Posted by: floridanature | September 20, 2009

From the “Edge” to the Flatwoods, and Back

  • It was Sunday and I had the flatwoods to myself.   No wonder:  I’m guessing this may one of the most under-appreciated eco-systems in all of Florida.

Nonetheless, it’s one I’ve come to love. I beat a quick path from the grassy lot where I’ve parked, back beyond the shard of a longleaf forest, into and then out of the hardwoods of oak and maple, and finally, back to where the true natural world begins. That “quick path” usually takes about fifteen minutes and covers a half mile, maybe more. It allows me to leave the “edge” behind—those ragged places where our protected natural lands nudge up against heavily-traveled roads or busy plazas. Blue jays and starlings, which seem equipped to live almost anywhere, squawk at the edges; but the wrens and warblers sing their gentle songs deeper in.

lilysnake

The deeper I’m in, the more of my own “edge” I leave behind as well. By the time the very last sign of industry—the mad sound of a wood shredder from a nearby farm—-is gone, I’m starting to breath slow and easy again, just as I do when I’m underwater with a tank of air on my back.

The landscape slopes downward, gradually, until finally the flatwoods comes to me in a generous panorama of saw palmetto and slash pine and great open space, a sky as blue as a child’s storybook, fat white vapor clouds tumbling over it in slow motion. Since this is a state “preserve” rather than a park or a forest, I’m not really on a trail but am walking a fire break road, the sort of utility needed by those who would manage our public lands for us. Thus, there is no trail map, and even the road itself splays off here and there—sometimes leading to another dirt road, sometimes turning into a narrow aisle through the palmettos.

pine_lily615.BullCrk.10.20.08Although I’ve brought a compass, I always make a point to keep my eye on the sun, adjusting the compass points for its place in the sky. The navigation here is simple: I go in to the north and come out to the south, maybe seven, eight or nine miles in between, depending. Today, the bright Florida fall sun will be enough to guide me.

I often enjoy the company of others who cherish getting off the grid as much as I do. But sometimes, when I have a few spare hours and know it will be easier to simply find my way to the woods instead of trying to roust up a bud, I’ll throw some snacks and water in my backpack and simply go. Sometimes, I come looking for a certain thing—maybe a spring hidden back in the swamp, or a little creek that goes somewhere new. Wildlife is always a surprise, and I treat it that way, whether it comes as a white-tailed deer, a pygmy rattler, a bear.

I once saw an ineffably lovely willd lily on this trail when I hiked it years ago. It was one that naturalist and artist Mark Catesby sketched and described back in the early 18th century. He rendered it with a “Wampum snake” curled about it.  The flower is now known as the pine lily— or in deference to the naturalist, “Catesby’s Lily.”  I have never seen the Catesby’s Lily anywhere but here, and then, only once. Still, I have envisioned it, and maybe it will indulge me and materialize. Certainly, a pine flatwoods at this time of the year is the right place for it to be.

whiteflowersI read a book once that gave some very candid and unpretentious advice about figuring out Florida’s complex natural systems. It advised:  If your shoes are muddy, you’re in a swamp.

Well, sort of. A pine flatwoods has soils under it that simply aren’t very porous, like a swamp. Rain may seep down for a while, but it only does so with the understanding it will take the first chance it can get to puddle up, or even flow like a newly-birthed creek. In the dry season, a pine flatwoods will mimic dry land. But in the wet season—even one in which we haven’t had a good rain in a week or so—water will lay on the surface. And because it doesn’t soak in really well, it will sometimes draw itself up into a broad and shallow sheet. And like it does in the Everglades, that sheet of water will flow, every so slowly, across the land.

flatwoodsJPGHere in Florida—a state which has always made up its own rules—a “pine flatwoods” is the most extensive terrestrial eco-system around. Funny, but I can think of few other places that would describe a landscape with flowing water as “terrestrial”.

The deeper in the flatwoods I walk, the wilder it becomes, stretching out to cover all the great space between two tree lines, one to the east, the other to the west. There are no other footprints here on the dirt road, only tracks of animals that have been here over the last day or so—deer, wild boar, snake, raccoon, and finally, a small black bear. It’s late mid-morning, and getting warm. Most of the animals that have left their marks here are laying low, waiting for it to cool off before they go to work. A small clutch of warblers flit from the tops of one pine to another, leaving a song behind that I do not know. Another mile and a red-shouldered hawk flies out from her nearby swamp and slowly circles overhead, checking me out.

There is no rush, of course, but I like to keep up a good pace, stopping every now and then to photograph one of the wildflowers growing at the side of the path. The men and women who diligently “manage” large parcels of land like this spend most of their time carefully burning it, evoking a natural regime of lightening and fire that has helped this particular system evolve. I come onto a patch so freshly burned that it still smells charred, walking now with a blackened nether-scape on one side and a green, and wildflower-enriched prairie on the other.

plumedgrassJPGSome grasses, like wiregrass and beard grasses, don’t flower unless burned in the spring and summer. Some wildflowers benefit likewise by becoming more luxuriant in their blossoming—yellow batchelor’s button, deer tongue, and white-topped aster. And, so  too, does Catesby’s Lily.

A small animal trail opens up on the left and I follow it for a while, stepping over soft new green grasses, nurtured when the slightly lower indent of the trail transported water here, not so long ago. The trail deadends into an ephemeral pond, a wet prairie, really, surrounded by palmetto and pine. The grasses and sedges here are as green as my path, and I see the sun reflecting from a patch of water towards the middle.

The pond is on the wane now, and I see that it was not here long enough to nurture fish. In fact, the frogs and toads have benefited by this. Even now, I see tiny black tadpoles dimpling the surface, pre-morhphed herps awash in a solution of utter pond bliss, no opportunistic terror of a fish to darken their days.

hammockJPGI have been hiking for almost two hours now, and have passed the site where I once saw the lily. There are robust wild blueberries bushes and fetterbush and plume grasses—even what looks like winged sumac. But no Lilium Catesbaei.

I reach a point I know from earlier hikes, a place where a creek used to wash over the trail, but which now is piped through a large conduit under. The landscape is lower now, and the topography of the flatwoods falls quickly away, replaced by the thick subtropical hardwood hammock that will lead me to the swamp. I think of looking for a little spring/seep I saw here once, long ago, but even an afternoon walk in the woods has some limits to it.

I stop in the shade, drink deeply from my water bottle, take a few more photos. I sit on my haunches, and pick off two ticks that are on opposite knees. Next to my foot is a giant acorn. I turn it over in my fingers, and in doing so, am struck by how the nut and its break-away stem resembles a tiny head of the Timucua that the French artist LeMoyne once drew here, some 450 years ago. The stem, of course, is the perfect topknot that the male Timucua pulled their hair into, fastening it with bone pins, incised with messages from the gods that ruled the sun, the moon, the river, and all the animals that inhabited the wild landscape of La Florida. A place with no edges.TIMUCUA

I take another swig of water, and stand up, cupping the acorn in my hand, and turn back, following a trail that calipers the landscape in the finest of ways. There were no pine lilies, but there were wildflowers and animal tracks and tadpoles, and a totemic reminder of another time, and it all gives me great comfort.

I am headed south now, and a light breeze is picking up from the hammock and the water it cradles inside. It cools me, and pushes me along, ever so gently.

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Responses

  1. Thanks for writing as you do. By “flatwoods”, I imagine you alluding to North Florida?

  2. Hi Alan

    I do appreciate the kind words. Glad you enjoyed the essay. I’m in NE Central Florida, but we have different versions of flatwoods—as you may know—in Florida. Biggest difference between N and C Florida, and S. Florida. This parcel is in the Wekiva River basin, which has tremendous amount of public land throughout.

  3. […] Nonetheless, it’s one I’ve come to love. I beat a quick path from the grassy lot where I’ve parked, back beyond the shard of a longleaf forest, into and then out of the hardwoods of oak and maple, and finally, back to where the true natural world begins. That “quick path” usually takes about fifteen minutes and covers a half mile, maybe more. It allows me to leave the “edge” behind—those ragged places where our protected natural lands nudge up against heavily-traveled roads or busy plazas. Blue jays and starlings, which seem equipped to live almost anywhere, squawk at the edges; but the wrens and warblers sing their gentle songs deeper in. [Read more…] […]

  4. You capture something that is hard to describe…the edge. Thank you for sharing your hike, your wonderful findings and the peace that loosing your “edge” and can bring!

  5. […] I thankfully exit the volley of traffic at the entrance to the Seminole State Forest, driving in past the self-pay kiosk and pick up Steve, who is ready to unlock the combo on the cattle gate across the dirt road, as soon as I give him the number. I have most recently finished writing a new book, and Steve has finished teaching a grad course on Bartram. It has been months since we have hiked together, and when Steve walks to the lock, he claps his hands, as if in gracious applause of an impending performance. [Read more…] […]


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