Cooner’s Mound

August 23, 2014.  The skeets are noticeable on the Kingsnake Trail this morning, perhaps rating a “3” for “moderate” on the park’s mosquito meter. I finally lather up my bare arms, neck, ears, and face. I’m walking in from the South Cedar Creek Landing. Shortly, I see growing in the sun on the side of the trail the beautiful lobelia with lavender flowers, perhaps Lobelia elongata, the longleaf lobelia. A closer inspection reveals a conspicuous little butterfly, the lace-winged roadside-skipper, nectaring on a lobelia bloom. It has a strikingly-colored wing pattern, termed “cobwebby” by one guide, that I suppose is meant to serve as camouflage. This butterfly prefers moist woods and the caterpillar host plant is cane, so it should be quite happy at Congaree.

Lace-winged roadside skipper on lobelia

From an opening in the trail I see bird activity in the canopy and subcanopy of several large sweetgums draped in Spanish moss and grape vines. My binoculars show a loose group consisting of a single male cardinal, several tufted titmice, several Carolina chickadees, at least two Northern parulas, and, most abundant, ten or twelve blue-gray gnatcatchers. The gnatcatchers are stealing the show as they flit in and out of the foliage and from tree to tree, foraging for insects.

I veer over to Moccasin Pond, now completely dry. It is always interesting walking in dried-up gum ponds. You get an idea of how uneven the terrain in them is; the ground can be firm in places and soft and muddy in others. There are sometimes large stump holes and old cypress “sinker” logs strewn about. The roots and old stumps are fully visible and present some interesting shapes and natural sculptures.

In the middle of this pond there is a single remaining virgin bald cypress, the others having been cut many years ago. This cypress has a beautiful, straight trunk, measuring about twelve feet in circumference above the swollen buttress. The buttress itself, now completely exposed, is the most pronounced of any cypress I’ve seen in the swamp. It’s shaped like a hula skirt rather than an inverted funnel, and measures a whopping forty-seven feet in circumference a foot off the ground, about four times that of the tree’s circumference above the buttress. The tree also has a good number of tall, slim cypress knees nearby, some measuring nearly seven feet high.

Moccasin Pond virgin cypress

I make the sharp turn west onto Kingsnake Trail. Occasionally I get a faint whiff of bananas, telling me there are ripening pawpaws somewhere nearby. I finally find one on the ground but it is still green. Farther down the trail I see a large one still attached to the tree and knock it off with my walking stick. It’s a large fruit, about the size of a small Irish potato, and measures three inches long and one-and-a-half inches wide. It too is green. Normally, pawpaws are ripe by this time in August, but everything seems to be running late this year due to the cold winter. Later in the afternoon I finally find a ripe pawpaw on the ground. It has huge seeds, similar to a persimmon’s, and a unique, “tropical” taste – similar to banana with a touch of citrus and with the consistency of custard or a mango.

I cut off the Kingsnake Trail and bushwhack my way to the southwest. After a few minutes of wading through switch cane, I see, looming up ahead, a truly unique site in this flat country, a solid wall of earth ten feet above the surrounding terrain. The first view of Cooner’s Mound is always startling because of its dominating size, quickly followed by the knowledge that someone has been here before in this otherwise pristine forest. I suppose in a small way it must be a similar feeling to that of stumbling across a Mayan ruin in the depths of a Yucatan jungle.

We don’t know much about Frederick Cooner. Like a number of park landowners of the nineteenth century, he lived on the south side of the river in what was then the Orangeburg District. The 1850 census for the area north of Belleville Road, the heart of plantation country for what later became Calhoun County, showed him to be one of the most prosperous landowners, citing his occupation as “planter” with a real estate-value of twenty thousand dollars and the owner of 103 slaves.

Cooner, like many owners of bottomland forests, ran livestock, mostly cattle I presume, under the free-range system then in effect. But the clearing of the South Carolina Upcountry for cotton culture, starting in earnest after 1800, caused a sharp rise in the number and intensity of river floods (freshets or freshes as they were called then) from increased runoff in the watershed. Some planters with a large enough slave force resorted to the construction of dikes and dams in an attempt to continue farming their fertile bottomland holdings. In Cooner’s case he used his slave force to construct a large mound to protect his livestock from flood waters.

There are several of these mounds scattered across the Congaree, but this is by far the largest, comparable in size to the well known Broughton’s Mound in the Upper Santee Swamp a few miles to the south. It measures about fifty feet wide, ninety feet long, and ten feet high. The long axis runs almost east-west, 280º-100º. There is a flange or skirt around three sides of the base of the mound, presumably an aid for the cattle to get to the top of the steep-sided mound. The old “borrow” pits from which the dirt was removed to build the mound lie adjacent to it. The top of the mound is flat and mostly bare, with some small-to-medium sized trees, mostly American holly, growing from it. The largest tree is a thirty-three inch diameter sweetgum. There are also a few American elms, hickories, one cherrybark oak, and three tulip poplars on the west end, but surprisingly, no beech trees.

Cooner’s Mound

I’m not sure how many cattle could fit on Cooner’s Mound, perhaps a few dozen or so? Some years ago I paddled to the mound in my nine-foot kayak during a big flood when the entire swamp was under water. I was expecting a Noah’s ark of critters on top but was disappointed to see only two deer that fled at my approach.

As I leave the mound to rejoin the Kingsnake Trail, I pass a few scattered stumps, reminders of a light selective timber harvest from the 1970s. Except for these decaying stumps and the remains of a nearby logging road, you would be hard pressed to think of this area as anything but a pristine forest, especially since some large, old-growth hardwoods were left uncut. I imagine in the 1840s, when Frederick Cooner was building his cattle mound and running livestock, this area had more of a pasture aspect, or at least a forest with a cleared understory and perhaps a browse line from where the cattle were nibbling on leaves and twigs of low-hanging tree limbs. It only highlights the remarkable recuperative powers of nature, a healing accelerated in this place of abundant moisture, fertile soils, and long growing seasons.

As the trail skirts the edge of Tear Pond, I flush at close range a small group of pigs rooting in the soft, damp soil on the bottom of the pond, which is now nearly dry. It’s easy to walk up on pigs in the Congaree. They are not that wary and seem to be more focused on finding food than listening for or scenting approaching humans.

I leave the trail and walk northeast towards Lost Lake. There are a good number of large pines between Kingsnake Trail and Lost Lake, and it seems highly likely that this area was some sort of artificial clearing prior to the Civil War, perhaps a cowpen. As I’m thinking about cowpens, I hear a loud snort close and to my left; my senses register pig at the same time I turn my head to see, but rather than pig, it turns out to be a raccoon sow and her two, three-quarters grown young making for a tree thirty feet in front of me. The coons quickly scramble twenty-five feet up the slender tree, with the mother bringing up the rear. She is watching me constantly, with her tail twitching back and forth. I back off a hundred feet to sit and watch. The sow soon brings her charges down the tree, head first, and they scamper for cover when they get on solid ground.

I’m now on the west side of Lost Lake, which is still except for a few dragonflies cruising back and forth over the water. Their wings sparkle in the sunlight. I hear a deer snort on the other side of the lake, then again briefly, then silence. It’s good siesta weather right now.

Near the end of my hike I see up ahead and low to the ground a small red object that I assume is either a piece of flagging tape or a helium balloon. But soon I realize the object is a natural red, in fact the most brilliant, glowing red I’m aware of in the plant kingdom, a red that belongs to the cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis. Unlike many cardinal flowers that are found under a heavy canopy in swampy terrain, this one is getting a lot of sun from growing on the edge of a natural clearing in fairly dry soil.    [note: my previous post got the scientific name for fox grape wrong; it should be Vitis vulpina, not Vitex vulpine]

Cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis