November 13, 2014. At 4 AM it’s about 50 degrees, and the cricket chorus is still going, although noticeably reduced from last night when it was fifteen degrees warmer. Also reduced is the number of wolf spider
eye reflections. A few insects are crawling about, as are some harvestmen, and even a hardy mosquito that has the gall to buzz my ears here in mid-November.
The woods at this hour of the morning are black and still and eerie. Without a fire to dim the darkness (the park doesn’t allow camping fires in the “backcountry”) and reduce your night vision, your eyes are operating at peak nocturnal efficiency. I stare at the giant, black trees that surround me on all sides, and a feeling of insignificance quickly gains hold. There is no horizon or opening anywhere. The shadows on the ground from an overhead half-moon, and a partial view of the stars mostly obscured by the dense canopy only add to the eeriness. I think there is a lot of truth that people are inherently afraid of the dark. It’s not hard to imagine in my current surroundings how so many ghost stories, superstitions, and horror tales originated from black, still woods such as these. In fact, many of the local residents of Lower Richland County a century ago were quite adamant in their views of the Congaree as a fearful place that swallowed up men whole. Dr. Edward C. L. Adams recorded these views in his colorful classic Tales of the Congaree.
The Congaree Swamp of these tales was where morning light led to the devil’s night; where owls on dead limbs talked with the dead and laughed like the dead; where the air was putrid with the smell of moccasin snakes; a place of varmints and bugs, stinging yellow flies and mosquitoes; where trees sweat like men; a land of poison, fever, ghosts, and evil spirits; a place of slick yellow mud and above all a place where death is king. This doesn’t sound like the Congaree I know and love but I can understand how such views and attitudes get started. The mysterious woods that appeal to me are intimidating and downright foreboding for some. Much of this has to do, I think, with the dense, closed-in forest, the lack of a horizon or even a view of an overhead sky, all calling up ancient, long-dormant fears. And this atmosphere is magnified at night.
Outdoor writer Archibald Rutledge countered negative attitudes and superstitions about the darkness at his beloved Santee Delta country. He welcomed the night and wrote eloquently of the hold it had on him, comparing daylight to prose and nighttime to poetry. I think I understand what Dr. Rutledge was trying to say and I begin to appreciate and admire this special black setting I have the good fortune to be a part of.
By 6:15 the eastern sky is faintly, but noticeably, lighter than the rest, and by 7:00 the woods have taken on a completely different, decidedly more appealing appearance. Perhaps it’s the fall colors that lighten things up, or that you can see clearly again. The tall, skeletal sweetgum of the recent dark has now become once more a magnificent old growth specimen complete with attractive fall foliage.
At 7:15 I hear a deer snort from the same place as last night, only it’s even louder with the early morning temperature inversion. He sounds upset I’m still here. A Carolina wren is singing from a nearby thicket, and a lonely yellow-bellied sapsucker is giving its plaintive, single note call.
After a breakfast of instant oatmeal, I spend most of the morning searching for potential champion trees in the vicinity of Sam’s Lake and the park’s original old-growth boundary. I measure the circumference of a very tall sweetgum, ramrod straight, which I have had my eye on for more than thirty years. It is now over sixteen feet in circumference and could be a potential state champion to replace the former national champion that lost its canopy a few years ago. I also look for a large American elm I found years ago, hoping it might have grown into championship material, but instead I find it on the ground, quite dead and decayed.
There are several large sycamores in the area, the biggest being nearly sixteen feet in circumference. These beautiful trees get quite tall in the Congaree, approaching 150 feet, but this particular one lost a good bit of its crown to wind some years ago. I also find a handsome red mulberry specimen, tall and straight, with a circumference of four feet. Congaree mulberries are always understory trees, and can never compete with specimens like the state champion, planted in an avenue on high ground with a whopping circumference of twenty-one feet!
Fresh deer scrapes are everywhere in the woods this morning, especially around the drip line of American holly trees, which have the low hanging branches and cleared ground the bucks prefer. Some hollies have multiple scrapes around the same tree, and a few look almost like a deer merry go-round there is so much fresh dirt pawed up; it’s probably no coincidence that we are approaching the peak rut period in coastal South Carolina.