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June 3, 2017

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

When I first heard the riddle, my Aunt Gladys Hutson Jowers came to mind. She lived with her husband and eight children in a cabin on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp. The descriptive riddle would have fit Aunt Gladys in some ways. She was a slightly balding, thin woman with knobby knees who lived in the swamp.  Her hair loss probably came from raising those children. Maybe it was the frequent visits by alligators that 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’ close neighbors, the bald cypress tree.

The South Georgia swamp behind Aunt Gladys’ 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. The tree is called bald because, though a conifer, its leaves are shed in the fall. 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. Products made from cypress include coffins, acid tanks, docks, pilings, poles, and railroad ties.

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 covered in water.  They also give balance to the tall trees that might topple over under their own weight in the soggy soil.

Though the trees grow throughout the deep South, 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.

I have three cypress knees in my backyard garden in the Upstate of South Carolina. I suppose that having the unusual root formation in a Piedmont garden is odd. We might say these are dislocated knees, a painful thought for anyone with aching joints. For me these three cypress knees have devotional significance.

First, there is a Biblical connection.

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.

There is another Biblical connection that usually goes unnoticed. The King James Translation 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)

So the most famous boat in the Bible, Noah’s Ark, was made from cypress.

In the second place, there is a family connection.

My grandmothers were reared on Lowcountry plantations. Aunt Gladys’ home in the Okefenokee put her in a familiar environment. Though the Upstate has long been my home, the cypress knees bespeak a connection that stretches below the fall line.

My family and I have been 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 had large hands, callused from years of hard work.  His skin, the color of ebony, glistened in the heat and humidity of the Lowcountry like wood with a coat of high gloss varnish.  His voice was quiet and gentle, and he spoke in reverent tones.

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

Between McClellanville and Georgetown, along Highway 17, Thomas was known as the Cypress Knee Man.  Several days a week, Thomas put on a pair of high water boots and waded 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.”

I met Thomas along Highway 17 at Pawleys Island. 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,

At that time Thomas was 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.

I purchased the three cypress knees in my garden from Thomas.

These dislocated knobby knees are a reminder of my own aching joints. Any serious gardener knows that a primary posture in this endeavor is kneeling. Think about the simple act of kneeling. No wonder so many garden catalogues advertise kneeling pads or low carts suitable of sitting. I have appropriated an old Furman University stadium cushion for the purpose.

Habitual kneeling can make our knees calloused or cause them to pop and creak when we rise from our work. But kneeling is the most typical posture for a gardener.

High on my potting bench I have a small figure of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He is kneeling, making the most important decision of his life. “Not my will but Thine.”


To be reminded of Jesus kneeling in the garden somehow sanctifies my own bent posture. Kneeling to weed or kneeling to plant is an invitation. While down on my knees, I might as well use it as an opportunity to pray.

And I do.

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