Mar/Apr 2003Priceless!by John E. Davis, photography by Phillip Jones

Trees - from them come the materials for this magazine, our homes and hundreds of items in between. We plant and cut them in cycles completed in as few as twenty years. Yet forests provide much more than material goods. They give us wild animals and plants, quiet spaces and perspective on our own place in this world. Like the sea and the mountains, truly ancient forests humble while giving hope. Congaree Swamp National Monument is considered such an ancient forest; the trees of Great Pee Dee River Heritage Preserve's nearly 2,800 acres, some might say, are not.

Biologists term both habitat types red river bottom forest, lying along and nourished by rivers stained brown-red with piedmont clay sediment. But unlike Congaree, Great Pee Dee River Heritage Preserve is not a virgin forest. The preserve's hardwoods have been harvested at least once, no doubt removing the best timber and leaving less marketable trees. Still, with the exception of four tracts in twenty-year-old pine plantations, Great Pee Dee's last timber harvests appear to have occurred more than fifty years ago.

True, fifty- to sixty-year-old trees are not unusual. However, large tracts of relatively intact, bottomland hardwood forests older than fifty years offer truly rare opportunities for preservation. In fact, this kind of ecosystem, distributed along rivers and streams in the central and southern United States, is among the most rapidly declining wetland type in our nation. In the Carolinas alone, some 30,000 acres of bottomland hardwoods were cut or drained annually from 1960 through the mid-1970s.

While its forest is still maturing, Great Pee Dee hosts many of the same species of plants and animals as does Congaree. Thus, Great Pee Dee River Heritage Preserve is precious, if for no other reason than its natural habitat. Throw in the wealth of evidence of this preserve's cultural history and you have a truly unique preserve.

To spend an afternoon wandering along the road winding its way from the cabin to the river on the Great Pee Dee River Heritage Preserve is to walk through what is, what once was, and what will be. My visit comes after several days of rain. Not to complain, because it has been welcome moisture. Watercourses and sloughs within the swamp, dried by drought, now flow and fill with new life. In a real sense, this forest has been given a similar blessing, a promise of protection under the state's heritage preserve system. With a few exceptions this is still a young forest. However, all who enter here should realize that Great Pee Dee is a Congaree Swamp National Monument in the making, and more.

This is a special place, a sacred place. Those who visit, whether to hunt and fish, to assist in archaeological or scientific study, or simply to wander and enjoy as I do today, are surrounded by traces of ancient cultures that once thrived here and remnants of the ancient giants that once towered over them all. You hear it in the chorus of tree frogs and the trilling notes of the Carolina wren that beckon you on. You sense it in the flitting of warblers and the stirring of wind through the oaks as the road winds its way along watercourses and over high ground, through stands of maturing hardwoods, tupelo and cypress sloughs, among canes and young pines to reach its namesake, the Great Pee Dee River.

You and I can enjoy the serenity and isolation of Great Pee Dee Heritage Preserve, but we will not see it as it will be. Nor will our children. But their children, their children's children and generations not yet dreamed of will walk beneath ancient giants here. Even some of the pines, planted not so long ago by man for timber, will one day tower as those of Congaree Swamp National Monument do now.

With the protection of Great Pee Dee, like Congaree, we have stopped for a moment and set aside something rare for the future. That knowledge gives deep pleasure.

Afternoons pass swiftly here. Light is failing. As I hasten my steps back toward the gate, a barred owl's call from the darkening swamp stops me.

"Who? Who cooks for you? Who cooks for y'all?"

"Not you, old bird," I sing out and, smiling, turn again toward a hustling, bustling world forgotten for most of this day. Such places can be assigned no less value than "Priceless!"


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