Congaree National Park

Cypress knees poke up aloe the Cedar Creek water line (NPS/Victoria Stauffenber)
Cypress knees poke up aloe the Cedar Creek water line (NPS/Victoria Stauffenber)

Congaree National Park

– 2003 –
South Carolina


And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation.

— 2 Peter: 19-20 (English Standard Version)

Even though it’s not far from population centers and interstate highways, Congaree National Park is one of America’s lesser-visited national parks. Perhaps because it’s perceived as swampland. Even though the park bore the name “Congaree Swamp” before it became a national park, swamp is a misnomer. It's not swampland — it’s nutrient-rich floodplain, replenished by the Congaree and Wateree rivers. That rich soil, charmingly named Dorovan muck, sustains the largest surviving tract of old-growth bottomland hardwoods in the United States.

Congaree asks more of a visitor than other national parks because it’s better seen from a canoe afloat on its namesake river, which has meandered its way several miles south of the park’s core. It’s one of the few national parks that offers a seasonal biological spectacle: the park is best known for the show orchestrated each spring by lightning bugs pulsing their flicker of greenish bioluminescence in unison in the hour after dusk.

The visitors who make the out-of-the-way trek in central South Carolina encounter a UNESCO biosphere preserve and wilderness area known for outstanding birdwatching. Most will experience Congaree through its 2.4-mile boardwalk through a forest of bald cypresses, pyramid-based tupelos, towering loblolly pines, palmettos, and more, including some of the state’s largest known trees of several species. Which tree is where, though, is all about location: Even an inch’s change in the land’s elevation determines which plant is best suited to take root.

The bald cypresses are easy to spot thanks to their knees, woody knobs rising from the black soil. If you didn’t know better, you could imagine trolls or gnomes living in a city of knees stretching as far as you can see in the shaded woods. The purpose of those knees isn’t clear, but they are believed to provide extra support for the cypress trees when the floods come or a hurricane blows in from the ocean seventy miles southeast as the Carolina wren flies. Those bald cypresses are tough trees. They can live to be a thousand years old, but when they’re felled and become lumber, bald cypress wood can be virtually intact a century later. The tough wood served as canoes for the Congaree and Catawba tribes, and its use in construction thinned out the forests in the late 1800s.

Even in the noonday sunlight, the Congaree woods can seem haunted. Deep in the forest, surrounded by thousands of trees, you can hear voices echoing off the hardwoods yet see no sign of other humans. If you didn’t know better, it could be a bit unnerving.

Driving through the countryside surrounding Congaree renders voices of its own, especially at the right time of year when fields are blanketed in knee-high white cotton. We can imagine the enslaved people forced to do the backbreaking work of harvesting cotton or risking their lives to flee slavery. Confessing our historical sins and acknowledging the systemic racism that descended from slavery and remains an intrinsic part of American culture to this day is part of the uncomfortable but necessary work we must do ourselves in the 21st Century.

Part of underdoing slavery’s legacy is hearing the stories of those who have been oppressed by systemic racism. We can quote leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, the suffragettes, the LGBTQIA+ community, union organizers, and more, but that’s just scratching the surface. There are always more stories to hear, more lessons to learn, more ways to be an ally in the ongoing movement for equality and justice. Listening to those voices, whether echoing off the steps of a state capitol building during a rally or in the pages of a book, is a confession that we need to do better, that we need to understand the truth and to understand what we need to do next.

How do you find the stories of the marginalized in our society? How do you share those stories with others? What stories do you need to hear more of?