Posted by: floridanature | May 24, 2009

Rainfall Rebirths Natural Relics

One minute, we were on a peninsula that seemed to be doing its best to dry up. The next, we were in the midst of a real summer Florida rainfall—of the kind that used to distinguish this mythic slab of land wedged between the Atlantic and the Gulf.  And so our “seasons” arrived not like the traditional ones up north, but by the dramatic cycles of Wet and Dry.   SksToothSpringJPG

Winters were Dry, except for the occasional northeastern storm. Summers were Wet, drenched from the sea breezes that squalled up and moved inland. It made it easy, at least, to figure stuff out.  No need to accessorize yourself for climatic transformations. When the Wet season arrived, you bought a bunch of umbrellas—the cheap kind that would fold up real quick, and that didn’t bother you when you left them behind, as you always did.

But we’ve been working really hard to dry out our landscape over the last couple of decades. Up until the Recession, we were losing natural lands at the rate of 20 acres an hour to development. What this meant was that uplands that recharge springs, and wetlands were diced, sliced, and generally treated as if they had been put through a giant Vegamatic, of the kind Ronco used to peddle on late night TV (It slices, it dices, and it really, really works!).

Seepage spring

Seepage spring

This sort of wholesale drainage was creating mini-climatic zones that mimic what happens on a larger scale when deserts arise from fertile land: The loss of moisture—via the soil and the foliage and any flowing creek, marsh or swamp that had the misfortune to be nearby—meant Florida’s vital hydro cycle was interrupted. (Lots of science illustrated this, and author Cynthia Barnett was very clever in processing that science and helping us to better understand it in her wonderful book “Mirage.”)

Well, I was headed for a riff on water squandering there. But instead, what I most want to celebrate right now is what I see happening around me when the Florida I love regains a measure of its  moisture-driven self. Surely, five or six days of heavy rains level the playing field once more, reminding me of the historic eco-legacy that once defined this subtropical, three-sided island.

 100_5225I had planned to hike with a friend today, but we both realized the trails in the pine flatwoods where we were headed would be the first to flood. And so, in between the impressive squalls that move through with great horizontal sheets of rainfall with them, I instead headed out to my yard.  When I do, I begin to see big changes in little things. Emerson used to tell us that Nature and Books “belong” to those who “see” them. And so it is for these details of wonder, tiny miracles best appreciated by unplugging the MP3 headphones, forgetting about the laptop, and—this is a tough one—not even opening up a book. (I’m pretty sure the old Transcendentalist wasn’t talking about “seeing” books and nature at the same time.)

What’s left are those miraculous in-the-moment images, many of them straight out of a child’s imagination.  And unlike the intellect, which can ricochet random ideas and metaphors around your noggin, the senses absorb nature—or as essayist Edward Hoagland once said—they “predate” nature. In this way, they simply allow you to be.

100_5286For me, this takes a few moments, even here. I start by checking out a large clay pot in the side yard with a night-blooming cactus in it, a cluster of green-stemmed rain lilies at its base. Like the white stone bench nearby, I brought the plants from my old farm house on Sewell Road. The cactus started as a clipping from a much larger plant; the lilies grew from seeds I gathered nearby, from inside the old concrete culvert that once was a child’s little pool.

Bringing along pieces of a place I once cared for so deeply have made the transformation here easier to bear. So now, rain-enriched, the cactus has budded with the tight white blossoms that—by midnight—open to the moon and the stars. The day lilies have done the same, turning the base of the cactus into a bright garden of crimson, and in abundance I have never before seen.

100_5173Out back, where the former sterile field of St. Augustine has been turned into a “Wildlife Habitat”, I see the coonties—the little palm-fern throw-back that is actually a cycad—were finally sending up new fiddleheads after having gone dormant from the stress of transplanting a few months ago. The climbing morning glories in the pasture with relic grasses are white, and the spiderwort are bluish. The little garden is bursting with new life—the seed-grown basil, the gourds, the lemon balm and mint. The habaneros are making a new comeback with fresh white buds, and the chili peppers were long and green, a natural imitation of red chili pepper lights I’d strung a couple years ago in the Florida room. 100_5128

The magnolia, which also came here as a pup from my old house, was full of new shiny leaves, and the nearby lantana was already attracting zebra longwing butterflies. Over at the pond, the surface was alive with hyacinths (some in lavender bloom), pickerel weed (in purple blossoms), and papyrus palm. Gambusia, which a friend once brought back from the St. Johns, had multiplied from four or five to what seemed to be four or five dozen. The comet goldfish culls were realizing themselves as large fish, and a few new goldish fellows were darting about, descendents of an en-pond brood. When the rains first started last week, the night literally exploded with the sound of many happy amphibians, frogs and toads. When I move a bush of ball moss from the water,  I see it is full of the tiniest of tadpoles, barely bigger than fat little commas, and I quickly return the brood to their world.

100_5220On land, the anoles are darting about everywhere, in greater numbers than I’ve ever seen. Some are still puffing up their red chin pouches, while others are molting.  I notice they seem to like the tubes of bamboo I stick in the ground here and there, and are using them as little herp condos. Nearly everything seems enlivened by the deluge of rain, and it makes me wonder how Florida—which has lost well over half of its historic wetlands—must have once looked. Warm, wet, wildly diverse in plants and animals, this new land must have enchanted from the very first. And if its enchantment today is a relic of a more bountiful era, I’ll quietly give thanks that a portal opened—however briefly—to let me time travel to it. But after having stepped through so completely, I find myself reluctant to return.

100_5231

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