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Girdled Cypress

Bayou-Diversity (19 January 2020) On this place where we live and that we call Heartwood, Rocky Branch flows intermittently throughout the year. In the last few thousand years this stream has carved a flat bottom 200 yards wide in its meandering rambles through the red clay hills on its way to Bayou D’Arbonne. With the shallow water table beneath its watershed now depleted, the creek bed is often bone dry during the dog days of summer. On the other hand, the entire bottom may be inundated ten feet deep during naturally occurring, spring backwater floods. It is a tentacle of the D’Arbonne Swamp.

By any measure, legal or otherwise, the bottom is a wetland. The soil is saturated for much of the growing season and water tolerant plants grew there historically. Some, like cypress trees, still do. However, in this species and on this site lies a troubling mystery. Throughout the part of the bottom that is on our property about 50 medium-sized cypresses are scattered about. At some point in the past they were girdled all around with an axe. I’m guessing this offence occurred 40 to 50 years ago. Scar tissue has now grown over the injuries where the vital cambium cells were hacked away, but the trees still struggle to survive and likely haven’t grown much since the assault.

What happened here? During the heyday of the cypress logging industry, which had crashed by the 1930s, large cypresses were sometimes killed by girdling and allowed to remain standing for a year so they would dry out and thus float when they were cut down. Corralled into large rafts, they could then be floated downstream to riparian sawmills. This could have been the intent of the Rocky Branch axman, but it seems a poor fit. The trees weren’t large by cypress standards, and they seem to have been girdled long after local sawmills shut down. I’m leaning toward another scenario, one that involves the government and a different kind of tree that shouldn’t even be growing in the bottom – loblolly pines. About the time the cypresses were girdled, the landowner in that day harvested many of the bottomland oaks and some large cypresses on the tract. Stumps remain as evidence of this activity. Soon afterwards, offsite loblolly pines were planted throughout the area because they were fast-growing and more valuable than hardwoods. I have found records showing the former landowner was provided financial incentives through U.S. Dept. of Agriculture programs to convert what was considered worthless swampland to a productive tree farm. It seems logical that the remaining smaller cypresses were girdled to prevent them from shading out the pine seedlings.

With 50 years of hindsight since the bungled attempt to kill the cypress trees, a number of ecological lessons could be taught using this anecdote. The pines have not thrived because they were planted in a wetland where they are not adapted to grow. They are shorter than normal and more disease-prone. They take up space where important wetland trees could be growing. Ironically, had the landowner encouraged the re-growth of native hardwoods and cypresses after his harvest, the forest would be much more valuable today from an economic as well as ecological perspective. Wanton girdling of cypress trees is less a tragedy than pervasive viewpoints that the mechanisms of nature can be ignored.


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