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The Cypress Knee Man

June 1, 2010


Which resident of the Lowcountry is tall, bald, and has knobby knees?

When I first heard the riddle, my Aunt Gladys Hutson Sowers came to mind. She lived with her husband and eight children in a cabin on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp.

Her hair loss probably came from raising those children. Maybe it was the frequent visits by alligators who crawled out of the swamp into her backyard enticed by her chickens.

You can probably think of several acquaintances who fit the riddle’s description. But the correct answer is not a person at all. It is one of Aunt Gladys’s close neighbors, the bald cypress tree.

The Good Book says that on the third day of creation, the Almighty created all the plants and trees, everything that bears fruit with seeds. Among these was a Lowcountry native with knobby knees, the bald cypress tree. 

The South Georgia swamp behind Aunt Gladys’s cabin is Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Before that conservation effort in 1937, extensive logging operations had seriously depleted the boggy forest of cypress trees.

The coastal plain of the southeast is heavily populated with cypress trees.  The bald cypress is closely related to the sequoias of California. This interesting evergreen grows best in the rich, wet soil along riverbanks, on the margin of wetlands, or in the middle of swamps. It can grow to a great age and large size, sometimes 150 feet high and 17 feet in diameter. Its durable wood is often called the wood eternal.

Cypress lumber resists insects and chemical corrosion as well as decay. It has a fragrance resembling that of cedar. It is a close-grained yellow or reddish wood, so resinous that it resists rotting even after prolonged submersion in water. Cypress products include coffins, acid tanks, docks, pilings, poles, and railroad ties.

The King James Translation of the Bible reports that God told Noah to build the ark of gopher wood. The New International Version translates the text, “Make an ark of cypress wood.” (Genesis 6:14)

The massive trunk of the stately tree tapers upward from its wide, flaring base, where roots entangle to form supporting buttresses. The roots of cypress trees form knees that protrude above the surface of the water. Scientists believe that these knobs provide aeration for the roots that are otherwise completely submerged in water.  They also give balance to the tall trees that might topple over under their own weight in the soggy soil.

The tree is called bald because, though a conifer, its leaves are shed in the fall. The largest remaining old-growth stand of bald cypress is at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, near Naples, Florida. Some of those trees are around 500 years of age.

My family and I are privileged to spend a week at Pawley’s Island each summer.  One hot Saturday while on vacation there, I met Thomas, a big man, standing tall and stately like a cypress tree.  He has large hands, callused from years of hard work.  His skin, the color of ebony, glistens in the heat and humidity of the Lowcountry like wood with a coat of high gloss varnish.  His voice is quiet and gentle, and he speaks in reverent tones.

Thomas began his life on a farm.  Now an elderly gentleman, he still does some farming.  “But,” he said, “years ago the Lord called me into the swamp and showed me the beauty of cypress knees.” 

Several days a week, Thomas puts on a pair of high water boots and wades into the swamp, chainsaw in hand, to harvest these unusual root formations.  “I cut them above the water line,” he said.  “That way the trees won’t die.  They just make more knees.”  Between McClellanville and Georgetown, Thomas is known as the Cypress Knee Man.

I met Thomas along Highway 17. His vintage Ford pickup was parked next to a hardware store.  On a small island of grass between two palm trees, he displayed the fruits of his labor.  He had some cypress knees with the bark still attached and others that had been stripped and polished.  Thomas had cypress knee lamps and cypress knee tables.  He had a full display of walking sticks and walking canes, many crafted of oak, sweet gum, dogwood, or tupelo, as well as a few from cypress,

Thomas is an Associate Pastor at a Holiness Church in McClellanville.  The following Sunday he was to preach about a third of the three-hour service.  The Lord who called him into the swamp also called him into the pulpit.  God speaks to him, he says, nearly every day. 

“Just look at these cypress knees,” he said, motioning toward a hundred or so spread out on the grass.  “You can see the hand of God in every one of them.  Each one is different.  I’ve seen cypress knees that look like the Lord kneeling in prayer or the Mother Mary.  I’ve seen cypress knees that look like angels.  Each one is different, and each one is a sermon.” 

On that hot Saturday at Pawley’s Island, I felt that I had been led to worship. The preacher was a man called Thomas.  The text was cypress knees.  The message was if you pay close attention, you’ll see a creative hand at work in the world around you, maybe in cypress knees, but especially in people like Thomas.

Kirk H. Neely
© June 2010

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