It’s sunny and brisk out here in a broad field of pine flatwoods, skinny slash and loblolly poking up randomly from the sea of saw palmetto like utility poles, green fringe bristling from the tops.
We stop to get our bearings about two miles in at the side of the trail. As we do, my friend Bruce casually looks up from his GPS and asks, in a conversational tone: Is that a bear?
That’s exactly the sort of thing I always hope to hear, and so I look up too, and farther along—downstream? —on the trail, some 200 yards away, is a blur of spiky black hair, down on four legs, trotting along. As a blur, it could be a bear—certainly, we’ve been seeing generous piles of blue-black scat already. So we know they’re back in here, local bears loading up for their truncated version of “hibernation” with fat acorns and berries, maybe the occasional walking stick or a particularly slow moving armadillo.
Another nano-second, and I see it is actually a large wild boar, and with his head down—following some sensory path only he knows—he doesn’t even seem to realize we’re here. I often run across signs of wild hogs out in the woods and swamps around Florida, earth tilled for roots as if a small buldozer has moved through. Sometimes, I see the hoof tracks in the hard sand, and once in a while, I’ll catch sight of a few of them way off in the distance, running the other way.
But to be on a trail atop a wide, flat terrain under a bright Florida winter sun and see a wild boar moving on a fast trot towards you is, well, unusual. This is not a real trail, but an unmapped fire break road with two ruts where a vehicle’s wheels have traveled. And, the boar is very politely running in the opposite rut as he approaches—as if he understands the American style of driving on the right side of the road in order to pass oncoming vehicles on the left.
The first domestic hogs were shipped here by DeSota 500 or so years ago for food, and were later joined by others introduced by settlers. Left to their own devices, the survivors turned feral, learning to eat nearly anything that would sustain them, including rattlesnakes and berries. Unlike most wild animals, the males have a reputation for attacking when cornered or threatened—even towards other hogs. I think of them as the litigators of the animal world.
As he closes on us, I see his tongue is out, and he is panting like a dog on a brisk run. Except for the long, rather lethal curved tusks, he could be a dandy Disney animal, one of those animatronics that are programmed to perform entertainingly on demand.
But of course, he is not. So, I figure I ought to at least get my camera out, since whatever happens next, it should be worth a picture. As I fumble with my camera, Bruce and I continue to talk; clearly, the animal doesn’t seem bothered by the fact that, in another ten seconds or so, he will pass us in the opposite rut. I remember wild boars have a great sense of smell and of hearing—but they don’t see all that well. The wind is blowing towards us, so the scent reception is lost.
Yet, in another second or so, he finally hears us and then does a cartoon-like doubletake—skidding to a halt in the sandy trail, spinning as if on a lazy susan, and galloping away in a cloud of dust, seemingly all at once.
The whole experience, from beginning to end, was actually very brief in linear time. I figure it’s a testament to how the human senses stretch out each real moment to its fullest potential when the immediacy of a brand new experience is trotting towards you with its tongue out and its tusks gleaming in the sun. In such cases, our large mammalian brains sort of step back and default to the zen viscera of the now.
A friend once told me that of all the animals, wild hogs will actually hold a grudge, although I’m still not sure where she learned this. I’m pretty sure I didn’t do anything to aggravate this particular boar. But then again, I am a human, and from the perspective of a wild hog, we upright walking mammals probably all look alike. Hogs are hunted nearby on the other side of the river and maybe he lost a colleague or two to that behavior. Perhaps they were out one moment, strolling through the neighborhood with great porcine camaraderie and glee—and then, the next, the former buddy was being ground up into pork patties in some hunter’s garage in Umatilla.
I’m sorry to miss snapping a photo of our fellow traveler, but am also a bit relieved that any grudge he may have carried won’t have a chance to be realized today.
On we go, deeper in through the flatwoods. We had seen a good dozen would-be hikers back in the parking lot. They appeared to be preparing to stage some sort of organized hike, maybe orienteering or some left-brained activity that required actual planning. I figured they stuck to the marked trail, which looped a couple miles back through a longleaf forest to the west. Since the trail head kiosk for this land doesn’t even include a map for these easterly fire roads, most causal saunterers don’t make it back this far. Which is one of the reasons we are here.
A pine flatwoods—also called “pine barrens”— is exactly what its name implies: A nearly flat, low landscape colonized mainly by pine with a thick understory of saw palmetto, maybe with some gallberry bushes and wildflowers. Today, there’s also a mild scent of wild vanilla in the air. Often, the soils are underpinned by clay, which means the land is seasonally wet, and the occasional open pocket of grasses will hold water, becoming ephemeral ponds. I get a kick out of the fact that the most common terrestrial habitat in Florida is more aquatic than not.
As we move deeper in, the sun warms me, seeming to radiating into my bones, replacing the earlier chill. The flatwoods is bordered on horizons to the east and west with great thick tree lines, as if we are strolling through a giant natural ailseway. The farther north we go, the more narrow the aisle becomes, tree lines moving in closer. We are headed for the St. Johns, near where the Wekiva confluxes with it. The fire roads sometimes loop around, but I figure if we continue in the same direction we’ll eventually make it to the rivers’ wetlands, regardless of which road we take.
My hiking partner is a former planner who teaches environmental studies at Rollins down in Winter Park. We hike together a few times a year, and once in a while, I sort of dress up and actually drive down into there to speak at that college, either to a class or to a larger public gathering, maybe about a book or a film.
When I’ve hiked here before, the wetlands to the north near the river will eventually sweep down into this low landscape, making a complete passage impossible. But today is different: We’ve been without heavy rain storms for several months now, and if there’s ever a chance of making it all the way into the actual wetlands, it’s now.
Finally, the tree lines meet, and we head off into a trail that takes us northeast, inside a thick hammock of live and water oak, hickories, a few pines, and old sabal palms. As we go, the ground is thick with fat acorns, much larger than I’ve ever seen them before, and Bruce wonders if the bitter cold of last winter has maybe inspired the trees to grow bigger seeds, offspring more able to withstand the cold.
Surely, a larger acorn is also good for the animals—such as the black bears—who must bulk up on fodder for the winter. Bears, smarter than we give them credit for, have actually been seen shaking trees to make the acorns fall. Indians who invested all of their intellect and emotion into the landscape and its gods must have known the “particulars” of this. Maybe they didn’t have a written language, but they knew more luxurious fodder would also meant fatter bears, hogs and other wildlife.
It’s not surprising that most anything in nature that has a use has been historically woven into the lifeways of both animals and people over time. The “earth people”—as Peter Matthiessen describes the indigenous, pre-industrialized cultures—-took full advantage of Florida’s rich diversity and long growing seasons. They ate wild grapes, hickory nuts, both the roots and vine of the cat briar, turtles, gators, panthers, manatees, pocket gophers, and even the inner bark of pine trees.
The simple acorn was so important to the Timucua of Florida that they actually created effigies to that oak seed, little totems in clay. In the Thursby Mound at Blue Spring, at least four different types of oak effigies—about two inches long each—were found. The symbolism seems clear: Like a hormonal-driven college freshman who puts a larger- than-life, airbrushed pin-up on his wall, effigy makers visualized the world’s most perfect, fattest acorn in the hope nature would oblige. And, if you dream it, it will come.
I also think of the actual hair style of the Timucua, in which long hair was bound tightly into a bun, fastened with bone pines. It looks all the world as if the heads of the natives have become giant acorns, stem clasped at the very top.
Inside the canopy of the hammock, the microclime cools us. We’re atop a higher berm now, one that either held a tramway for a railway or maybe a horse/cart trail. It would make sense for it to would lead north to the river, since the St. Johns was the both the highway and airport runway of its day: Steamships serviced it, offloading people and necessary things, or transporting them away.
Large, heavy bodied birds flit through the trees in a small flock, and although they seem to be migrates, they’re much larger than the other warblers we’ve been seeing. Then it strikes me that they’re robins, and I have done a reverse acknowledgment of their arrival: As a little boy growing up on the then-rural Eastern Shore of Maryland, I was infatuated with spotting the first Robin of Spring. And now, years later and many miles away, I’m delighted to see the first Robin of Winter.
To the west, I look down between the thick line of tupelo and hickory and see the dry swamp below. Bruce and I walk down into it, stepping around the cypress knees. Sharply defined watermarks on cypress and other buttressed trees here clearly remember when the wetlands were four to five feet above the dry swamp bottom under us.
Back on the berm, I see several wild orange trees, and we stop and shake them, just as a bear might do. Several come plummeting down and Bruce scores one and tastes it. Unlike most wild citrus, these are sweet tasting. I wonder if the trees aren’t a relic from the old Blackman Ranch that once sprawled over this part of the terrain. More irony: William Blackman was once the president of Rollins, where Bruce teaches. He owned about 4,000 acres of land here in the 1920’s, trying to raise sheep, cattle, mules, hogs, veggies and citrus.
As an academic, he was a great success, but as a farmer, he performed on the same level as other brilliant artists did who tried to farm in this river basin—Delius, Bartram, Stowe, even Rawlings. Perhaps its to our credit that the words, lyrics and poetry they left behind may have been otherwise diluted with their industry, had they been better planters.
Nearby, a red shouldered hawk—the raptor of the subtropical swamp—calls out, and then, a few minutes later, we hear the clacking of sandhill cranes from somewhere high overhead. Finally, the berm of hardwoods gives way to more wetlands. But this time, the dry swamp is bereft of trees, thick instead with the herbaceous water-loving plants that hug rivers and creeks. The dominant plant is now is spartina, at least waist high, and we follow a very rough trail through it that winds north to the St. Johns. The soils under us in this spartina “forest” are as dry as they will ever be.
Despite all we’ve done to it, Florida’s nature has sustained an essential energy. There was also a fort named “Florida” with a landing just across the river from here, nearly contemporary with the ranch. Yet a century is a long time in a relentless subtropical climate of of sun and rain and decay, and today—except for the orange trees—there’s little left of either development.
We are almost six miles in now, and we stop for a lunch break near an old shallow canal that spindles it way from the St. Johns, The mid afternoon air is pleasant, and there is absolutely no sound back in here except that which nature allows. I’ve traveled several miles beyond where I’ve ever been on this trail, finally having a chance to descend into the wetlands, to be surrounded by a new “hammock” of strange grasses.
There are no watermarks of memory here, except maybe the ones the Timucua left behind. It was all in the doing, in the gathering of fat winter acorns and the grateful bliss for a sunny winter day that allowed the collectors to freely roam.