In The Bottom-Land: An Introduction to Congaree National Park and an Interview with John Emmett Cely

by Nathan Poole Issue: Fall 2016 Special Issue on Forests

My introduction to John Cely came after noticing a flyer that read “big tree hike.” At that time in my life, and without any real explanation, I had become deeply interested in trees, suddenly needing to know their names, and nicknames, and all their hideouts. And I especially wanted to see the great trees around me in the world, the “Champions” as they’re called. Seeing a flyer that read “big tree hike” was like getting a message from deep within the interior. I knew immediately that I had found my people.

A week later, on the morning of the hike, a group of about 10 of us gathered quietly by the National Park welcome center on the edge of the pine bluffs that overlook the floodplain. And while my people turned out to be mainly of the retired, fanny-pack-wearing variety, I wasn’t swayed. I listened to their small talk like a novice, in awe and nodding occasionally, hoping I was pulling it off. Someone in the party had hopes to see the National Champion Sweetgum, rated at 384 points. Another man, in bright white socks pulled up to just below his knees, was wondering if anyone knew whether or not the Cherrybark Oak was still standing after the last big storm. It was heaven.

It needs to be said here that Congaree is an enigmatic place. A National Park in the middle of what seems like flat and sandy South Carolina, a place you don’t expect to find a National Park. There’s a prison out there, a few manufacturing plants, some bail bond shacks. It’s not like pulling up to Grand Teton in other words. It also doesn’t look like much when you finally arrived, or even when you’re standing on the edge of the park, the way we were that morning. A typical southern pine forest that surrounds the welcome center, with some understory stuff as you get to the edge. Hollys, Ironwood, the occasional Pawpaw.

It isn’t until you get out there, down into the floodplain itself, that you realize why people come from all over the United States to see this place, why there are license plates from Montana and Arizona out in the parking lot. You start out walking into the forest and slowly, almost imperceptibly, you realize you’ve entered an extraordinary, prehistoric place. It opens up in a way that woods usually don’t, in a way that you’re not expecting. There are meadows full of Dwarf Palmetto and Switch Cane. The canopy is extremely high and the trees are huge and only get hugger as you move deeper in. There are ponds of water everyone—sloughs, guts, and lakes—on all sides, rimmed with Cypress knees, the water reflecting the high canopy above and the Spanish moss, those mysterious looking filaments that are the palest of all greens, paler than sea-foam, a grayish green that is a perfect color in the spring against the blood red seeds of the maples. It’s a real forest, in other words. An old growth forest, with the last virgin stands of cypress in the temperate world.

The group was excited to get in there again that morning, regardless of what we would see. We all had that in common. Me and my people and my park. And that’s another thing that makes Congaree unlike the other great parks I’ve visited in the United States. This forest feels like you possess it, as if you’ve discovered this forest on your own, simply by being willing to be patient with it, to give it some time to work on you.

That’s what John Cely has done with a large portion of his life, 40 years or more of it. He gave this place time. He was our guide that morning—like having the minotaur himself take you into the maze. We all knew him by name because he had created the map the park service uses to navigate the vast system of sloughs and guts, an ornate map so full of hand illustrated detail you can spend years using it and still not let your eyes pass over every inch of it. Cely was also known among us for his central role in the grass roots initiative that preserved this forest from getting cut down in the early 1970’s. It was thrilling to be out there with him, and not because he was a bit of a legend in the area, but more so because we all knew of his love for that place. He was smaller than I thought, and though I suspect he was in his fifties, he looked like he could walk circles around me. He hadn’t even brought a container of water with him. Just a pair of binoculars.

We walked all morning and saw some mighty trees. I especially remember a National Champion Loblolly Pine with its huge bark plates, the furrows between them as deep as your hand. I meet my people that afternoon, in a place I truly love, and John is one of them. A few years after that first walk I was lucky enough to get John to come by my house in Columbia, SC, and to talk a little more about this forest and some of his first experiences with it.

Nathan Poole: In your book on the Cowasee Basin, you mention getting lost in the summer of 65’ in the bottom-land forest for the large part of the day. Could you recall some of that experience? What were you looking for that day and how did you get lost?

John Emmett Cely: When I was a kid, I started keeping a little journal, and then when I got into birds at an early age—you know every good birder keeps a journal of what they see and where they go—so I wrote this whole thing down. I got the date and everything and I remember it like it was yesterday.

I went down to something called the “sawdust pile.” It was a public landing about 4 bends south of 601 in Calhoun county. It was somewhat of a primitive landing but it got a lot of use. It was dirt the whole way, at least a mile off of 267 down this rather bumpy, narrow road. I didn’t have a boat, but you could go stand there.

There’s a bluff on the west bank and you could stand on that bluff and see this huge flood plain out in front of you. You could see, on a clear day, 20 miles to the east. You know that place was just so fascinating, that bottomland, it looked like it went forever. So I said, man, I’ve got to see that up close.

So I went down there in July of 1965. I was just out of high school. And because this was a fairly popular landing, especially that time of year, you could get a lift. And my plan was to get a lift over there, and at the end of the day try to get a lift back. Pretty stupid actually. But a couple of fishermen took me to the other side and dropped me off early in the morning.

My birding buddy, Hayden Douglas and I, had been near there several weeks earlier. And there’s a fairly rare, uncommon warbler we have here called a Swainson’s Warbler, and we thought we’d seen one. They’re associated with cane breaks and bottom-land forest. And that was partly what I was going there for, to see if I could really get a good look at that bird.

But I’d have to tell these [fishermen] guys something. They’d say, “what are you doing over there?” “Oh, I’m just, I’m just looking around.” I couldn’t tell ‘em I was looking for birds because they really would have thought I was odd. Back then, you know. Anyway. I wandered around in there and walked all the way up to the confluence of the Wataree and the Congaree, where they form the Santee. Of course, the Santee is basically just the Congaree. You can barely tell those rivers apart from the bank. So I had walked up that far, that was about midday. I turned around, ate a can of sardines, even took a little nap on the river bank, and then walked back, but I didn’t walk far enough down. When I came out to where I thought this bluff and landing was, I thought I’d gone too far south, when actually I hadn’t walked far enough, so I turned around and started walking north again, and when I got back to the forks of the rivers I knew the mistake I’d made. And it was a lot easier walking not right on the river. It’s very thick by the water, there’s cane and it’s really thick. So I would walk a few hundred yards inland. But this time, in order to make sure I didn’t miss the bluff, I started walking right on the river bank. It was tough going. And some of those cane brakes you couldn’t hardly squeeze through. So places I was wading. And the sun was getting lower and lower, and I could just see myself spending the night in there. Well, finally I got down to the bluff and the landing. I was so exhausted I could barely raise my head up, and the bad news was that the fisherman must have cleared out earlier, because there were only a couple of cars left at the landing that I could see across the way. But a boat finally came up river and took me back across. I hailed them from the shoreline, and I don’t know what they must have thought. I was 17 at the time and I probably looked 15. “What are you doing?” I didn’t tell them I was looking for a warbler. You had to be a bit vague back then, as a budding naturalist. “I was just looking around.”

But that just wetted my appetite. I’ve been fascinated by river swamps ever since.

NP: What was your first/earliest memory of this kind of environment, before you hitched the boat ride that day?

JEC: Well, I think the thing that really caught my attention—and I’ve heard more than one person say this—when we were kids we’d go to the beach, and you’d have to go on the Sumter highway, across the bridge here. And you would go across three or four miles of that Wateree swamp. And I remember even as a kid being fascinated. Even on the hottest day of the year, it was cool, dark, and green in there. That was my earliest recollection of thinking, “I need to get in there and see that place someday.”

I’d play out in the woods when we lived in Forest Acres. This was in 1956. This was one block over from Crayton school, if that tells you anything. It was a dirt road in 1956 and there were just vacant lots everywhere, wood lots everywhere. My brothers and my friends and I spent just about every waking hour playing in the woods, building boats, forts, whatever you want to call them. We just had a grand time. My mother got so frustrated, you know, she would yell out the door for us to come to dinner or lunch or something, and we’d claim we couldn’t hear her, so she got this big dinner bell and mounted it on a post and she would get up there and ring that thing to call us—we couldn’t say we hadn’t heard that. But we just had a grand time playing in the woods, and so I became interested in the outdoors and became interested in birds, and one thing led to another.

My high school birding buddy and I, we used to drive around. You could get a license back then at 14. So we started visiting some of these places. It was called “bird watching” back then. But that’s how I got interested in this area.

The other thing that had a big impact on me was my older brother was a big hunter and fisherman. He introduced me to duck hunting, and he took me down to sparkleberry and that was my first introduction to that area. Over the years, I’ve just gotten to know a lot of these places. It really is like my backyard.

NP: How do you think that changes your thinking or general outlook on life, having places like these in your so called “backyard?”

JEC: Well, for one thing, it gave me a career. When I was in high school, my friends and I loved the outdoors, camping, fishing and we hunted a little bit. And several of us decided we wanted to make a career of that. Now, we weren’t sure how you did that. We’d heard through osmosis, somewhere along the line, that there were actually people that did. So we found out a little bit about forestry and wildlife management, then my senior year, when I started looking around, even though we hated Clemson—we grew up in a Carolina family—we started looking at the catalogs and one thing led to another. Clemson offered forestry and biology. They even offered a course in ornithology. And that pretty much did it. So that was how this place had the most immediate impact, but I think, you know, over years, it became a hobby as much as anything. You know I don’t hunt anymore. I got soft in my old age. But I still love to go to Sparkleberry. There’s no place quite like it. So as a hobby and a vocation, I think about it all the time. Even when I’m not knocking around in those places, I think about it a lot.

NP: What kind of work did you do with Department of Natural Resources. Was it related to Congaree then, or the Cowasee Basin?

JEC: I was in biology with DNR, working in the endangered species section, and got to work on birds like the Swallow-Tailed Kite, which is a state-listed endangered species, and the Red Cockaded Wood Pecker, which is a federally and state-listed species. And there was a whole suite of neo-tropical migrants. These are birds that nest up here in these bottom-lands, but they go to the tropics to spend the winter, and there’s been a lot of concern about their long term survival because so many of the populations have been declining. So basically, I just worked in wildlife and birds. I’ve been fortunate to somehow do what I set out to.

NP: You have a map of this area which is called “Cely’s Map” that has developed something of cult following. It’s as if there’s an informal club of Park Visitors who use that map. Why did you decided to create a map of this area? What was that decision and process like?

JEC: Well, I think it basically boils down to having to justify 40 years of knocking around in that place. Again, going back to “What are you doing?” Well, you know, I’m just looking.” Thoreau’s got a great quote about that. He said, if you go out into the woods and lay waste to them, you’re an esteemed citizen. But if you go to look around and enjoy it, you’re considered a loafer.

“If a man walks in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a spectulator, shearing off those woods and making the earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.”            

                         Thoreau, Henry David, Life without Principle. 1863.

It was probably in the mid-90’s, I just decided that there was really no good map for the park. There was lots of good aerial photography, but nothing really useful for finding your way around. There was a map a guy came out with of the Sparkleberry area in the 1950s that I had seen when I was in high school and I was fascinated by it. And I’ve always been interested in maps of any kind. So I just decided one day that I would do a map of the Congaree. I’d been knocking around in there for a long time, and I knew it pretty well.

I didn’t really have a sense of it being that useful. It was for me as much as it was for anyone. And one thing led to another, and the park really liked it. The best compliment is the fact that the park uses it. It’s been surprisingly popular. I came out with that map in 2001 and the park has probably sold around 1500 of them. And all the proceeds go to Friends of Congaree.

I didn’t have a gps at the time, I just had a compass. And there was some really good aerial and color infrared.  I blew up that big color infrared and then I got some plastic Mylar and put that over the map and traced the guts—there are no landmarks, just the guts. The only way to know that place is to learn the guts and waterways. So those are your landmarks. I traced off the river and where the sloughs were that show up well. And then on that big plastic Mylar, I got a light table and put thin plastic over the outline. Kind of tedious. But it was fun doing it. I enjoyed it. It took me on and off maybe a year, working in spurts.

NP: I admire the emphasis in the conclusion of your book that “working land” is just as important as wildlife preservations. This also seems like a part of the work you do with the Congaree Land Trust and the Cowasee Basin. Would you comment on that distinction between conservation and preservation and how it relates to private land ownership and “working land” like local farms.

JEC: Yeah, you know, I’m really from the John Muir school of conservation, more the tree-hugging tilt. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Gifford Pinchot. He started the US Forest Service, he was on the other end of the spectrum, a utilitarian guy: the greatest good for the greatest number. Let’s manage forest wisely. His idea was to use the forest, specifically products from the forest, which is fine. But my philosophy is that this country’s big enough for both.

You know, at a certain time, if somebody wanted to really insult you they would call you a preservationist. Because that conjures up, “Hands off. It’s wilderness. Let’s just let it alone.” But to me preservation is just a part of conservation. Conservation is the overarching, wise use of land, forests, and so on. But part of the conservation ethic can be preservation. Which is what we have in this country. We have huge national forests where they still cut trees, but we’ve also got all these parks. And a lot of the parks out west were carved out of US forest service land. So I don’t see any conflict between the two. There’s enough to go around for all different kinds of use.

But there’s also something in between. You’ve heard of Aldo Leopold. He is one of the most gifted conservation writers, and he really articulates this preservation/conservation dynamic. He was a hunter. He worked for the forest service. He cut trees. Worked in a tree lab. But he saw the big pictures and he believed in wilderness. The largest wilderness in the United States is the Gila national forest, and it’s also called the Aldo Leopold Wilderness. He was stationed in the early 1900’s in New Mexico. It’s an epiphany to read his book. He died at 60, 70 years ago. But nobody has ever said it better.

Between the wilderness and the urban, we have these so called working landscapes. The pastoral countryside. Farm land and timber land. That’s where we get most of what sustains and nourishes us. And it’s very important, especially in the Congaree Land Trust, that we emphasize the importance of those lands. And that those lands stay like that. When they start building houses and Walmarts and centers, that’s just taking that much more land out of production. Sometimes we might have issues with the way farming or forestry is done. But if you look at what that land could be, if it’s not being used for those things, it could be far, far worse.

Property placed in the Congaree land Trust will always be in a rural, pastoral state. It won’t be sprouting houses. And people interested in conservation realize that the biggest threat to working land is urban sprawl and development, and all the highways and everything that goes with it.

NP: It’s interesting the way these bottom-land forests, or swamps, as some people incorrectly refer to them, seem to attract what we might call “outsiders,” people like Harry Hampton, who was picked on by his sister for being a bit of an eccentric. These are the kind of people who like to just “walk around” as you say, and “see what’s out there” and though that impulse might be normal, the behavior isn’t always seen as normal.   

You say you saw this kind of landscape for the first time going over the Wateree bridge, and you thought it looked interesting, and wanted to explore it. I think most people would have the opposite reaction, and be a little spooked by it, and not want to be caught dead out there. They especially wouldn’t feel like wandering around in it all day by themselves.

JEC: Yeah, like I say, I think these bottom-land hardwood forests are some of the greatest forests in the temperate world in terms of their overall bio diversity and their huge biological function and so forth. But for so many people, they’re just a swamp. Why would you want to protect a swamp?

When they went from Congaree Swamp National Monument to Congaree National Park, they dropped the swamp deliberately because of the connotation. And the director, the superintendent, said we need to get “swamp” out of this. To the average public, the word “swamp” scares them off. They don’t understand why you would even go there, much less try and protect it.

But when you start seeing and understanding that place and the wildlife and the water and the soil and the trees and the moss and the vines, it’s completely overwhelming. And there’s no comparison to a mountain forest. Now I love the mountains, the views, and there’s a lot of diversity in the mountains, but it’s just not the same. The bottom-lands have a mystery in them. They really do. When you walk through there, you feel like you’re in a special place. It’s hard to put your finger on it.

Nathan Poole

John Emmett Cely is a retired biologist from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and the former Land Protection Director for the Congaree Land Trust. He has spent more than forty years exploring the old growth temperate forests of South Carolina, an area now called the Cowasee Basin, home to Congaree National Park.