He is like a tree planted by streams of water. (Psalm 1:3)
For several years, I served as the chaplain at Lake Cumberland State Boys Camp, an institution for juvenile delinquents near Monticello, Kentucky. The recent devastating floods in Eastern Kentucky hit close to home for me. The suffering and heartache of the good people of Appalachia remind me of the biblical story of Noah.
The Ark Encounter is a theme park in Williamston, Kentucky. In an ironic twist, the owners of the Ark Encounter have filed a claim with their insurance company after flood and storm damage. The biblical ark may have been able to withstand forty days and forty nights of flooding. When rains drenched the area of Northern Kentucky, the Ark Encounter property did not fare nearly as well as Noah’s original construction
The biblical account of the Deluge (Genesis 6:11–9:19) presents Noah as the hero of the Flood story. Noah is the patriarch who, because of his devotion and obedience, was chosen by God to reestablish the human race after his wicked contemporaries had perished in the Flood. Because he was a righteous man, Noah “found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Genesis 6:8). God gave Noah divine warning of the impending disaster and made a covenant with him, promising to save him and his family. Noah was instructed to build an ark, and according to this narrative, the entire surviving human race descended from Noah’s three sons and their wives.
The theological meaning of the Flood is revealed following Noah’s survival. After safely landing on Mount Ararat, Noah built an altar on which he offered sacrifices to God. God made a covenant and set a rainbow as a visible sign in the sky. God also renewed his intention given at Creation. Humanity is charged with the stewardship of the earth and the created order. James Baldwin summarized the covenant promise.
God gave Noah a rainbow sign.
No more water, the fire next time.
Now, to shift gears, I present a riddle. Stay with me, please.
Which resident of the Lowcountry is tall, bald, and has knobby knees?
When I first heard the riddle, my Aunt Gladys came to mind. She lived with her husband, Cecil Youngblood, and a passel of children in a humble abode on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp.
Gladys’ thinning gray hair probably came from raising those children. Maybe it was the frequent visits by alligators who crawled out of the swamp into her backyard, enticed by her free-range chickens. Cecil killed the gators and sold their hides for extra grocery money.
You can probably think of several acquaintances who fit the riddle’s description. But the correct answer is not a person at all. One of Aunt Gladys’ close neighbors was the bald cypress tree.
The Good Book says that on the third day of Creation, the Almighty created all the plants and trees, everything that bears fruit with seeds. Among these was the bald cypress tree, a Lowcountry native with knobby knees.
The South Georgia swamp behind Aunt Gladys’ home was Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Before that conservation effort in 1937, extensive logging operations had seriously depleted the boggy forest of cypress trees.
The coastal plain of the southeast is heavily populated with cypress trees. The bald cypress is closely related to the sequoias of California. This interesting evergreen grows best in the rich, wet soil along riverbanks, on the margin of wetlands, or in the middle of swamps. It can grow to a great age and large size, sometimes 150 feet high and 17 feet in diameter. Its durable wood is often called the wood eternal.
Cypress lumber resists insects and chemical corrosion as well as decay. It has a fragrance resembling that of cedar. It is a close-grained yellow or reddish wood, so resinous that it resists rotting even after prolonged submersion in water. Cypress products include coffins, acid tanks, docks, pilings, poles, and railroad ties.
Numerous interpretations of Noah’s Ark have been proposed, and a few have been built. Most were intended to be replicas, as close as possible to the Biblical Ark. The Biblical description of the ark is brief, beyond the basic measures of length, height, and width, and the exact design of any replica must be a matter of conjecture. Some imagine the ark as simply a wooden box with rectangular sides. Other reconstructions give it a rounded bow and stern.
The dimensions of Noah’s ark in Genesis, chapter 6, are given in cubits as 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high. An Ark replica would have to be about 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet tall to be considered full-scale.
When my brother Bob was still running the lumber yard, I wrote these dimensions on an index card. I handed it to Bob and asked him to figure out how much lumber would be needed for the building project without telling him where I got the figures.
After doing some quick calculations, Bob asked, “Kirk, what is this thing?”
I replied, “It’s a project I have been reading about.”
“This is a mighty big building! For me to supply the lumber, I’d have to bring eighteen flatbed trucks on the yard or eight full-size boxcars in here by rail.”
“It’s not a building,” I said. “Those are the dimensions of Noah’s ark straight from the Bible.”
We were both astounded.
The measurements of the Titanic were 850 feet x 92 feet x 64 feet. That is over five million cubic feet. According to Genesis, the ark was about one and a half million cubic feet.
Ark Encounter theme park, located on a hill in Grant County, Northern Kentucky, is 510 ft long. Johan’s Ark in Dordrecht, Netherlands, is 450 feet long and carried on a platform made up of 25 barges. It is the only full-scale Ark replica that is floating and mobile.
The King James Translation of the Bible reports that God told Noah to build the ark of gopher wood. The New International Version translates the text, “Make an ark of cypress wood.” (Genesis 6:14)
The massive trunk of the stately cypress tree tapers upward from its wide, flaring base, where roots entangle to form supporting buttresses. The roots of cypress trees form knees that protrude above the surface of the water. Scientists believe these knobs provide aeration for the roots that are otherwise entirely submerged in water. They also balance the tall trees that might topple under their weight in the soggy soil.
The tree is called bald because, though a conifer, its leaves are shed in the fall. The largest remaining old-growth stand of bald cypress is at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, near Naples, Florida. Some of those trees are around 500 years of age.
For more than thirty years, my family and I were privileged to spend a week at Pawley’s Island each summer. One hot Saturday while on vacation there, I met Thomas, a big man, standing tall and stately like a cypress tree. He had large hands, callused from years of hard work. His skin, the color of ebony, glistened in the heat and humidity of the Lowcountry like wood with a coat of high gloss varnish. His voice was quiet and gentle, and he spoke in reverent tones with a deep Gullah accent.
Thomas began his life on a farm. Now an elderly gentleman, he still does some farming. “But,” he said, “years ago, the Lord called me into the swamp and showed me the beauty of cypress knees.”
Several days a week, Thomas puts on a pair of high water boots and wades into the swamp, chainsaw in hand, to harvest these unusual root formations. “I cut them above the water line,” he said. “That way, the trees won’t die. They just make more knees.” Between McClellanville and Georgetown, Thomas is known as the Cypress Knee Man.
I met Thomas along Highway 17. His vintage Ford pickup was parked next to a hardware store. He displayed the fruits of his labor on a small island of grass between two palm trees. He had some cypress knees with the bark still attached and others that had been stripped and polished. Thomas had cypress knee lamps and cypress knee tables. He had a full display of walking sticks and walking canes. Many were crafted from oak, sweet gum, dogwood, or tupelo, as well as a few from cypress,
Thomas is an Associate Pastor at a Holiness Church in McClellanville. The following Sunday, he was to preach about a third of the three-hour service. The Lord who called him into the swamp also called him into the pulpit. God speaks to him, he says, nearly every day.
“Just look at these cypress knees,” he said, motioning toward a hundred or so spread out on the grass. “You can see the hand of God in every one of them. Each one is different. I’ve seen cypress knees that look like the Lord kneeling in prayer or the Mother Mary holding baby Jesus. I’ve seen cypress knees that look like angels. Each one is different, and each one is a sermon.”
On that hot Saturday at Pawley’s Island, I felt that I had been led to worship. The preacher was a man called Thomas. The text was cypress knees. The message was if you pay close attention, you’ll see the creative hand of God at work in the world around you, maybe in cypress knees, but especially in people like Thomas.
The scripture says, “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.”
The same could be said of the Cypress Knee Man.
Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.
He can be reached at email@example.com.
Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please know that I respect your freedom to choose agencies that are meaningful to you. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please donate, as you are able, to Noble Tree Foundation, 424 E Kennedy Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29302.