years from now making more discoveries. The sun came up over the flat coastal plain forest and flooded the forest with horizontal gold light. Its warmth lifted a faint mist off the river, and the trunks of the cypresses glowed, every shred of bark sharply lit. The inviting light seemed to say, "Don't go. There's more to discover."

Wallace Kaufman of Pittsboro, North Carolina, is American Forests' book reviewer and a frequent contributor.
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Black River area in North Carolina
Author:Kaufman, Wallace
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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