Posted by: floridanature | June 5, 2009

A Landscape That Remembers

“When a traveler asked Wordsworth’s servant to show him her master’s study, she answered, ‘Here is his library, but his study is out of doors…’” – Walking, Henry David Thoreau.


The forecast was for rain  later today, so I got some work out of the way early-on, and headed for the woods.  The plan was an hour in and maybe an hour back out, no more than five or so miles, but I never figure in the dawdling that is so integral to sauntering.  100_5332

The trail is an easy one: It splits into a little mile loop through the longleaf to the west, and to the east, splays off on a series of unmapped firebreak roads, back deep into an impressive tangle of palmetto and pine. The later is always my choice because, from these roads, smaller spurs will take you away into hammocks, one leading down to the edge of the Wekiva. Another, if you follow it long enough, will put you back closer to the edge of the St. Johns, open prairie finally giving way to a canopy of oak and bald cypress, gnarly knees like little goblins back in the swamp. 

It’s just me today; a few years ago, Shep would have joined me, his boundless sheltie enthusiasm as unbridled as Bartram’s own 18th century expression of the wonders that La Florida would gift to our souls. The direction is easy, no compass needed, a trail I have walked before with friends and by myself.  The beginning takes me beyond a deep sinkhole, usually empty to its steep bottom when dry. I poke back through the myrtle and sweetgum to see where it is after a few weeks of heavy rainfall—as if it’s a giant rain gauge funneling down into the terrain. Today, it’s nearly two-thirds full, a good 20 feet or so inundated, duck weed floating on the surface and a small heron nagging at the edges. 100_5333-0009

The dirt road I walk is as easy as it will ever get, packed down by the rain and the tire treads of a park service vehicle of some sort.  At trail side, the tiny white morning glory (creeping morning-glory) begins to appear, as does the lizard tail, the name of the later more fully realized now in its own tint of pale white. A tiny pea-like orange bud I can’t identify pops out of the understory here and there, and then so do scads of what I take to be narrow-leaved sabatia, a five-lobbed little wildflower that revels in the moisture of the wet pinelands. It’s a flatwoods here, so everything seems to be in place, little ecological lesson of plants and landscape ready for the listening.100_5336

As the last of the hammocks fade away, I look to the west for the bald eagle nest I know will be near the top of a longleaf, and am comforted as always, when I see it there.  It’s always exciting to see a ma or pa eagle about; but,  just knowing the nest is well maintained is enough for now.  The fragrance of pine and wild soggy prairie is replaced by a strong odor of burnt plants. As I round the next bend, I see the charred remnants of a prescribed burn, the thick stalks of the saw palmettos looking like the arms of some prehistoric animal. I survey the burn and see scores of white sand piles—each marking the pitched-up earth from gopher tortoise burrows. Without the magic of the burn, all I would see would be a vast unyielding field of green.

100_5337I take a path that I know will lead me to a slough just behind the main branch of the lower Wekiva. In other hikes here, I have always been able to find a downed tree that will let me ford the little bayou. But today is different: The water is wide and deep, only a shoal of white sand from an erosional creek interrupting the blur of duckweed that sits atop the mire. I carefully pick my way along the steep banks, looking for  where I know a mama gator usually keeps her brood, but today, nothing. Farther along on the shore, I see the distinctive bleached white snail shell (Viviparious sp.) that makes up most Native American midden mounds along the larger St. Johns. It vaguely occurs to me that the Indians who once lived here would be cheered by the strong new flow of water, cheered by the animals that would use it, by the way it would open up old creeks and branches long closed by the drought. I won’t be able to make it across to the mainstem bank of the Wekiva today, but that’s alright.

100_5335-0005I turn to go, fascinated by the way the heavy rainfall has inscribed itself in the soft earth, creating a gulley to the slough. Small isolated puddles of tannin lay here and there, tiny rivers ponds  with the red-brown blood that always leaks from the swamp. In places, it seems the white sand has not just eroded, but has actually melted, flowing layers of soil caught just for now in a freeze frame of time, perhaps to become sedimentary rock a millennia from now.

Walking from the gridlock of trees, I feel the first drops of the day’s rain. I am sweating now, and it feels good on my skin. Other than a deer track here and there, the only imprint on the packed sand is the one I left coming in; and on the way back out, I try my best to retrace those incoming steps.

100_5356-0002I think long about those who have walked this trail with me before—all good-hearted women and men. And one little dog who could never get enough of the woods, and the scent it left for him. The visceral knowledge of having been with them all is redemptive, for I have led most of them here, over time.  I think fondly of each of them, think of how fully and how different they were able to respond to the mystery of this Florida landscape. There are stories that remain here, good ones, too, and I am grateful for that.

100_5341Like Shep, the scent is here for me, too—except it’s not one I can smell. It’s one I react to deep in my gut, projected as vivid memories that allow me to relive each journey I’ve ever taken on this trail. Ahead, two white tails barely beyond the yearling age, spook, bounding away in different directions. I back off, not wanting to scare them any more, and take a longer trail spur back. As I do, I pass a pile of osprey feathers, and wonder what other animal has been strong and swift enough to have done this—an eagle, a stealthful bobcat or coyote?

Charred palmettos

Charred palmettos



And just as I’m prepared to cut across an open pine forest  of wiregrass  and small turkey oak , I see a pile of what seems to be bones and go to it. It’s the pieces of a once-large gopher tortoise, the topical schutes pealing back from the heavier calcium, little vertebrae scattered about. I wonder at the narrative of this animal, of its beginning and its end. As I do,  I realize, once more, how the landscape brims with sacred stories it has to tell us—of its wildlife, its plants and trees, its seasons, its people—from those who once gathered snail shells and slept next to the earth, to those of us who have simply opened our hearts to it all, who cherish the way its lessons settle down on us, as real as any tonic.

It is raining harder now, and I quicken my pace, back to the beginning.  I am soaking wet, but I am sorry to go, to leave the stories behind. I promise when I get home I will write down the words for another little tale, one that the wild Florida landscape gifted me today, a yarn of time and gratitude and thankfulness. 100_5340


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