Geography class convenes inside tree

the biggest cypress

Cleveland, Mississippi — A decline in state funding has put university classroom space at a premium. Delta State professor of geography Mark Bonta recently decided to relocate one of his classes to the Sky Lake Wildlife Management Area, where a hollow baldcypress tree over 46 feet in circumference easily accommodates himself and the seven students. “We could fit as many as 15 in there,” he said, “but enrollments are down.”

Although the relocation deprives the students of access to the internet, Dr. Bonta said that learning to navigate the swamp forest and inhabit a tree that is probably more than 1500 years old makes up for the temporary loss of Twitter, Facebook, and Hot or Not. “Many of my students admit they’d never set foot in a forest before, even if they’ve lived in the Delta all their lives,” he said. “The first time they heard the wind blowing in the treetops, it took them a while to figure out what the heck was making that rattling noise,” he said.

The students aren’t the only ones learning something new. Though he grew up in the woods, Bonta admitted he’d never been in a southern swamp forest during high winds before. “It turns out that under the right conditions, baldcypress trees can produce an eerily accurate imitation of the double-knock call of the ivory-billed woodpecker,” he said. It’s uncertain what affect this discovery will have on the ongoing search for ivory-billed woodpeckers, which relies heavily on remote recording devices in baldcypress swamps. Bonta indicated that he would incorporate the insight into his own research.

The tree serving as a temporary classroom space is the current Mississippi state champion, according to USDA Research Forester Don C. Bragg in a message to the Eastern Native Tree Society. According to, Bonta’s class is “an easy A” where “a lot of the learning [is] left to the student. His lectures [are] basically outlines with no filler.”

“That hollow tree’s a little like Dr. Bonta,” said one of the students, who requested anonymity pending the assignment of final grades for the semester. “Old and bald.”

Bonta said he hoped this experience would inculcate a life-long interest in nature. The student agreed that this had been the case. “As soon as classes are over, me and my buddies are gonna sneak back in there with a keg of beer and party our asses off,” he said.

For more on the Sky Lake cypresses, see Festival of the Trees 29: Bring Out Your Dead.

Don’t forget to submit tree- and forest-related links to Mary at A Neotropical Savanna — panamaplants [at] gmail [dot] com — for inclusion in the next edition of the Festival. The deadline is November 29.

Festival of the Trees 29: Bring out your dead

Sky Lake WMA, Mississippi

Welcome to the Halloween/Samhain/Day of the Dead edition of the Festival of the Trees! No forest is more full of the dead — or more teeming with life — than an old-growth forest, and what could be spookier than a swamp? So for illustrations this time I’m using some photos my brother Mark Bonta took in his adopted state of Mississippi last spring, on a visit to the Sky Lake Wildlife Management Area. It’s not a so-called virgin or primary forest, since some trees were cut there a century ago, but the biggest and oldest trees were left because they were hollow. Mark says the preserve contains hundreds of giant baldcypress trees with a typical diameter at breast height of 10 feet, as well as the state — and possibly national — champion baldcypress, which is considerably larger than the “average” specimens in these pictures. The best time to visit is in fall, when woods are no longer flooded. Continue reading “Festival of the Trees 29: Bring out your dead”