Please note that the poems and narratives on this site are copyrighted and may not be reproduced without the author's permission.
Monday, October 3, 2011
The Lightning Forest Chapter One: The Lightning Forest
The Florida Atlas has divided the state into 18 areas of cultural significance, regions where particular social and cultural attitudes dominate and define the area. One area is called Big Bend, one the Bass Capital, one the
. The Citrus Belt is known for the significant orange farming in the area. Surfers frequent the Space Coast . The Atlas tested population samples from throughout the state to draw its cultural isobars. I live in a section defined as “No Dominant Region Perceived” in interior Surf Coast Central Florida that wraps around the Citrus Belt and a tourism corridor. Apparently, where I live does not have enough identity to create a significant generalization. There are not enough citrus farms. The ferneries are going out of business. We are caught in time after the turpentine and cattle ranching eras but before its inexorable and permanent conversion into suburbia. And we sure don’t have any tourists. We fall below the map-line marking the southernmost boundary of Southern Culture and above the line marking Latino cosmopolitan and retirement . South of the cotton, the peach butter, she-crab, and red silty rivers. North of conch, calypso, and canasta. Florida
Either way, it is no coincidence that the area deemed “No Dominant Region Perceived” is also predominantly interior scrubland. Scrub is a rare, uniquely
ecosystem dominated by deep, clean, white quartzite sands that once served as Pleistocene dunes on an ancient beachfront. At first glance, it is ugly. Trees are dwarfed by the largely infertile sand that heats up extraordinarily well in the sun and cools off especially fast at night. Rainfall is plentiful, but disappears so quickly into the sand that an hour of sun burns off any sign of the passing storm. The extreme temperature fluctuations, lack of water, and infertility make the familiar plant-life of Florida wilt and die out here. This is a wet desert. Only the toughest, most versatile trees and plants survive, and very few of them actually thrive. Most of the leaves are small, hairy, or waxy; many of them fold up or wilt during the day to conserve water before refreshing themselves at night. Florida
There are starry nights filled with fireflies, crystalline springs, and enough bears to take them for granted. Within a few miles, you can buy fresh frog legs, boiled peanuts, a bushel of oranges, and a gun. Turn right and you can pick a flat of your own blueberries. Turn left and you can buy a pound of fresh-cut gator tail and a string of river catfish from the
. But you won’t find a grocery or discount store in over 30 miles. People still stop their cars to catch-up when they see you in the yard or walking your dog. There are still leisurely curved roads garnished with old trees, hanging moss, and slow speed limits. There are even older roads jutting into the wild unknown. Sandy and overgrown, they quickly disappear into impassable. Every late winter and spring, we get to worry about fires. Every late summer, hurricanes. St John’s
Here, there is a long-legged tiger beetle that is white. There is a giant white millipede, a white lizard that swims in the sand, a white wolf spider, a white snake, and a large white frog that has given up on ponds. In other parts of the world, white animals are either albinos and lead very short lives because they are so conspicuous, or they are adapted to live in polar regions where they have a camouflaged advantage in the snow. Out here, just like in the
Arctic, white animals are the beautiful culmination of the world in which they live. Out here, just like in the desert, animals swim in the sand and organize their lives around the scorching sunlight. They are born from the marriage of moonlight and white sand, swimming deep into the hot dunes during the day and breaching the surface during the cool, silvery nights.
I am thinking about why the Florida Atlas was unable to identify my cultural significance as I hike into the forest that borders my home. And it is a good question. Cultural identity is confusing enough in this state. Primary experiences are for the most part limited to tourist attractions and beaches. The mythical identity of the
follows tourists home to other parts of the country. The primary experience of visiting the beach is very strong here, but it reduces the majority of the state to an unknown landscape with no significance. Florida
Wild Geronimo was imprisoned in a
Florida prison, far from his home. Arizona Florida’s Ocseola was imprisoned in where he is buried even today. Displacement was once a method of violent subjugation, breaking the connection between spirit and land. Now, displacement is the lifestyle of choice. Most South Carolina residents weren’t born here. Most would identify some other state as Home, the vault of their spirit. The combination of a weak mythos and the practice of displacement has created a doubly difficult population to enamor with scrub’s gritty charm. Florida
People may read about the scrub in books, but very few actually embrace it as a definition of their identity. Scrub is a subtle curmudgeon. The scrub rewards the patient and humble. But most people speed through here in their cars to get somewhere else. In an ironic twist, many of
’s most revered cultural icons wrote specifically about the interior lands. Florida
I am reminded of a passage in Palmetto Leaves by Harriet Beecher Stowe in which she chastises the tourists to get off their steamships and walk into the forest if they want to find flowers and experience the beauty of
. The flowers do not grow to make your life easy. You have to work for them. You can’t see Florida by staring out at it from a steamship, or from an air-conditioned car, or from a carefully-crafted tourist experience. Getting off the steamship is an instruction for scrub attunement. Florida
It is early morning in February, and the sand is heating up quickly in the sun. This is called the
Seminole State Forest, but even it is a sort of no-man’s land, a wild corridor between the better-known Ocala National Forest and the . Few people come here and, when they do, they go to a public access point much further south. The state is in an epic battle to keep all-terrain vehicles off these paths and fire roads. Fences go up to block the access but they don’t last long. I’ve seen trees cut down and barbed wire severed to circumvent entrance gates. I actually don’t mind the ATVs using the trails. There aren’t enough people out here to make it a nuisance and they help keep the trail clear. Once in awhile I find litter, but I have never actually seen or heard another human while hiking. Wekiva River basin
The insects are quietly rising up with the dew steaming off the leaves. Cultural philosophies start to fade. The sandy fire road ahead of me is filled with animal tracks. Deer, fox, pocket gopher, hog, and sandhill crane. In places, there are so many tracks that I can’t be sure of any identification. Sun-bleached oak limbs lay in the wire grass and sand like whale bones. Ant-lion pits dimple the sand. There are hundreds of circular openings about the thickness of a pencil tunneling down into the sand. These are the homes of white wolf spiders.
Every so often, I see the secretive curvy line where a legless scrub skink swam beneath the sand looking for worms and other prey. The scrub skink is one of many scrub endemics, animals that live nowhere else in the world. Fossorial animals typically evolve in dune-based deserts such as the
Sahara. The fact that has endemic fossorials is a testament to the island-like isolation of scrublands in the state. Florida
An old gopher tortoise burrow opens up near the trail. The burrow itself might be 30 feet long and 10 feet deep. The gopher constructs a berm at the entrance of the burrow to keep the rain out. It makes the perfect vantage point for watching the world pass by. Gophers are porch-sitters just like we are, and they are often seen gruffly observing the comings-and-goings of speedier (and thus inferior) creatures, just like we do. There are tracks on the sandy berm of the other animals you might find inside the burrow: indigo snakes, rattlers, the big-eared
mouse, opossum, bobwhite, and gopher frogs. Over 60 different species have been known to use gopher tortoise burrows for shelter. A few, such as the gopher frog, actually depend upon the burrows, especially during brush fires. I’m not quite sure how the snakes, mice, birds, and frogs all get along down there but I’ve never seen a ‘No Vacancy’ sign at the entrance. If there is a soul in this land, if there is a spirit, it resides down in these burrows. Unfortunately, 34 tortoises are buried alive every day in Florida as developers pave new roads and build new houses. Deep in the sand, a rag-tag band of animals listens as a bulldozer seals them beneath Progress. Florida
This forest is a sanctuary for snakes. On previous hikes, I’ve seen indigos, corals, short-tails, crowned, ribbon, corn, rough greens, the beautiful
blue garters, hognose, diamondback, bold moccasins, and what might be the world-record pygmy rattler. Living in the scrub demands tolerance, even affection, for snakes, ticks, biting insects, and spiders. Those who choose to fight are doomed to lose the battle. The badge of scrub living is continuous insect bites located in every possible nook of your body. Usually, you don’t even know what bit you or when. This morning, I haven’t seen any snakes at all and I’m suspicious of it. Florida
I walk through dwarf oaks, palmettos, rosemary scrubs, and stands of cheery dahoon holly. Everything is so short, I swear I could leap over the tree tops. I can hear the single questioning note of the towhee that is usually present in these woods. Eastern towhees are part of the scrub soundtrack. It is a comforting sound, ingrained into my expectations. Towhees are very curious and he flits about close to me, always near the ground. His white-ringed eye blinks. I like to imagine that it is the same towhee that follows me for hours, like an amenable hiking companion. Ahead, he flashes across the path. His sharp black head and rust-red brush mark along his side blaze in the sun. Every five to ten seconds he repeats his upward-sliding note and he never tires of it. Less a virtuoso than the mockingbird, he has nevertheless mastered a simple creative expression and he is perfectly happy to live inside of it. Assuredly, he sets out each morning on his routine from branch to branch, preferring the low shrubby oaks, announcing his complete presence in the moment. His selection of branch, position of foot, his rapid heart and puffing chest are all serving one purpose. His contentment is a challenge to intruding males, to amorous females, to me.
Songbirds here, in general, travel in roving gangs called the mixed flock. Mixed flocks always have titmouse, chickadees, gnatcatchers, cardinals, and one or two kinds of woodpeckers, harries or red-bellied. Total numbers for each flock tend to be 20-30 birds. Other common mixed-flockers are nuthatches, warblers, and towhees. There may even be an indigo bunting or summer tanager. In this multi-cultural group, the birds seem to prefer the company of other feathers and are very tolerant of humans. A warbler will perch inches from your face as he peeks under a leafy lichen for a snack. Once, on the outskirts of a mixed flock I was following, I tracked a mysterious haunting call that sounded part dove, part trogon, part mechanical crank. It took several hours to finally spot the typically silent yellow-billed cuckoo lurking about and calling for rain, rightfully outcast for its brood-pirating ways. Other vagabonds can be found following the mixed flock such as red-shouldered hawks and blue jays. But the mixed flock seems a happy
; tiny birds flipping about, chipping a multi-lingual pidgin, flashes of yellow, blue, scarlet in the trees. Babel
Stepping out of some underbrush, I immediately reach down to start pulling off the ticks and chiggers sprinting up my leg. Ticks are year-round residents in the scrub and the act of searching for and killing them is almost an unconscious habit. (By the way, the best method is to just grab the ticks between your thumb and forefinger and yank them out. Slathering them with nail polish or gasoline just makes them bury their heads deeper into your skin.)
I’ve walked into a live oak grove that I have never seen before. The swampy hammock nearby has provided enough water to grow live oaks of the non-scrub variety. These oaks are much taller than their sand-stunted relatives just a few yards away. I can’t put my arms around the trunks. Their thick limbs soar overhead into arches covered in mosses and ferns. Hanging moss drapes in huge undulating sheets all the way down to the ground. Sunlight streams through, green and gold, in crepuscular rays. The air is thick with breathing. Grass spreads out in the shade, a lawn richer than any fancy neighborhood’s. Tiny purple and yellow flowers dot the ground. I find several ground orchids blooming. I could not have walked into a finer royal chamber. The whole timeless world opens before me. I am the first person ever to see this grove. I am weeks away from civilization, decades away. My cell phone has no service, my watch is broken.
But most of all, most of all, the jessamine vines are blooming, filling the trees with canary yellow trumpets and the gentle scent of apricot. Jessamine vines are thin and tough like wires. It is difficult to see where they grow until the blooming season. Invisibly, the vines twine up trunks and shrubs until they reach top and explode into the sun. Each small leaf also sprouts a brightly twisting yellow blossom. Is there a better ceiling in the world than this? I vow to dismantle my bed and, piece by piece, and reassemble it out here. The sunrise must be devastating.
Jessamine is very common, but it is so rare now to see this sight; old trees with hundreds of old vines covering everything with flowers. The sheer weight of flowers in the canopy must compete with oak wood in enormity. Stowe loved the jessamines and so do I. In her day, Stowe would have returned home carrying long garlands of the jessamines that she collected. Now, it would seem a sacrilege.
All around me, the blossoms are falling, filling the grove with soft scent and color. I twirl around in the grove, arms outstretched, laughing, maybe crying. I’m drifting through shadow and sunray falling, falling. Every slight breeze shakes a citron flurry into the air. Blossoms come from 50 feet above. The canopy shivers. What dream are these flowers falling from? They appear out of nowhere. Unfurled in the light, they release and give themselves to the air. Everything slows. The cottony insects rise with the dew. The towhee calls to me. Everything stops mid-air. I fall to the ground, laying face-up, surrounded by oaky giants, the improbable rain of golden pollen and petal, green light.
Eventually, of course, time starts again. The modern brain seems incapable of resting in paradise forever. But I am relieved to experience a natural fragility that I’ve only read about from Stowe’s time. Too many historical texts sound like descriptions of a different planet, a
that is completely gone. At least, I have this grove. I walk to the far end looking for snakes. There is always a snake in paradise. I am at the back edge of the grove, the last oak, the last jessamine. I step out, through the bubble, through the window. Suddenly, the sun! Bright, alive, and burning. Around me, enormous pines tower into the sky. Each one has topped-off by wind decades ago and has matured into the thundercloud shape that longleaf pines typically grow into. Perhaps these trees were here when the turpentiners roamed the area a century ago. Florida
Then I notice a strange thing. Every single pine here has the telltale slash from a lightning strike. Long splintering gashes run from the treetops, circle around the trunks, and thrust straight down into the sand. I’ve certainly seen struck trees before, but always one tree at a time, more of a curiosity than a rule. Lightning is never supposed to strike twice. Here, every tree is destined to be struck. Some of the slashes are old, some of them are more recent, swelling and glistening with saps and terpene resins as they heal. I look closer. There are scars on scars. Lightning strike on lightning strike, cris-crossing each other. Cross-hatchings look like hieroglyphs. Tallies. One old pine has more scars then I can count. There are a few trees where the bolt was fatal. Everywhere I look, the history repeats itself, over and over. Lightning and tree and sand, bonded together by a mysterious pact. The ancient ritual has been practiced here for millennia. Their psalms are written by burning tongues. Lightning marks the tree, lightning marks the earth. Here, one step away from Stowe’s fairyland of jessamine and sunlight stands a gruesome forest of deistic vengeance.
I search for an explanation. Why are there so many lightning strikes in this one place? I want to believe there is a geophysical reason. A subterranean formation must exist that encourages the polarization of ions. Maybe a special underground spring that glows with energy or a giant iron and nickel meteorite buried just beneath the surface. Suddenly, my predicament becomes apparent. My heart races. The hair stands up on my arms. I am alone, miles from safety. I look up. Lightning might strike at any moment. Lightning is guaranteed. Where are the flowers, the charming birds, the sanctuary wood? This is too much energy for one place. I am dangerously exposed. Who am I, this one small and quick man, to be standing here? A dynamo beneath me calls out to the angry sky.
The language of the deep forest differs from other landscapes by its immediacy. The vast prairies, mountains, deserts, pelagic, and arctic landscapes appeal to our timeless sentiments. Their palettes are broad and subtle. Their details are subsumed under larger, universal themes. The sky is always fills at least half of the senses. In contrast, the forest appeals to clautrofiliacs. Its sky is filtered out and shaded. Its universe is discovered in the tiniest of detail. It threatens those who desire platitudes carved on tablets. Pause for a minute, fall asleep, lose yourself in philosophical contemplation, and the forest overcomes you like the jungle over stone temples. Its savagery is never seen from afar, a band of native warriors on a prairie hill or a pirate ship on the sea’s horizon. The forest’s savagery hides behind trees. Close. Hungry. Its dark secret barely registers in the consciousness of those who do not actively seek it out. Lightning, the most immediate of phenomena, strikes against the most immediate of landscapes and somehow created this timeless monument.
Lightning itself is a very complicated and misunderstood event. If you know anything about lightning, it is probably a popular cartoonish image you’ve seen of a positive ionic charge in the clouds and a negative ionic charge coming from the earth. The free electrons equalize in a catastrophic bolt. How the electrons actually polarize between earth and cloud is not completely understood. Some believe friction between raindrops and convection separate the charges. Some believe falling rain picks up polarized charges from Earth’s natural electric field. In short, we know what happens, we just don’t know how.
Ionic polarization is usually not enough to actually produce lightning. There needs to be a catalytic event that ignites the bolt, compelling it to complete the circuit. It is now known that cosmic rays from outer space play a critical role in initializing lightning by pushing the energy equation over the threshold. In an example of the incredibly intricate balance of the universe, lightning then returns the favor to outer space. Like the kickback from a rifle, the force of a lightning bolt produces several counteracting phenomenon upward into the ionosphere. Discovered in the 1990s, these beautifully colored plasma eruptions known as sprites, blue jets, and elves are actually quite common above storms. They are too brief, faint, and hidden for most ground observers to notice. So new to science, the reason for these discharges is still speculative.
A low-frequency radio emission is often sent back into space along with the sprites when a large lightning bolt strikes the earth. The lightning-born radio waves follow the magnetic lines surrounding Earth and interact with the radioactive zone known as the Van Allen belt. The Van Allen belt protects the Earth by absorbing harmful radiation and cosmic rays from the sun. However, this protection has a cost to modern life. The circuitry in satellites quickly breaks down inside the belt. Sending astronauts into orbit inside the belt is dangerous, even deadly. Luckily, there is a safe-zone in the middle of the Van Allen belt where astronauts and satellites are protected and quite safe. This safe zone is mysteriously clean of radiation even though solar storms frequently overwhelm it. For years, no one knew how the gap was swept ‘clean’ until James Green of NASA correlated lightning-spawned radio wave activity with the removal of the dangerous particles. Lightning cleans the gap, allowing mankind to send satellites and astronauts safely into orbit. Cosmic rays flood the safe zone with radiation and then ignite the lightning that then cleans the safe zone once again. Lightning is the connection, the emissary between the cosmos and Earth.
Cosmic ray to cloud to lightning bolt to tree to sand to sprite to Van Allen belt to cosmic ray.
Lightning acts horizontally here as well. In fact, the scrub forest owes its existence to it. Like the pine sandhill and other upland habitats, lightning is the spark that cleanses the forest undergrowth with fire. Every scrub tree, plant, and animal must account for fire. The smart ones befriend it. Pine trees are the wick, the bait. They tempt the clouds to close in, like bass in a weedy hole. A flint on steel, fire blows down and spills out through the oaks and grasses. Trees eagerly sacrifice themselves to let the deep root survive. Fire is the skeleton key that operates the sand pine’s cone, a kumiki puzzlebox holding future generations. Fire is the flood that coaxes the rosemary’s seed to sprout. Fire keeps the land open, keeps the sands clean and loose. The sand skink swims in that root-free ocean. The human desire to control fire, to suppress it, explains the demise of the scrub as much as outright development.
is the lightning capital of the world, then I am standing in the middle of its hot and glassy heart. Around me are monuments marked by ancient texts, healed, marked again. Monuments bound deep into sand and outer space. These pines fulfill their destiny. They are the revered of their kind. The heroes. If I hadn’t hiked out here, if I hadn’t decided to walk just a few steps further through the jessamine curtain, nothing would have changed. The ancient Greeks had a word for a person or place struck by lighting: Elysium. Elysium was also their word for the heroic afterlife, for paradise. Here, in the middle of Florida , in this forgotten and ugly scrub, in my backyard, is Elysium manifest. A paradise struck by lightning. And now my heart is struck as well. Florida
The speed of our internal time clock and the limited scale of our perceptions both conspire to limit our understanding of the world. Moments outside of ourselves are brief before the brain intrudes and the attention span snaps. Landscapes that demand more from us, that ask too much of us, are sacrificed by our preconceptions. We force the scrub to our wills. Level those pines, plant our houses, destroy every flicker of wild life around us. We engineer our environment so it fits comfortably to our bodies. Stop the fire so the roots intrude and the universe’s monuments are erased, so the white animals fade into ghosts.
The dynamo still whirs beneath us.
What does it mean to live out here, in the lightning forest, beyond the testability of cultural definitions? I don’t want that definition anymore. I want off the steamship.
Please note that the poems and narratives on this site are copyrighted and may not be reproduced without the author's permission.