Atlantic White Cedar (AWC), Chamaecyparis thyoides, is an obligate wetland tree that
forms dense, natural monocultures up and down the Atlantic Coast, reaching from
Maine to Florida, and west to Mississippi. Throughout this range, there are many, many
stories about AWC swamps but few of us have heard them. Stories lost first by Native
Americans who may have known of medicinal qualities, and enslaved peoples who
were sent into the swamps to harvest the prized wood. Stories hidden among foresters,
barrel and bucket artisans, shipbuilders, and others who have worked with AWC, but
whose stories too are lost when these folks retire. Scientists tell stories to each other in
writing, but these can lie dormant in unpublished conference proceedings and published
journal articles, awoken briefly from time to time by the few who can interpret the code
that is scientific language. An much AWC research preceded the Internet and these
texts are beyond its reach, inaccessible bound books and reports locked away and
gathering dust in an office, unshared with a decline and future risks.
The wood of AWC, known locally as Juniper, has been valued commercially due to its uniform growth, rot resistance, and light weight. AWC was cherished, a silent witness to characters of the colonial stage such as George Washington, William Byrd, Edmund Ruffin… and Peter Kalm, who sounded an alarm in 1748. Kalm feared that all the homes of New England must be rebuilt since AWC, widely used for shingles, was being harvested without replacement; and, since all roofing substitutes were heavier, existing walls would not support the weight. The young George Washington, among the earliest to claim private ownership of the Great Dismal Swamp, used enslaved labor to meet the need Kalm decried. Stories about one of the earliest extinction risks speak to us through the centuries, dimly, scarcely retold, as <1% of AWC forest acreage from that time remain. Dim too is the future. The forest fragments that remain are threatened by too little water where ditches drain the peaty soils. Other fragments that were too low to drain are now threatened by sea level rise and more intense coastal storms. In the US, we have an Endangered Species Act, but what hope is there for entire AWC ecosystem when no one seems to even know the story.
AWC typically grows in peat, or soils that have thick layers of organic matter, offering many ecosystem services. These include habitat for a variety of insects, birds, and mammals, carbon sequestration, improve water quality, and offer coastal storm buffering. And there is an endangered butterfly that requires AWC, the Hessel’s Hairstreak.
Every three years, a meeting of the loosely organized Atlantic White Cedar Alliance attracts 50 to 100 foresters, scientists and interested others. Old stories are dusted off, updated by the posing of new questions. Some questions are accompanied by answers, most aren’t. Sometimes a conference proceedings is assembled and stories thus scribed, but soon attendees retreat, rarely contacted by an email query, and the stories go back to bed. The goal of this website is to facilitate those conversations, provide a library for these stories including east access to literature and photos, capture relevant interviews in engaging ways, and retain interests with frequent updates. The site will link those who are thinking about and studying Atlantic White Cedar to share with each other, and to reach those who might come to care. We hope the website will allow us to be mindful of the past, plan for its future, and focus on AWC Now.