Not far from my seat by the summer-sweet sea, there’s a mysterious place, tucked between flatwoods and pines.
Walk with me to a wilder side of the South ~ into the Spanish-moss-dripping-heart of a cypress swamp. I try not to think about that old hiker’s joke about the hungry grizzly bear. You know, the one with the punch line that goes, “You don’t have to outrun the bear. You just have to outrun the other person.” No grizzlies here, but there’s plenty to eyeball on this muck-about. An errant gator looking like a squinty-eyed log. And that gator’s midday meal, a water moccasin. Then there’s the oozy benthic algae in stagnant pools.
No one made me go. I just had to see it for myself.
All Hail The Gumbo Limbo! We witless Northerners have a lot in common with this ubiquitous red and peeling wonder, a tree so robust that its cut branches sprout willy-nilly if you stick them in the ground. It’s a common shade tree in Florida, with tiny greenish-white flowers, followed by dark red fruit.
Ever ride on a carousel? Strike a match? Pick your teeth? Matchsticks, toothpicks and horses ~ all made of Gumbo Limbo wood.
This free-spirited gopher tortoise is a s-l-o-o-w mover.
It mostly just eats ~ grasses, herbs, leaves, fruit, berries. Because so much of its habitat has been destroyed, it isn’t commonly seen. It digs long burrows underground, huge ones that can hold 30 or more animals. Listed as a threatened species, the gopher tortoise is an indicator of ecosystem health.
The Saltbush is a short shrub when it isn’t a 12 foot tree. With multiple branches, it’s the perfect cover for nesting birds and wildlife along the swamp edge. Winter warblers call it home.
Cypress trees are surreal. They can survive for centuries. Slow growers, they get taller and taller for 200 years and reach heights of 150 feet. The trees usually live for 600 years, some survive for more than 1,000. Its wood is rot-resistant, just the thing for stadium seating, deck furniture, and pickle barrels.
You may have read about the 3,500-year-old bald cypress tree named “The Senator”, believed to be one of the 10 oldest trees in the world and probably the oldest in the United States. It measured 17.5 feet in diameter and 425 inches in circumference. A Florida woman was arrested on a charge of arson for burning it down. Authorities said that she and a friend were doing drugs inside the hollow tree and she lit a fire so she could see.
Growths bulging up from the roots of the cypress are called “knees”. They give the tree support on the unstable floor of the swamp and allow the tree to breathe when the swamp floods.
Near stagnant pools edged with necklaces of ferns and swamp apple shrubs, turtles frolic. They’re very social critters. Just like this king snake~ who happens to have a yen for turtle eggs.
Gov. Rick Scott issued a proclamation declaring Saturday, March 16, 2013 as Save the Florida Panther Day. I didn’t see a panther on the prowl, but I did spot this artsy rendition…..
…..and the glorious guy below enjoying some R&R&Rehab before his release.
In the swamp, under the trees’ thick canopy, day becomes night. Murky standing water covers the ground. Cypress knees poke out of the water’s surface. Insects hum. Critters crawl, creep and fly. And, sometimes, ghosts walk when the moon is right.