Posted by: floridanature | June 1, 2009

Awash on a Paleo-Dune: Higher Mammals Adrift in Time

The rains have slacked off enough to seduce me into believing it’s a good time for a long hike. Florida’s been very good at this sort of illusion for a long time, and I suppose that’s part of the fun anymore—figuring out what’s really in store out in the woods, on any given day.Kiosk.jpeg

I drive out to the Seminole Forest early and plan to meet my friend Bruce there by the trailhead kiosk. While I’m waiting, studying a trail map I can never quite figure, a very large man with a frame backpack loaded with overnight gear, marches  up with a walking stick, each stride almost the perfect imitation of the one that came before it. I wish him a hearty good morning, and he responds with a robotic “hel-lo”, sounding like one of those electronic voices you get when you’re trying to drag real information out of some faceless institution on the phone. Robo Voice then pivots and paces off down the trail with great purpose. I think one of the reasons I have avoided organized groups of hikers for so long is that I always fear being afflicted with some poor soul who, bereft of imagination, acts as if they’re in a magazine ad for an outdoor event.

Bruce soon arrives, as bedraggled as me, just day packs filled with snacks and water, and my lone compass, and off we go, onto a trail through a hardwood hammock. I usually drive in to the Blackwater Creek and either paddle there, or hunt for little cryptic springs that feed it along its run. Today, I figure we can take a trail most of the five or so miles in, and follow another for five or so miles back out, allowing a couple more miles for getting lost, like I often do. Bruce, a professor at a local college by day, is dependable and steady, but like me, determined not to let the tools of hiking or navigating overwhelm the joy and discovery of the experience itself.Trailsta.jpeg

The Florida Trail Association has blazed some new paths here since my last hike, and I’ve picked one that will loop through the edge of the pine flatwoods, and hopefully, allow  us to ascend east through the scrub and sandhills before we return to the cool hammocks. We stop at a little split in the trail, sign in at a registry inside a mailbox on a post, and head towards the low sun.  A light breezes lifts up off the land in the most amiable of ways, and cools us as we wander through the pine flatwoods under the vast Florida sky. A flatwoods is still the predominate natural system in Florida; it’s so devoid of relief that I can see miles to the edge of the horizon. Although I know a few other hikers are out here today in this 25,000 acre tract, it makes me feel good to see nothing but pines and saw palmettos, and at the edge, dark and mysterious hammocks that tumble down toward the Wekiva River. It’s times like this when I think, yea, you know, there’s still a chance.

flatwoos.jpegFlatwoods seem deceptively easy to figure. But they sit atop deeper layers of clay, and they seasonally flood—in a way, they mimic the illusion of large black mangroves down in the Glades, seeming to be great forests of dry land when, in fact, they are great clumps of leaves and prop roots sunk into the mud. At first, the trails are dry here, sand packed from the rains so that animal tracks appear every so often—the split hoof of a running deer, the three-pronged imprint of a large wading bird, the S-like curves of a snake. A large industrious ant hill commandeers the middle of the trail, and we stop to admire it, large red ants moving in and out with very important  ant stuff in their jaws. Jezz, I say, they don’t even get a day off for Sunday. Yea, says Bruce, gotta satisfy the big mamma.gopherTor.jpe

We go another mile, the sameness of the isolated pine and palmetto finally transcending itself, allowing a spare and elegant aesthetic, almost mystical in the way its simplicity hides a natural system that is far more complex than it seems. But few habitats are pure into themselves: Soon the flatwoods become scrubby, less wet, just a wee bit higher. Wild blueberry bushes appear in great knee-high  forests, some full of red berries just waiting for that perfect bear moment of ecstasy to be ripe and blue.  Wild rosemary, the sign of a healthy Florida scrub, appears, too, and I realize we are higher up, closer to the xeric  scrub than I realized.

After covering more ground, it’s clear we’ve descended a few tiny degrees  and the flatwoods are so wet that little creeks flow across the trail, tea-colored from the detritus that’s tinted them. I figure empheral reservoirs of wet prairies have brimmed over, sending these creeks coursing down to the hammocks and the river beyond. Finally, the path itself is full of water, and we clomp through the palmettos and gallberry along the higher banks.  This seems to work well for a while. And then ahead, we see what amounts to a large pond in the middle of the trail, so expansive that the light wind is rippling the surface with tiny waves.Bruce.jpeg

Bruce and I figure the options, realizing we’ve already exhausted most of them.  We decide to cross a slough of water at the base of the path, shooting for higher land, maybe getting around the pond at some juncture. As we do, the terrain suddenly changes, open but solid, clumps of stumps and roots from the last burn studding the ground, a couple gopher tortoise burrows and some prickly pear, a few with crepe-like yellow blossoms. The new rise brings us more scrub, a relic of a great dune that once stretched across the central ridge of Florida— a remnant that is one of the most endangered natural systems still left here.  The sand, quartz rendered into tiny grains by a Pleistocene ocean, is now as white as refined sugar.  And atop it, Chapman’s oak and saw palmetto and rosemary, sand pine and sand oak   —the same plants you’ll find on a coastal dune.  Except this dune hasn’t seen a sea for a good million years or more.

 

wild vanilla

wild vanilla

Plant diversity quickly diminishes, but the rare nature of the place makes up for it. What looks to be a large blue-tailed mole skink slides away between the wild rosemary;  dime-sized oak toads, not long from their tadpole origins, hop to safety. Up on a snag, an endemic scrub jay calls, dutiful sentinel warning his buds of this unexpected intrusion.  A gopher tortoise, its schutes as worn as a handmade monastery brick, moves slowly, never a need to rush, 200 million years of existence on its side. And these two upright mammals, new kids on the evolutionary block, stumbling across the surreality of this ancient seabottom, every clue possible to suggest a sacred antiquity.  If this Florida scrub is awe-inspiring for me, it is as inexplicable to my own brain as fire must have been to the first neo-human who stumbled on it, a concept beyond the imperfect authority of the human ego.

 

shiny blueberry

shiny blueberry

 

 

We stop under the shade of a longleaf pine, snack on muchies and drink water.  There is the sound of a redshouldered hawk in the distance; from overhead, Bruce sees a swallowtailed kite swooping in great elliptical orbits over its domain, its scissor-like tail seemingly ready to clasp itself around this exceedingly rare moment. We’ve been passing wild vanilla plants, and now that the sun is higher in the sky, the heat is sending out the scent, at once sweet and deeply hidden. On the way back, we will pass through a dwarf forest of sand pines, and the olfactory senses will be full to overflowing.  And it will be more than any mortal—numbed by the blunt trauma of our techno-heavy world—can ever hope to fully process. But we will try, smiling and inhaling, and understanding in ways that can hardly be described.

And by the time we reach the end of the trail, six hours later, we will know for sure we had the capacity to revel in the expansive freedom that nature, left to its own devices, can offer.

me & sand pine

me & sand pine

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