A requiem for Big Mama

Published 9:29 pm Tuesday, November 21, 2017

“This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,/ Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,/ Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic…”

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

By Susan and Biff Andrews


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It saddens us to write that the community of naturalists and forest-loving folks across the state are mourning the death of their “Mama.”

Affectionately known as “Big Mama,” she has “stood like the Druids of eld” for a minimum of 1,000 years, and she could quite possibly go back as far as the time of Christ, according to some estimates.

She lived and reigned as the queen of the trees in a “lost forest” near Cypress Bridge in Southampton County, quite literally the forest primeval. She was the largest tree in the state of Virginia and is now down on her side among the soggy snags and tangles of the swamp below.

It is the way of things in nature, but no less a sad passing for those who knew her.

Big Mama was a full-figured woman with a circumference above her massive buttress (measured at the height of 4.5 feet) of 35 feet, 6 inches around. Her height was 123 feet, with branches spread like pennants, tattered and sparse, on the mast of some ancient vessel that had weathered centuries of gales.

She held her head high in the wind, with her leaves blowing like long thinning hair, loose around her shoulders, a defiant grand lady.

Something made her sick. Boring bugs, pecking birds — nobody knows what happened — and she was weeping sap. Big Mama died about five years ago, but even in death, as long as this bald cypress (taxodium distichum) stood tall, she was the queen of the trees in Virginia.

One can only imagine the sound of this majestic tree falling in the woods. One great thunderous crash, a voice “sad and prophetic” in a shuddering swamp.

There is a similar tree in South Carolina that is six feet smaller in circumference that was cored. Its rings showed that it was 1,700 years old. Trees here in Virginia are slower growing. Big Mama couldn’t be cored to determine exact age, because she was hollow inside.

The fact that many of the trees in the “lost forest” are hollow has been a saving grace. The trees probably were not logged, because many were hollow, rendering them worthless to the loggers who cleared the bald cypress swamps during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

According to the book “Remarkable Trees of Virginia,” by Nancy Ross Hugo and Jeff Kirwan, notable trees such as Big Mama and the many state champion trees that reside in this forest are considered “the Redwoods of the East” because of their size and age. These trees are a living history that “represents remnants of the bald cypress and water tupelo forests that once covered 40 million acres in the Southern U.S.”

According to this remarkable book, at the time of the discovery of Big Mama, only about 12,000 uncut acres remained.

Big Mama and the “lost forest” were discovered by Suffolk resident Byron Carmean, a local Master Naturalist and “Big Tree Hunter.” He and many other naturalists and scientists are working tirelessly along with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation Natural Heritage Program to bring the importance of these remarkable trees to our attention.

They stress the necessity of protecting these magnificent trees and the sensitive areas in which reside rare and marvelous woodland plants so that future generations will be able to appreciate the forest primeval.

Requiescat in Pace, Big Mama.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at b.andrews22@live.com.