The Choctawhatchee River is in Ron and Kathryn’s backyard and an integral part of their lives. Most evenings they’re adrift in their boat sipping wine and watching the sun set over one of Kathryn’s favorite cypresses. Ron knows every bend and shoal along the river’s course, and has explored most of the tributaries and bayous over the years. So it is that Ron and Kathryn knew of a particularly giant cypress downstream, hidden back in the swamp off the main river. Some months ago, while visiting this tree with friends, there was speculation about the tree being hollow, and friend Nancy, looking for evidence, noticed a burl on the side of the tree’s base that was loose – and in fact, came off in her hands when she gave it a gentle tug, leaving a hole the size of a basketball. They peered into a dimly lit cavern inside the big tree.
It was to this hollow giant that Ron wanted to take us when John and I sat across from him at the Bruce Café in early March. Within a couple hours we were skimming down the mighty Choctawhatchee in Ron’s Carolina Skiff. And there it was – the grand tree dwarfing the surrounding swamp. After marveling at its size, we squinted into the hole Nancy had made. Looking up, I could see light at the top of the chimney-of-a-tree, its top having blown off in a former century. And looking down, the cavity floor was filled with cypress knees rising from the water. I knew I had to try to climb inside. This was not easy and took a few attempts before finding the right contortion to get in… and then I found myself, the first human - gingerly balanced atop the knees - in the sacred heart of this cypress.
Later, Ron measured the distance around the base of the tree: 42 feet! We spent the remainder of the day-into-dusk photographing and exploring the Big Tree, as Ron and Kathryn call it.
The next day, Ron snaked his boat through a creek a few inches wider than its beam into a small pond with another beautiful tree. This one was younger, but it gracefully leaned over the water, dripping with Spanish Moss, and crying out to be photographed. That evening, with a party (literally) of six, we re-visited the Leaner. Nancy brought the hors-d’oeuvres and wine, and John the 3 million candlepower Q-beam spot light. We had scouted an accessible spot at the far end of the pond from which we could see the Leaner. Ron dropped us ashore there just after sunset where a curious red-shouldered hawk flew in and landed a few feet away.
Ron and company returned to the middle of the pond near the tree. From there, he painted the Leaner with amber light while we shot a series of 30 second exposures. Ron’s local knowledge of the river and her treasures proved valuable again as we raced home in the dark to a feast prepared by Kathryn and a fire at riverside. The Choctaw doesn’t get any better than this.