Out of the early morning mist he materialized, for all the world like a phantom of folklore. As my eyes adjusted to the sight, the feathered edges became more distinct, the shadows lightened and the silhouette of a man stood before me. He was some distance off yet, but my eyes, sharpened by instinct, took in the fedora, the slightly stooped stance, the hooked nose and what appeared to be a shotgun slung over his left shoulder.
It was early morning in the Congaree Swamp after a long night of rain so the fog was dense, vision was uncertain, and the sounds of the swamp were alive with the hollowness that fog and cypress trees produce. As I took in the sight, I could hear the echoed cry of a whippoorwill in the distance and the soft mysterious strains of a five string banjo came to my mind.
As the distance closed between us, I first noticed the smile, followed by the laughing eyes. It would appear that my reaction was a bit amusing to this stranger. On his head was a hat more befitting a banker than phantom and instead of Browning pump action 12 gauge, on his shoulder rested a tripod with a Nikon D3 attached.
As it turns out, he wasn’t amused by my reaction at all; but was himself startled almost to the point of panic by the bearded apparition standing before him.
“Nobody takes this trail,” he said, “You ‘bout scared me to death!”
I told him that the feeling was mutual, we both laughed at ourselves, and then we fell to talking.
He was a really nice fella, somewhere around sixty, as wiry as they come, with a winning gapped toothed smile and a hair trigger laugh. He told me that he has lived in and around the swamp all of his life and that he truly loves the place. He loves it to point of wanting to share it with everyone, and on this particular morning, I was blessed to be the benefactor of his desire and knowledge.
As always I had my Nikon strapped to my chest and a tripod hanging from my pack, and being kindred spirits, he said that he had to show me something.
“Have you ever heard of a ‘walking maple’?” He asked.
I answered in the negative and he then exclaimed that just a short half of a mile off the trail was the finest example of a ‘walking maple’ in the entire South. So off we went, slogging through the mud and the black water until we came to little break in the woods where a quiet pond stood. My guide nodded toward a beaver lodge in the distance to whom the pond owes its existence, and then he motioned over the water drawing my attention to the far shore.
Standing on the shore, well actually standing above the shore, was the ‘walking maple.” A tree on stilts is the best way to describe it. It appears that from time to time an old cypress tree will die and snap off a few feet above the ground leaving a stump. In the course of time a maple seed with come to rest on the stump and sprout. As the maple grows it first seeks nutrition from the old stump but soon the old wood is exhausted and offers no succor to the maple. Seeking solace elsewhere the maple extends it roots over the edge and down the side of the old cypress stump and eventually finds rest and consolation in the rich soil of the swamp. As the maple continues to grow, the now exhausted cypress stump rots away but it does so gradually enough to afford the maple time to strengthen its roots to the point of withstanding its own weight. What is left is a maple tree standing a few feet off of the ground supported by nothing more than it’s roots. It is an interesting sight to be sure; for the maple has no tap root to speak of, and in turn while its roots fan out around the now suspended tree, the center, beneath the tree, remains vacant.
It is a startling sight. It does indeed look like the tree is about to take a leisurely stroll.
My companion was beside himself as I marveled at this new discovery. He told me with a gleam in his eye that the old timers believed that these trees would walk around at night guided by the light of the swamp gas and get into all sorts of mischief.
With that he said,
“I only live a couple of miles from here and I need to head home. Just go back the way we came and you’ll hit the trail in time.”
He then shook my hand, and with a smile and a nod he disappeared into the mist once again. The banjo music slowly faded and the whippoorwill was alone once again, left to play his melancholy tune.
Why do I tell this story? Well, because I see of a couple of quick lessons in it. First of all life is an adventure. Overcoming your fears and venturing out through the swamp or out for Christ has its rewards.
Secondly, like the ‘walking maple’ we as Christians start out relying upon others for our spiritual sustenance: our parents, our Sunday school teachers, our pastors and the like. In time, however, others will come to rely upon us. We had best be prepared to pass the spiritual DNA down to future generations, or they will be weaker as a result of our neglect. So study and learn the Word of God, pray to Christ for strength and wisdom and an increasing faith, and be there for those who follow.