Sunday, January 27, 2008

To Hell and Back

After church today, we decided to go to Hell. Tate's Hell, that is. Tate's Hell is a Florida State Forest in Franklin County to the west of here. Legend has it that a man named Tate once was lost in the vast swamp there for some days.  He'd been bitten by snakes and devoured by insects, lost his gun and his dog, and when he was finally out of the swamp, he announced he'd been to hell and died on the spot.

We followed US 98 along the coast, going out Bottoms Road for a winter beach picnic. Sheltered from the brisk north wind by beach shrubs, we sat in the sun by the dazzling bay. 100_1537We watched a loon off-shore and admired fresh tracks that we believe were bobcat's. A cedar tree had washed  over, exposing the vast root system.


We continued to follow the coast with stunning views of the water and sky. We passed the rebuilt Angelo's Seafood Restaurant that had been destroyed by a hurricane.

Directed by the Great Florida Birding Trail guide, we found the High Bluff Coastal Hiking Trail within Tate's Hell.  The trail brochure at the kiosk said that the trail was completely orange blazed. Ain't necessarily so. The blaze markers lasted only a few yards down the trail and then, we were on our own. Bears are frequently seen in this area and we were on the lookout for any signs of them. Did we mention we were the only vehicle in the parking lot? The trail got more and more narrow and the scrub palmetto and blueberry bushes got higher until the trail was no more than two boots wide and we decided that we had seen enough of this trail. We stopped at a picnic table and rested a while and I took the picture over my head.

100_1549 On the way back we met up with a retired couple who were Geocaching. They followed us back out.

State road 65 took us up the western side of Tate's Hell. It is a road that goes fairly straight north from the coast for about 65 miles to our return route east. It is as straight as the pine trees that line the road. It is a beautiful, lonely road and named a scenic byway. Along the way the ownership changes from the state to the national forest. Today, it was just us --and the hunters with their dogs, trying to bag one more buck for the season. Us, and the hunters and their dogs and the suicidal robins that played "Chicken" with our truck. Most of the way, we noticed there was no cell phone service. It would be a good place to have cell phone service, as no one lives out there to loan you their land line.

Just south of Sumatra, we went down a forest road to the former site of Fort Gadsden, on the Apalachicola River. It dates to the War of 1812. Presently, it is truly in the middle of nowhere, but apparently at one time the river compared to I-75, with over 200 steamships running its length. The commanding view of the river made this an important site for about 50 years; it was fought over and occupied by British, Spanish, local Indians, escaped slaves, the North and the South. The first fort was blown up in 1816, killing about 250 people, mostly women and children. Andrew Jackson ordered Lt. James Gadsden to rebuild the fort and it was used until 1863 when malaria forced the Confederates to abandon it. Today, it is a cleared spot of land by the river, with only a couple of exhibits and picnic tables. The quiet has fallen on this bloody place and it is peaceful. We could hear the birds in the trees across the river.  Again, we were the only vehicle in the parking lot.


We survived our trip to Tate's Hell with narry a snake or insect bite. From the truck and trail, it was lovely.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Thoughts of Spring on a Winter Day

In this morning’s newspaper we enjoyed an article by Bonnie Holub. In it she wrote:

We don't have groundhogs in Wakulla County, so maybe we could choose another wildlife weather predictor. The first burrowing animal that comes to mind is the gopher tortoise. Maybe our gopher could be called Sopchoppy Bill, and he could predict the onslaught of yellow fly season. A shadow heralds a few more weeks of bug-deficient weather. No shadow, and yellow flies soon swarm.

tortoise sign 

This got us to thinking about our serious need to replace groundhogs, locally.

What about a turkey as a forecaster for Florida’s political future? If he sees his shadow, the legislature will finish its work on time. If he does not, there will be a special session later in the year. We’ll call him Tallahassee Tom.

What about a beaver (a close relative to the groundhog) to predict the construction of a new holding pond in your neighborhood?

Or a class guinea pig to predict whether or not the school will remain on Florida's “A” list?

Or a vulture to predict whether or not the hurricane season will be a bad one.

From here, our minds wandered to true signs of spring in our area:

A cut muscadine will drip sap

Red clover covers the roadsides

The henbit (weed) covers the lawn in purple

Redbuds, cherries and maples bloom

Daffodils bloom in yards and in places that were once yards

Jessamine paints some tall trees yellow while the wisteria works its lavender magic

Tomato plants and other summer annuals start showing up in the garden centers-- actually long before the last frost!

Robins are gone.

The buzzards quit congregating in the tops of the hickories across the cul-de-sac in the early morning sun

Swallow-tail kites, Mississippi kites and hummingbirds return for nesting

Manatees start showing up in the St. Marks and Wakulla rivers

But the sure sign is when pecan trees leaf out. They won’t be fooled.

Oh, yeah, and the Red Cross Sign says its “only 120 days until hurricane season! Are you prepared?”


Sunday, January 20, 2008

Seeing Red

The year begins and ends in red. Some new. Some old. Some constant. The constant is the cardinal that is always here. The robin that spends the winter in flocks escaping snowy fields, arrives with the new year. The bright colors of these birds depend on their diet, which at this time of year is largely red berries.



The landscape may be dull but the hollies are still bright with green leaves and red berries. The bloom was last spring, but the color of the fruit continues into winter. Florida has eleven native hollies. Today we saw three different ones. The most familiar is the yaupon holly, Ilex vomitoria. This one was made famous by the black drink, brewed ceremonially by natives. The small leaves are scalloped on the edges.


The myrtle-leaved holly, Ilex myrtifolia, has slightly larger leaves of similar shape, but without the scalloped edges and with a more distinct point on the ends.


The dahoon holly, Ilex cassine, is a small evergreen tree, commonly used in landscaping. Of these three, its leaves are the largest. Some forms of this tree have yellow berries.


This time of year, the pine trees are showing off their male cones that contain the pollen. The slightest breeze will fill the air with the yellowish-green pollen dust, coating everything and, hopefully, fertilizing the female cone that takes over a year to develop.


100_1515 Florida also has four native maples. The Florida maple, Acer floridanum, and the red maple, Acer rubrum, are common here. The flowers show first on the bare branches. as seen here. Later in the spring, the winged seeds will develop and when mature will spiral down to the ground.


To see this last bit of red, you have to get down on your hands and knees. It is part of reindeer moss which is not a true moss, but a lichen. It grows here in sandy places where scrub oaks are found. But it also grows on the tundra and is a food for reindeer, hence the name. Every December, we collect some for S's kindergartners to put out on Christmas Eve.


When we see red, it is the continuum of what began last spring and progressed through the seasons of summer, fall and winter, and now spring again. Nature continues in its circle. It is we who apply the label of a "new" year.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Packaging Pine Trees

For our son's pinecone-themed wedding reception, we took on the project of the favors for the guests. The groom had ordered 250 rust-resistant slash pine seedlings, the minimum order. We drove to pick them up which turned out to be more of a trip than we expected, as Google maps does not know where the tree nursery is. Left at the light would have put us almost in sight of our destination, but the directed right turn sent us about 50 miles out of our way and into a cell service black hole. A borrowed land line got us directions back to where we needed to be.

The seedlings are about 20 inches long and are packed in a large roll. The bare roots have been treated with a moisture retaining gel.

The night before we left for the wedding, we began the packaging. First B wrapped the wet roots in a half sheet of newspaper. Then I put the paper into a plastic bag and tied it closed. 


Each tree was then put in a pinecone stamped brown lunch bag and tied with tan and blue raffia. A card attached gave planting instructions on one side and the other read:


Please plant this pine in honor of

D- and K-,

joined this day in marriage,

January 12, 2008.

May it and their love send down roots

and grow strong and heavenward,

and be a thing of beauty for years to come.


We said it was our pine sap!  We did not need the entire bunch and so only 120 were packaged. The pile was almost a yard high in the living room when we were finished.


At the wedding reception, the trees were displayed in nail kegs and large wooden baskets. What better gift from a forestry student?


It was a beautiful and sweet wedding!


Saturday, January 5, 2008

Head-knockers and Grasshoppers



We went to the woods today in search of head-knockers. This is our name for a seedpod on a stem that is the remains of  yellow-eyed grass, Xyris ambigua.  As we were picking these for a  wedding project, I was watching carefully for snakes. What I saw instead was a Rusty Grasshopper, Schistocerca alutacea. The camouflage was just amazing in the fresh pinestraw. (Thanks, IFAS, for all your Internet help with identification!)


Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Winter Woods---and Wind

Fall woods are so obviously beautiful. In-your-face beautiful. Winter woods like those we trekked today have a much more subtle beauty.


We went to Chattahoochee in western Gadsden County in search of trilliums. We found them ---and much more. Trilliums are only found in Florida in some places in the panhandle, though they are common in more northern states. Trilliums have three leaves, hence the name. They are among the first plants that arise in the woods in spring. There were dozens and dozens of them up today. In a few weeks, a flower will appear in the center of the three bracts. This picture was made last February.


Today, B spotted a rare one:


So do we call this one a quadrillium?

And later he spotted this one:


A bi-illium? All the others had three bracts. We do not remember ever seeing any variation before.

We came across a black racer (we think) sunning on this chilly day. He looked as though he might have recently eaten.

100_1130 He was probably 4-5 feet long.

Most of the leaves were down in the woods, though if you looked up you might see the occasional golden sugar maple and this swamp chestnut oak that was down-right gaudy in its chartreuse, yellow and orange get-up.


The beech cling to their brown, papery leaves until late spring and only drop them when the new ones are coming out.


We found a few of the giant swamp chestnut acorns. One had been split and upon closer investigation, we saw that a race was in place. The acorn had begun to grow, but so had a weevil larva. The weevil eats the inside for its nutrition, but it is almost time for it to be leaving to go underground to pupate. Will this acorn still have a chance to grow into a tall oak tree? We will never know. But of course if all acorns or even most acorns grew into trees, where would we be?


This pine shows where a sapsucker, a kind of woodpecker, has been at work.


After leaving the woods, we went to see the dam nearby that creates Lake Seminole. The wind was really crazy there and the water was being blown off the top of the dam in large sheets that became spray.


We watched a man catch an enormous striped bass.


And the wind there never stopped.

What a great New Year's Day!