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Living by Fire: A Journey Through Central Florida's Subtropical Forest, by Simmons B. Buntin

by Simmons B. Buntin

A swimming rabbit is rare, the brown water trailing from cinnamon back as he buoys and then falls to dark eyes and wide ears. Surely a cottonmouth has aimed its flickering tongue, the rhythmically curving muscle of self, toward the slow V that is his wake. Or a young alligator, its own yellow eyes waiting patiently beneath the speared fronds of saw-palmetto.

Heron.But this is Florida, and it is late summer. Perhaps the only way to avoid the liquid heat of the afternoon air is to give in, join the water’s cool depth, risk the murky bottom. I would strip my shirt and bare my own back to dive the freshwater swamp if it weren’t for the fire.

In Seminole myth, Rabbit brought fire to the land. The red and distant deity was reserved for sacred festivals held every morning to the east. But the Great Water prevented the people from reaching it, so they shivered in cold nights and held no ceremonies of their own. One day the people came together and asked Rabbit to steal the fire. He agreed. The people went to a pine and stripped a thickly needled branch. From the tree’s wound poured the dense amber of sap, which they rubbed on Rabbit’s head with the soft needles.

He swam a long distance all night and finally reached the land of fire. He was received gladly—its people were amazed because they could not swim—and they arranged a large dance. Rabbit entered the loose ring of dancers and led them nearer and nearer to the raging fire at its center. The dancers began to bow, lowering their heads in humility. Rabbit did the same, inching closer. Suddenly, he pressed his ears back and dipped his head into the flames. The sap caught and he jumped quickly out of the ring. The dancers were shocked that Rabbit could both cross water and hold fire! But they were angry, too. Fire was sacred, and he dared to touch it. They chased after him, but he was quick and leapt into the Great Water. He kept his head up, swam all day and night, made it back to the people by morning.

They were grateful, for he shared the fire with them. But before they could extinguish his flaming cap, he sprinted into the brush. As fast as Rabbit was, he ran to all the edges of the land and set fire to the grass. It burned until the afternoon rains came. What Rabbit didn’t set fire to that day, he did the next. And then the next. And to this day, Rabbit continues to set fires on the land, giving birth to new plants and keeping the soil strong.

The young marsh rabbit has made it to the far bank, a knee-high jungle of ragged palmettos like miniature palm trees. No gators. He rises quickly from the water, licks his haunches, and stands erect on short back legs. Nodding in my direction—the speckled darkness on his head the only indication of ancestor’s pyrotechnic ways—he disappears into the tangled understory that is Central Florida.

Having the rabbit as my companion, albeit for only a short while, was a welcome distraction from the black deer flies attracted by my sweat. I wave a tattered notebook in lame defense and move from dry ground to the thin and crooked trunk of bluejack oak. The flies, of course, follow—but who can blame them? My hide is considerably less thick than a white-tailed deer’s, smoother than the bluejack’s gray bark, deeply ridged, upon which I now rest my hand. Though it is a beautiful tree—its leathery leaves green above and gray below—it is scrub, and in this part of the forest that means it must go.

Snake.Ocala National Forest—at 440,000 acres, Florida’s second largest—is bordered on the east by Lake George and St. John’s River, on the south by swampland rising to orange groves, on the west by Silver Springs and the Ocklawaha River, and on the north by the artificially held Lake Delancy. Forest rangers divide the dryer land into two ecosystems: the longleaf pine-wire grass community, and the scrub community. Historically, the two overlap only at edges, where the mid-level understory of maturing scrub oak—turkey, bluejack, and Chapman—will creep into the straight and towering land of longleaf pines. Or vice versa. Somewhere in between, favoring the scrub oak but found throughout the forest, smaller stands of pines such as slash, sand, and loblolly grow, as well.

I am standing in a triangle. A mile behind me the Ocklawaha switches back on itself in the constant indecision of river. Its dark waters turn from sandy bank to cypress swamp, churn the tannic soil beneath overhanging vines and limbs and sipping birds too indecisive themselves to mark fish from root. And then it retracts, the slow curve of banking silt becoming deep springs, clear as rain. Always the river folds back on itself, nearly touching the dark path to light, the meandering blackness to crystal reflection of sunset’s arcing fire.

To my left, a stand of mature longleaf pines sways like a slow rolling ship in the higher breeze. And to my right, beneath the warm palm of my hand and extending into a thinning growth of pines, the scrub oaks fade to baldcypress, and then to Rabbit’s swamp.
I am, in fact, surrounded. Above me the dark clouds of afternoon are sailing in from the Gulf. Below my leather boots the ground is covered in an endless assortment of life: bronze pine needles, lobed oak leaves, a digger wasp. And death: the iridescence of a green June bug is quickly waning as it is pulled from its tiny den by the wasp. I am surrounded by the relentless craft of nature, so much so that I can’t concentrate on my own job. And it’s a joy.

But work demands attention today: I am watching for fire, waiting for the scouting flags of smoke, the unpredictable pirates’ attack. What mythical figures will the afternoon’s leaping flames set forth on this botanic ground? If not pirates, with hollow ships of magenta hull and golden sail, twisting in distorted waves around steadfast pine and scorched witch-hazel, then what?

Fire is nothing if not a cinema, a dreamscape where sapphire crown becomes gods and goddesses, blazing ridge becomes whole armies—organic Oriental cities rushing in the new year. In less time than I want I will have to bend the notebook into my back pocket, stand behind the thin trench that serves to halt the fire, and race to the truck. Perhaps I should be at Salt Springs, near Lake George and a nesting population of bald eagles, counting sap-leaked cavities of red-cockaded woodpeckers. But the glory’s in the fire, in the fast red and yellow line racing like a mad Chinese dragon ahead of the wind. Ahead of a dozen Forest Service employees turning their eyes from dark green canopy to ash-black soil and back again. The intensity’s the thing, and in that is the truth.

The Seminoles must think Rabbit crazy. Why would he bow his torching cap and set the land aflame after the sky broke open and raindrops larger than cicadas raced down? Was it because the Great Fire in the sky was swallowed by the clouds? Could it be that, in a fit of confusion, he hoped that kindled brush would fend off the water at den’s door?

I turn toward swaying pines and the littered kindle of needles, and think about fire, a triangle in its own right. Despite years of Smoky the Bear saying otherwise, fire is essential to the forest and its inhabitants. The longleaf pine especially needs the low-intensity flames of natural wildfire to open hard-coated seedlings fallen to the ground. The heat peels the seeds, which soon root and grow into a grass stage lasting three or four years. As the main stem thickens, the taproot shoots down furiously. Though young longleafs will singe in a fire, they will usually not die. By the time the tree reaches two feet, its taproot is extensive and the young trunk thick with shielding bark.

Thrush.Two other plant species depend on fire, as well, and are as common in the forest as the pines themselves. The saw-palmetto branches its yellow-green fronds like a thousand fanned daggers, but the defense is in its storage roots. They are protected from fire’s heat, lodged in rocky pockets of limestone beneath the sandy topsoil. Though the entire surface of the plant may burn to an unrecognizable stump, it will quickly resprout. Similarly, wiregrass, with its thin golden leaves and clumping habit, will burn in the fire and then send up needily shoots shortly thereafter.

The forested plants are one side of fire. There are two more. Just as the crooked mass of shiny-leafed buttonbush, and even the swamp dwelling mayapple—its umbrella-like leaves shading sweet yellow fruit—need fire’s fertilizing hand, so too does the wildlife. From goldsmith beetle to bobcat, blue-lined skink to great horned owl, wildlife depends both on the food which fire makes available and the cavities of shelter it re-forms. The second side is well revealed by the red-cockaded woodpecker.

Of the threatened and endangered species living in the forest—Florida black bear, Southern bald eagle, Eastern indigo snake—perhaps none has been more “managed” in the past twenty years than this rare bird. About the size of a nuthatch, its back is speckled black blending to a white front, as if a calligrapher had bored of letters and found birds, and feathery syllables. Its head and straight beak are dark ink, a large white patch on each cheek the staining liquid’s only barrier. Behind each eye the male has small red cockades—the nimble artist’s hand daring to dip the fire of blood-red ink.

Unlike other woodpeckers, the red-cockaded only nests in living pine trees, the longleaf or loblolly. And the trees must be over sixty years of age, wide enough to hold a cavity, old enough to develop red heart, a disease. The slow deterioration of the pine’s heartwood attacks continuously even as wildfire engulfs periodically. Coupled with boring beetles and lightning’s random strike, the old-growth pines should tumble, give in. But they grow strong, encouraged perhaps by the new heart of the birds living within them, the murmuring flutter of new life season after season, and the green resin of sap flowing through woody veins to guard against sweeping flames.

Laying shovel over shoulder, I walk the shallow trench of fire’s edge. When burns have been scheduled, I schedule my own work in the vicinity. It’s fair compensation. The woodpeckers will wait gently in their moist cavities while the flames burn the scrub, and I will watch for wildlife. With still an hour until burn-time, I leave my post and walk into the pines.

The white disk of the sun filters through the towering trees. Dancing rays of light stretch narrow fingers through trees dark in front, lighter behind. The constant flies must be agents of the sun, biting hard as I penetrate the shade, backing off if I step into the full force of the Central Florida afternoon. Still, the birds are in the trees, and if I could coax them down to my shoulder, promising tastes of buzz-winged treat, then my trek may be warranted. It’s worth the risk.

I step into the wheat-colored wiregrass leading to the trees, boots tied tightly. When I first reported to the Forest Service, the supervisor had one condition: I must wear high leather boots. There are five species of poisonous snakes in the forest: the cottonmouth, coral snake, and three species of rattlers. Since I don’t intentionally trudge through water deeper than my ankle, the fierce venom of cottonmouth is not likely to catch me. They move skillfully between trees and bushes of the higher water of rivers, springs, and edges of lakes. The Eastern coral snake, itself highly venomous, is also easily avoided. The striking color pattern nearly every Floridian outdoorsman knows—red then yellow then black—is rarely seen, as the thin snake hides in damp hammocks at the edges of streams and ponds during the day, often beneath rotted wood or flattened stone.

Spider.But rattlesnakes are more common, more likely to be tasting the air with their sensitive tongues while sliding across a trail, or sunning themselves on the warm and sandy soil between shadowed trees. The dark-tailed timber rattler is rare, but has been seen, if not heard and even felt first. Pigmy and Eastern diamondback demand more caution.

Gray as aged wood, with mixed crossing patterns of black and red like bark, the pygmy rattler is common throughout the South. Its tiny rattles buzz, a mudwasp two hands high. The diamondback is nearly opposite, however, growing to eight feet, thick as a child’s thigh: the largest and most venomous snake in the United States.

Though the temptation of feathery bodies at branches forty feet high is great, the danger at groundlevel is greater, and so my eyes point down. I’ve never seen a rattler in this forest—the diamondback’s triangular head cocked back tightly against the black geometric scales of yellowed back, for example—but I have heard the sudden shake of rattle, the groan of my bones as I held my foot inches above the ground for fear of the snake’s own puncturing fire.

Moving quietly through the forest, I test the ground before me with the shovel—a willing sacrifice if rattle should sound. Rounding a small holly bush, two deer become spooked and gallop into deeper forest. I watch the whiteness of their raised tails bounce into the distance, having no trouble imagining how a bear or panther could get thrown off by a target that can’t quite be held.

Looking at my watch I see now that I might not be able to hold my own target, the fireline post.

How do these distractions come about? We search for something called survival—a bear to feed her cubs, a man to feed his soul. Moving slowly through the greenness of the forest, searching for something of which we’re not quite sure, suddenly we stumble upon it and all we can do is watch. If we pursue the sheer whiteness of the bobbing tail, it nearly pulls us into the ground. We’d hit the hard and quick wood of a tree, or stumble into abandoned den, and be lost. And yet, if we do nothing, afraid or too bothered to venture into the wilderness, we haven’t even the memory of the chase, the real taste and fingerfuls of loamy soil, to save us. We are more lost than before, surrounded by an unwildfire that we may never escape. In the forest, at least, the chase means we still have a chance, the fire means rebirth.

For now I choose the chase, and turn further into the forest.

The sun is now past its zenith, sliding down the other side of sky to reveal the beauty that is the longleaf pine-wiregrass community. Endless and uneven rows of rich brown trunks rise fifty feet into the air before any full branches grow, and from there the green tufted canopy reaches another forty feet. I pull off a piece of bark as big as my hand and study it. Its outer edges are layered, almost smooth, with mixed colors ranging from saddlebag tan to dark umber. Here and there a ridge of moccasin red and orange flakes. Turning it over, I notice the slight tracks of insects, perhaps the work of a borer or laboring ant. I pull out my lighter, watch the flint spark to flame, and hold the outer edge of the bark an inch above the brightness. Thirty seconds, nothing. After a minute I put the lighter away and touch the inside of the bark—it’s not even warm.

Birds and flowers.In the fire-dependent mature longleaf-wiregrass community, such as this one, there are few other species of plants besides the two namesakes. The wiregrass grows about a foot in height, twenty or more straight golden stems funnel from a single base. Twenty-thousand or more plants form the forest floor. Because this habitat, as opposed to the scrub or swamp communities, is managed, there is little understory growth—a few pines of similar species have been allowed to grow, but no oaks, sparkleberry, or sumacs. Where the slow rolling ground slopes toward the inevitable water, saw-palmettos crowd. Between the dense groundcover and canopies five stories up, however, there is little other plantlife. It’s a bird’s paradise.

The list of birds inhabiting the ecosystem at any given time reads like a birdwatcher’s Christmas list, from American woodcock to Eastern wood-pewee to red-eyed vireo—just a few of the known 240 species in Ocala National Forest alone. While the understory growth of bluejack and turkey oak may be thinned, layers and layers of avian understory abound in these airy halls.

If I fall to my back, spreading the spindly grass into a woven mat, I can see their shifting levels. Tapping around my rooted limbs and grounded chest, a circus of quail, woodcock, and mallard perform. Slightly higher, the jumping artists practice—wild turkey, slick cormorant, wood stork. Higher still, trapeze performers dive and fall: swallow-tailed kite, painted bunting, Cooper’s hawk. And at the leafy tent’s apex, the real show-offs: the fiery cardinal, azure blue jay, tuxedo-black crow. I close my eyes and listen to the carnival music, selectively closing out song after song, until, at long last, the high thyank-thyank-thyank of the red-cockaded woodpecker.

Lifting my drowsy eyelids I find not the quick blur of bird’s hop-flight, but rather the green resin forty feet up—sure sign of the red-cockaded. A colony will usually consist of anywhere from two to twelve full cavities, with a number of starts and digging activity in adjacent trees. Each cavity and start is surrounded by the light green and sticky resinous sap that leaks from the pine’s sub-bark wood, deterring snakes from scaling the trees and eating the eggs and birds. Though I’ve never seen a snake forty feet up a telephone pole-straight pine, I have seen black kingsnake about half that high on twisted slash, a smaller pine. Because of snakes’ ability to climb, understory scrub plants such as oaks, cabbage palmettos, and dogwoods are cut if found around red-cockaded woodpecker colonies. Another Forest Service management scheme. Here, far from the fireline, a few stumps reveal the practice.

The colony is familiar. I open my notebook and find a hand-drawn map, indicating last year’s work. Immediately I see that there has been much activity. Two starts have made it to full cavities, and a number of new starts have been added. This is great news for the endangered species, and a great surprise for me! The chase, it seems, has paid off. I walk a circle around the area, foot behind shovel, to ensure I didn’t miss any other colony activities. After the first songs, I do not hear or see the woodpeckers. But my behavior must be odd to a flirting pair of towhees, hopping from high branch to needled ground, scratching, and then finding the branch again. They sing their own names—towhee towhee—cock dark heads to reveal deep red eyes, and then ruffle the gray feathers of outstretched wings to show fiery orange breasts. I start back toward my post in the denser forest, showing my full face to the towhees as I grin widely in the discovery of the woodpeckers’ productivity.

They must think me mad as I half-walk, half-skip, occasionally dancing around a majestic pine, to the dusty road. No matter, I have seen their crazy joy at lesser things—a beetle grub, a lost dragonfly. We all sing for different reasons.

The wild orchestra is warming up: a congregation of crows is the first to inform me that fire is coming. Soon a hundred birds, flashing like a fastforward watercolorist, paint the darkening canopy. A skein of cattle egret, like elegant pearl kayaks seen from beneath, sails past just over the canopy, their low scroawks a call for the coming smoke. A rainbow of darts shoots through the limbs—a capeful of purple finch, three blue-gray gnatcatchers, a pair of cedar waxwings, and countless ruby-crowned kinglets. Indeed, the whole forest seems to be coming my way. Suddenly the ground is alive with squirrels and bobwhite quail. Yellow-jackets as big as my thumb stumble by, climbing the thin stair-steps of air, falling nearly to the ground, and then climbing again. Even the deer flies have moved away, followed by a scrub jay—always the opportunist.

Heron.The white-tailed deer afraid only an hour before now race past, ears and tails lowered. While a predator may miss the tail, fire has too large a front to be fooled. The deer are followed, in the path they made, by a pair of striped skunks and the slower opossum. Those who can’t run, dig in. The ancient gopher tortoise senses something and retreats into his den. Southern chorus frogs sing one last note and dive into the pond. The nine-banded armadillo retreats into the rootbound earthen walls of home and tightens his armor.
First I see gray smoke. It is always lighter, trailing thinner, than I expect. It moves in ahead of the fire, pushed by the wind, but the sidewinding wall of flame is not far behind. I back toward my truck as the reincarnation that is fire approaches. What myth, I ask again, is it this time?

I focus on the closest front, still hundreds of yards away, but moving toward me. It stalls, retreats over blackened ground, then regains strength and continues to come. The quick flames reach about thirty feet, climbing the scrub species of Chapman oak and even magnolia, passing easily around the taller pines. Thousands of branches singe. They spark a bit, the orange line turning brown branch to black ash, quickly moving from outer limbs to inner trunk, robbing the trees of life while depositing the nutrient-rich ash on the forest floor. A doubting white crowned pigeon or pine warbler explodes into the air as the heat reaches it quickly, warning enough for the procrastinating birds. They sputter into the air and join the masses already at river’s edge, a mile to the west.

Now I see the full cast of the fire, and feel its charged heat. Crimson faces form and then fade into the lighter yellow of the dancing flames. Wickedly long fingers wrap around anything in their path—saw- and cabbage palmettos become shin-high charcoal stumps, the understoried confusion of vines and leafy branches are quickly dissolved—then fall into oxygen-rich air, fueled by wind, for more show.

And here is the plot: wavering lines of soldiers, their round and mirrored shields like a hundred minimal suns, cross the far ridge. They are Roman, their scarlet caps streaking along unrecognizable faces, the golden sheen of armor mad in flickering light. Suddenly the chariots are among them, crashing through ignited brambles, their molten iron wheels turning like undercurrent, the wind’s deepest stream. The muscular horses flail to join the fray, thin legs stamping the ground into sparks. Their tails are unfathomable flames, licking the lower branches to distorted colors of purple, red, and orange. Sapphire togas pinned to bronze bodies contort as the soldiers and chariot drivers weave in and out, up and down, through the low-hilled forest and toward a slight ravine.

The army flares forward, then holds ground as the winds shift, retreating back into the blackened land from which it came. But quickly the explosion of leaders’ voices commence, the masses pulse forward, spears flying from imprecise hands into the tops of lower trees. The thinner outer branches catch, singing the brown and green bark to blue-black ash, coiling the leaves into wilted cigars. Quickly the spears, followed by a hundred random arrows, meet the thicker trunks. They erupt into soft Corinthian columns of flame, crumbling only as the cindering light moves on. Row after hazardly row, the Coliseum is ablaze.

The heat is immense. I step back and watch for emperor’s sign—thumb’s up or down—but he is absent. The guards release the lions, and I am the only dictator. I cannot raise my own hand to the organic scene—it is too beautiful. The maned beasts race onto the smoky field, leaping through brush and onto contorted soldier. Man after man turns to face the giant cats as the wind shifts again. The quicksilver swords pierce thin and blazing skin, but the lions continue, their dark claws rupturing metal suits. Few have fallen, and all now turn their fiery rage toward the west, in search of the river.

I should join in. My oaken shovel has become a scimitar, my dull green clothes turned to shining armor as a cool circular shield grows from my arm. “Aha!” I yell to the oncoming battalion, but my cry is lost in the warriors’ own wild calls. And now I see they are mocking me, as if I am afraid to join their scoundrelous ranks. They leap into the air, nearly flying, and beckon me into the warm envelope. The horses rear in anticipation, the chariots move lower and then pull away in a taunt. But now the first row of soldiers bows, a change of tactic. From dare to devotion, risk to reception, they spread the low glint of shield and sword and clear a darkened path into their ranks. I step forward, and close my eyes.

Lily pads.But mad wind shifts again, peeling my eyes as it pulls back now toward the south, along the fireline, into the thick and rising understory of heavy scrub. In place of oak, fragrant baccharis, and green-berried persimmon, new figures emerge. They are as strange as the Roman soldiers are hysterical, dark as plague, drinking the red light. Suddenly they erupt into the fiendish shapes of half-men. They breathe out ocher flames against the wind itself.

There, above the boiling edge of shallow pond, their bodies are drawn into full view: black bull horns tear through scorching lace, once vines, draping the minotaurs’ broad heads and torsos. Their human legs crumble and regrow with every step. Columns are toppled as they swing their flashing battle-axes mightily. Whole temples of ash and young hickory dissolve.

The palmetto-covered ravine is smoldering when the two sides clash. From the north the roaring lions spread the air, trailing light smoke behind them. Like giant hawks diving through volcano, the blazing cats rip into charging minotaurs. But the horned creatures are strong, and wrestle the clawing lions into the ground. In seconds they are gone, a low series of roars and high blue flames their only monument. The bull-men march forward. I can smell the sulfur now from their axes, dislodging the earth’s molten core with every massive cutting arc. The soldiers also advance, pushed by the golden chariots and red-eyed horses of their nameless generals. They scramble down the scorching slope, every heavy step igniting their heels. Their armor is blinding, but I cannot shield my eyes.

Again I look for the violet robe of emperor, the blazing thumb, but see only the violent robe of battle. Will these ignited figures fight to the finish, or—like the hesitant wind—will one side turn, burning itself into nothing? I cannot wait for an answer, my own heart is dying now, rotting in this rough-barked skin, waiting for myth to play out. I grab the flaming scimitar, raise silver shield, and enter.

A rabbit screams and I am awake. Suddenly I realize there is no myth, only the flaming wall coming toward me. Minotaur and soldier are gone; there are no chariot tracks. I scorn myself for believing, for nearly drinking in the dancing flames. But what about the scream? What about the flaming cap?

I turn and race to my truck, the back of my neck red with heat. As I rev the engine—welcome a hitchhiking spider itself bewildered by the scene—and jam the shifter into gear, I see the crowning wildfire in the rearview mirror. The flames are tasting the understory growth, and my bluejack oak, as I pull onto State Road 40.

Driving east along the narrow highway, I soon pass the pale green Forest Service watertrucks that will douse the fire if the armies rise again. I need water as well. My bark was thinner than expected, so I head to the river.

There is still the third side of the triangle, of fire, and that is humans. Here, in the lightning capital of the world, we choose not to let nature do its own job, burning quickly and almost regularly, but instead decide when a certain parcel of land will burn, if at all. Until recently, the Forest Service neither let the natural, low-intensity fires burn nor conducted prescribed burns itself. Though fires burn quickly anyway—a 1935 wildfire in the Ocala National Forest burned 35,000 acres in just under four hours—man wants to regulate. We extinguish a lightning-initiated fire only to start our own days later. We let the scrub grow itself into a jungle, protect it from fire, only to burn out every scrub oak species in a longleaf pine habitat. Perhaps, I think as I pull into a sunken parking lot adjacent to the Ocklawaha River, we all need a good dousing? Yes, we should all feel the fire’s heat and then drink from the cold and natural river.

Surveying the waning smoke over distant trees, I exit the truck and head south along the swampy edge of the river on foot. Here it is always dark, and always wet. The afternoon rain-to-tell-time-by has been oddly absent this whole week—the marks on baldcypress knees reiterate that the dark water is low. This is a pure stand of baldcypress, their funny knees like stunted growth reaching up three or four feet, and then perhaps breaking into feathery needles. About ten feet up, the drooping branches host Spanish moss in rows of great gray beards.

Skunk.On higher ground, outside the forest, huge live oaks with trunks thick as giants and branches twisting like rough-skinned forearms are robed in the parasitic lace the color of green limestone. Three or four trees in the South command hours of full attention, and live oak is one of them. Redbay is another. On the other side of the black ribbon of river, perhaps where Rabbit watches now, a single redbay hangs its large bonsai-like branches and bitter midnight fruit above the water. It shades a miniature river bay, complete with lily pads and white flowers, a giant’s floating cup and saucer set.

I stand tall and raise my binoculars: the world is circles. Scanning the opposite and uneven edge of the river, I see only a small part of river’s great diversity—a low carpet of waxy green water lettuce; three red-belly turtles, dark legs and head straight out in worship to the sun; and, beneath yellow-green fronds of countless saw-palmettos, the dull pink of rose pogonia, a single leaf on its thin brownish stem rising straight up to native orchid.
Perhaps I should dive the tannic waters, sinking deeply into the foreign world of scarlet sunfish and channel cat only to pull up through braided roots and into the new light of opposite bank? It is dark here, but the lowering sun shines wholly on the eastern bank. It faces its own fire.

But I’ve had enough fire for one day, and decide to keep to the shadows. On the other side of redbay’s vermilion bark, a tangle of lizard’s tail, the large ivy-like leaves and drooping cluster of pale yellow flowers in the shape of scaly tail. A slight breeze pushes the plant against the tall blades of rivergrass, cutting the fragrant tip. Is it truly like lizard, losing half its tail to keep the body whole? I imagine now it is retreating into moist stem, drinking the juice of life to bloom perfect shape in tomorrow’s new light. But on second check it remains severed, waiting for night.

Shifting the binoculars, I pass over thin reeds, darker than usual, and move to sweetbay, twenty feet tall and full of white flowers. Lizard’s tail’s got nothing on me, it says. Its leaves are big as workgloves, green as polished marble above and pale and wooly beneath. They alternate on thin, gray stems, occasionally brown with age or heat. When the wind shifts, the spicy fragrance of cupped flowers nearly pulls me into sleep.

Yet the dark reeds distract me, their jointed lengths and scaled sheaths like tarsus, and I return my narrow vision to them.

There are few—four to be exact—and now, concentrating, I realize they’re moving, as if on a submarine platform: two great egrets. Whenever I see these common birds—the slim statues of ivory bodies, the fiery plumage of breeding pairs—I could plant myself in one spot and watch forever. I would harden like sweetgum, set roots in time, and simply gaze. But they forgive me that botanical life because they are everywhere, though not always at first glance.

They can blend in surprisingly well, fooling toad and bluegill alike. The one with black reed legs moves cautiously, bringing the sliver of deadly beak to touch water, snapping back, and then spearing a perch. A blink and the fish is gone, sliding down the S-curved neck easily. The other is peculiar, its legs light green instead of dark, the milky plume on its smooth head arrow straight instead of curved. Could she be the great white heron, sister of great blue? Do they dare range this far north, leaving south Florida’s brackish mangrove swamps, to court some distant cousin? Or has she fled the afternoon’s windswept flames, leading the jeweled skein, perhaps, that sailed over earlier? I lower the binoculars and let my eyes adjust to her movements.

Gar.She is a ghost of her former blue-gray self, frightened to whiteness by stone gray smoke, the watery movement of fire. Or perhaps she is a pale Cleopatra, fleeing armor-clad Roman soldiers, finding her way to reedy marsh and then captured by her own slim reflection. And now the slow darkness of river will not let her go. Nor me.

But where would we go? There are no mangrove roots twisting like wooded watersnakes to tease her feet deeper, no grunting mullets flipping fin above the liquidy surface. And I cannot penetrate the macramé roots of tannic stream to join her—cannot blossom into the long white feathers of dusty wings and lift effortlessly into thick air and night’s cool front.
I watch as she raises her perfectly dangerous head and slips deeper into the reeds, leaving the egret behind.

Her tawny eyes are sharp as her beak, quick as the young striped bass suddenly flaring golden tail in the waning light. And gone. The ripples subside quickly, and I return my gaze. She stares back and now I am the one who is out of place. She steps forward, the deep green toes stretching fully and then releasing back into the river. She is daring me, I think, to prove my residence.

How can I fool such a noble bird? Yet like a court jester nearing the end of his term, I try anyway. I rise out of my crouched position and maintain her stare. Lifting my right leg, I balance precariously on my left, holding thin arms out slightly. A decent breeze would knock me into the river, and that may be what she wants. What am I doing? I look more like a sickly flamingo than a great white heron, more like a circus act than a smoothly feathered bird.

Perhaps she is smiling, the straight line of her speared beak turning up slightly at its end, just beneath the jeweled eye. Perhaps now I am smiling, too, as I realize the whole forest may be watching, and the laughter is too quiet—or too loud—for me to hear.
So I listen closely.

A jay screams in the higher branches of baldcypress. A turtle drops into the water, echoing slightly. Random song birds start a chorus, break half way, and then start again. I put my leg down and take a small step back. The white heron unfolds her beautifully symmetrical wings, draws her neck into firing pin, and sails. A heavy rush of air and her only remembrance of this place, of me, is a thin trail of water joining again the river. I watch as the slow craft of her body slips over the far line of trees. She is heading south, appropriately.

Perhaps I have been out for hours. The mosquitoes probably know, assaulting my neck and arm and jaw. The birds are gone, the orchids closed up, and night is coming. I move quickly on the rackety boardwalk, back toward the truck, slightly disappointed as I glance around that I didn’t see an alligator, or at least the mottled back of alligator gar. Yet I am also relieved. There is something undefinable about the alligator, about the triangular ridges of inch-thick skin, the craggedy tight fit of two-inch teeth, the three-inch claws on feet that lift the giant lizard’s body to speeds faster than a horse. I could wait till dark and shine their eyes to red and green, but they are better off left to the thick darkness of water, the light reflection of half-moon, its own alien fire.

Instead, I make my way back to the truck and head for home, the low headbeams passing out of the forest.

The next day I cross the bridge of early morning river and meet the forest’s busiest hour. Summer tanagers greet me first with song and then with glimpse of scarlet as the truck comes to a slow halt. They are bickering—at the air, a Southern flying squirrel, me—as if to say, “Hey, what’s with the charred ground?” But they know the cycle well, as do all the forest inhabitants, and the nutrient-rich ash of the burned floor promises breakfast, lunch, and dinner for most.

Deer.Small puffs of light gray smoke are still chased by morning breeze, but the ground is cool enough to walk. With the exception of a light coating of ash, the towering pines look no different than the day before. I cannot say the same for the riff-raff of oak and other scrub species that stood here only yesterday. Their dark skeletal trunks rise like tiny mountains in Van Gogh’s Starry Night: deformed, lifeless, wretched.

But on the other side of the road, beyond a lower stand of pines perhaps ten years in age, the scrub oak community is alive and well. The sky blue scrub jay, diving through farther branches, sings his raucous cry in confirmation. These random trees grew here because their seeds, lodged in the fruit of green and brown acorns, were brought over years ago, perhaps by gray squirrel or, where a thicket has formed, a rambunctious black bear.

I make my way through blackened limbs to the marshy pond of yesterday. Still no site of bigger animals, but tracks in the soft soil are the guest log. Most animals survive the fire—at least the cotton mouse and raccoon whose fingery imprints meet the water’s edge. Even a Florida purplewing, its black and violet wings only slightly heavier than humid air, promises butterflies after the scorch. But at my feet the remains of a palmetto bug, the giant subtropical roach, pulled from its host plant. Rumors of roach’s ability to withstand nuclear war may be true, but this one gave in to a small wildfire.

Kneeling down, I let the powdery ash mark my pants as I dust the warm soil aside to study younger pines. Though their tips are burned to blackness, the inner needles and thin stems are unharmed. These will grow to mighty heights, one day replacing the towering trees now filtering the pale morning light. Looking down the sloping ground, toward the pond, I can barely make out the saw-palmettos. They are something unfamiliar now, smoldering stumps gathered like defeated soldiers, like minotaurs crumpled into hardened shells of bark and pith. But unlike those mythic beasts, these hardy plants will return, stronger than before, and again fill in the changing line between water and land.

And what about the changing fire lines, the Forest Service policy to burn these lands? As a volunteer wildlife biologist for the agency it would be easy to espouse its own party line, because I cannot deny the need for fire. But I don’t agree with the burns because some bureaucracy deems, for now, that prescribed burns are the best policy. I agree because fire is rebirth, because whole flaming armies have ravished these acres and in their wake yearning civilizations of young green trees and uncountable animals will rise. The land has been made stronger by nutrients returning to the soil. The cycle, the triangle, is complete, and begins again. Whether it’s flora or fauna or even those relative newcomers humans, fire is essential. If we won’t let it burn naturally, randomly, we must at least let it burn mechanically.

In another Seminole tale, Rabbit decides to fool mighty Alligator and become king of the animals. One day he found Alligator at the water’s bank, sunning himself graciously, a crooked smile on his face. “What is it you want?” snapped Alligator. Rabbit was casting his shadow over Alligator’s smooth skin, angering him.

“Oh great Alligator,” Rabbit responded, “have you ever looked straight at the Sun?”

“No,” said the large reptile, “but I am not afraid to see him.”

“Well,” followed Rabbit, “I saw the Sun on the grassy hill, and he said you were afraid to look at him.”

“I am most certainly not afraid, and you can tell him so.”

Rabbit agreed, but informed his thick-tailed friend that none of the other animals believed him. Alligator needed to prove his courage, but then of course Rabbit knew he could. The only place Alligator could fully see the Sun was the grassy knoll, so Rabbit suggested he meet the Sun there the next day.

Spoon bill.Alligator agreed, listening to Rabbit’s advice: “When you see the smoke rising, do not be scared,” Rabbit said. “And when you see the birds flying and the deer running past you, do not be afraid. And finally, when you hear the fire crackling and the flames all around you, do not turn and run. Then you will get a good look at the Sun.”

“I am not afraid, you do not need to be particular about me,” replied Alligator.

The next day, Rabbit led Alligator to his place on the hill. He laughed triumphantly to himself as he urged Alligator further from water, and then scampered to the other side of the prairie. He found a burning stump, stole the fire, and set the grassy hill ablaze. He ran back to Alligator’s side, on sandy ground where there was no grass, and watched as heavy smoke clouded the sky and the birds flew and animals ran by.

“Oh, Rabbit, what is that?” asked Alligator.

“That is just the Sun starting out,” he said. “You stay there.”

Soon the flames swept over the hill, and the roar of the fire was loud. “Rabbit, what is that?” Alligator winced.

“That,” he said, smiling to himself, “is just the Sun’s breath. Be still, and you will see him directly.”

Finally the fire burned the grass all around him, under his belly, and Alligator writhed in pain. Rabbit rolled on the sand and lifted his feet into the air in a fit of laughter. When he saw Alligator begin to move, he called over to him, “Alligator, do not be afraid. You will see the Sun shortly.”

But Alligator rumbled off the hill and tumbled into the water, its coolness easing the pain. When the fire ceased he crawled back to land, noticing that his back was cracked from the fire. Rabbit had fooled Alligator, and the rough lines and scales of his once-smooth back attest to this.

As I turn toward the road, the slight wind stops and my neckhair rises. I inch around and watch the pond. I envision a thunderous crash filling the air. Closing my eyes I can see, across the boggy run, maybe fifty yards from the bluejack’s blackened stump, a six-foot alligator erupting from the speckled combination of dark water and bright bladderwort. He lands as a marsh rabbit scrambles through ashy blackness, racing around destroyed brush like a wasp gone madder.

Rabbit is miles away before Alligator turns, sliding heavily into the welcoming swamp. But as I open my eyes the water is calm, and any alligators have moved closer to the river, away from the fire. They won’t find Rabbit there, for he is in the work of a fire crew on the other side of the forest. The crew is lighting silver torches now, running the scarlet flames across the tangled land. Its dry understory drinks in the golden light as the wind primes the land.


Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
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Ocala National Forest

The Florida National Scenic Trail in Ocala National Forest

Silver River State Park

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Information on the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker

The Seminole Tribe of Florida


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