Saturday, December 29, 2007

Another Walk at O'Leno

I hiked the ~4.0 mile Parener's Branch trail at O'Leno State Park with my daughters on December 27. The day was clear and warm, nearly 80 degrees. The miles rolled by really quickly since we were talking and bantering the whole way.

We flushed a trio of whitetail deer not long after we hit the trail. About a mile or so later, far from the developed portion of the park, we found some very large tracks in the sugary sand. One of the tracks had a claw-print pressed into wet soil about the diameter of a pencil. We figured it was likely a black bear track, since the only other large animal that could have produced the tracks was a cougar, and cougars are supposedly extremely scarce in this part of the state. The forested lands bordering the Santa Fe River are fine habitat and an important wild corridor for the movement of large predators between giant tracts of undeveloped wildlands in the Suwannee River watershed and beyond.

The Santa Fe River is as low as I've seen it in the park, in the decade that I've been visiting it. The river sink, where the entire river goes underground, is covered with duckweed and water spangles. During higher water, the river slowly swirls round and round counterclockwise and turtles can be seen hitching rides on pieces of driftwood that spin endlessly in circles around the sink. There was no perceptible movement of the water on this day. All the turtles that were hauled out and sunning themselves were covered in a mat of duckweed.

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Monday, October 1, 2007

Tallahassee-St. Marks State Trail

My wife and I decided to tour the Tallahassee- St. Marks State Trail that runs from Tallahassee FL straight south to St. Marks, at the confluence of the Wakulla and St. Marks rivers. We chose to bicycle the 16 miles rather than tackle it on foot. We decided to explore this nice paved trail upon the strong recommendation of a fellow traveler we met when we hiked and camped at Torreya State Park in September of this year.

The day was lovely and cool, and overcast for the most part. We'd experienced over a week of daily rains, with additional showers in the weekend forecast. The chance of sour weather ensured that there were few people riding the distance. The further away we rode from Tallahassee, the fewer people we encountered.

We parked at the main trailhead, stretched for a few minutes, and then began pedaling. Before we knew it, we'd sailed right past the 5 mile marker. The paved and nearly level surface of the former railroad grade made for easy riding. At about 10 miles we broke out our ponchos and rode through a 5-minute rain shower. That was the only precipitation during the entire glorious ride.

The trail passed through occasional neighborhoods and small commercial areas. For most of its length the trail is bounded on the west by the Apalachicola State Forest, so one has views into piney woods that are being managed by thinning and controlled burns to restore the longleaf pine flatwoods, a nearly extirpated ecosystem (99% gone) that is the home of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker and other listed or rare species.

The trail ends in downtown St. Marks, a tiny fishing community right on the banks of the river of the same name. We immediately set out to find Posey's World Famous Oyster Bar - only to realize that the establishment is defunct and the building empty. I had to appease my craving for fresh oysters with a fried oyster sandwich at the Riverside Cafe, next door. Posey's was a local destination in its day. Here is how one reviewer described it:

"This is [a] real oyster bar and an old landmark and looks like it. "Good smoked mullet and oysters, a real old Florida oyster bar. They also serve other local seafood, but you go here for the mullet and oysters. Take a dollar bill to write your name on and staple to the wall or ceiling, it'll make you feel local. Prices are low."
We dined outside to the views of crab boats chugging by, a crew unloading traps from a boat at the fish house next door, and the timeless saltmarshes extending to the horizon beyond the river. Afterwards we bicycled a mile or so among the marshes to San Marcos de Apalache State Park. We walked the trails around the old fort ruins and toured the museum/visitors' center. The fort sits at the extreme point of land internal to the confluence of the St. Marks and Wakulla Rivers. It was quite interesting to stand on the rocky point with its cedar trees and sawgrass and imagine the parade of indigenous peoples and (since 1528) Europeans that through the centuries have stood at that very spot to fish, and hunt, and watch for marauders, enemies, friends, rescuers, and conquerors. We recommend a visit to this small state park with its very impressive history.

We had just finished strapping the bikes onto the carrier when the rain started. We'd watched towering gunmetal clouds with their skirts of rain advancing eastward across the endless marshlands west of the Wakulla River, and listened as the claps of thunder grew closer and louder. The scene was magnificent and humbling. We were glad to get on down the road after such a lovely day's riding and walking in the area. We're sure to return soon - there are so many natural areas to explore there.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Anastasia Island - St. Augustine FL

We traveled to St. Augustine, FL, our favorite day-trip when we want to mix city-doings with time on the beach. The morning was overcast and drizzly, so we spent a couple of hours visiting our favorite haunts in St. Augustine. We breakfasted and toured the Leitner Museum during the rainiest part of the day. The museum (a former hotel built by Rockefeller's Standard Oil partner Henry Flagler) has some fascinating but rather pedestrian personal luxuries of some of the wealthy northerners of the late Victorian period. Overall, my impression of the museum is that it is more of a mausoleum - and the few recently (more or less) acquired collections (donations) on display are not up to par with what one might expect in such a grandiose building with the history that it has.

A very brief history of the ancient town and the Flagler era is found at this webpage, home of the bed-and-breakfast at the historic Wescott house.

The sun came out, and we lit out for the beach at Anastasia Island State Park. Winds were blowing onto the shorefront at about 30 knots. Red flags warning of dangerous riptides were flapping. We spent a lot of time just lazing in the wind watching the water from beach chairs (which tried to blow away if you didn't sit on them!). After a while I went a-walking - combing the lines of stranded sea-wrack for tropical drift fruits and seeds (seabeans) blown ashore by the weather. I walked north for over a mile picking as I went along, saving just the best one or two examples of each of the types seabeans I encountered. is a great resource to help you identify and research those fruits and seeds you might have brought home from you last vacation to Florida, and to get in touch with other folks who collect these interesting oceanic oddities.

A brief list of the species I took home, more or less in order of abundance:

  • "Indian Almond" - Terminalia catappa
  • Spondias mombin
  • Manicaria (a palm fruit)
  • Saccoglotis "grenade fruit"
  • "Sea Heart" - Entada gigas
  • Dalbergia - flat coin-shaped legume
  • Manchineel - poison ivy tree
  • 2 other yet unidentified disseminules
A series of my seabean collections spanning several years and various localities is housed in the Paleobotany Collections of the Florida Museum of Natural History.

As always, I collected a pile of plastic trash while beachcombing. I concentrate my efforts on a single color to make it more interesting. This day the color was blue, so I returned with an amazing array of blue refuse, including a toothbrush, several butane cigarette lighters, a mismatched pair of child's penguin hair barettes, and a bazillion lids and seals from beverage bottles. The scourge of plastic floating in the oceans and being cast up on the world's beaches is a legacy that will long outlive us and our children and that will bear witness to our species' wasteful and harmful habit of discarding our chemical leavings everywhere. Visit the Greenpeace animation showing the Pacific trash vortex to learn more about the journey of plastic trash in the world's oceans. Scientists estimate the Pacific gyre now has a carpet of plastic trash about the SIZE OF TEXAS.

The 2-or-so mile walk, while beset with wind, was not unpleasant. The beach was anything but crowded, so one could lose one's self in activity and introspection. But my eyes kept burning. I learned later that that stretch of north Florida was under red tide alert. My eyes watered and burned for 2 days.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Hiking Torreya State Park

My wife and I journeyed to Torreya State Park for a weekend camping/hiking trip for my birthday.

We left after a leisurely morning, bound for breakfast on the road and a previously reserved campground. I'm a professional botanist, and during the dozen or so years in Florida had yet to explore this botanically-rich park on the banks of the Apalachicola River. I'll say from the outset that we had a most remarkable and enjoyable weekend. For the weekend we packed a cooler full of frozen water, snacks and food for 2 days, our hiking and camping gear, a small fold-out table, and our old portable color television. I'll mention the TV later.

We stopped for breakfast in Bristol, a small community not far from our destination. We ate at a country-cooking restaurant called" Pouncey's", a name that baffles us still. I immediately thought "cat" upon reading the name, and had no idea that that intuition would play into the tale that follows. We dined on an "adequate" meal of scrambled eggs, corned-beef hash, biscuits and gravy, grits and home fries. The wife went to the restroom while I paid. Suddenly there was a noisy commotion in the kitchen attended by shouting, banging, and the sounds of struggle. Peering in the windows of the swinging waiters' doors into the kitchen I observed a young female cook and an older waitress clash amid a storm of profanity. When the shoving and shouting turned to thrown punches, screaming and hair-pulling, two young busboys leapt from their vigil at an unused table to stare at the ruckus behind the doors. The cashier who had been processing my bill camly turned and said in a wonderful drawl to the boys, "I wouldn't stand there, last time they went at it they were throwin' kitchen stuff and eachother right out those doors".

I watched with a little glee and a lot of concern at the full-blown
pouncy cat fight while wondering if I hadn't ought to collect the wife and run for cover. Two other ladies from the kitchen tried to break up the fight to no avail; it took two additional male kitchen staff members to subdue them and stop the fighting. Try as they might, they couldn't stop the profanity. As I finished paying, the older of the two combatants quit on the spot and stormed out in a flurry of profanity. The cause of the battle: a side order of biscuits that wasn't ready. I think the scene was about as redneck a thing as I have ever seen. Of course, my wife missed the whole thing, minus the sounds of the commotion ringing through the walls.

We continued on our way and arrived at Torreya shortly after noon. We checked into our campground and began to explore the area. We immediately realized we'd picked a wonderful site, #17 in the Weeping Ridge camp area. This particular site has a westerly view from the bluffs of the Apalachicola River and is adjacent to an open area with a short trail that leads to an overlook of the river bottoms and the lands beyond. We set up our tent, got situated, then went for our first walk of the weekend. We hiked down roads to the Gregory House, an antebellum mansion situated atop the bluff overlooking the river 260+ feet below. We found a trail leading north from the mansion grounds, and soon found ourselves hiking past civil war cannon emplacements notched into the top of the bluff. The trail wound down the bluffs to the river bottoms, then turned south along the river, eventually leading up the bluff back to the camp. We spotted 2 wild hogs among the towering cypress, winged elm, sycamore, and tupelo trees in the river bottom. One of the large hogs was black and white. It was a great start. We got back to camp, showered, and prepared for dinner and some television watching.

Not just any television. It was Saturday evening, and we were determined to watch British comedies on the local PBS channel out of Tallahassee. We lit several votive candles and set them around the camp area, lit a large citronella candle, and spent a quiet evening alternately watching the sunset and wry comedy on TV. As dusk fell, a tiny bat flew right between our heads as we sat side-by-side laughing at the antics of the British actors. A few more bugs came out as we began to tire from our hike and from sitting in the camp chairs. We simply took the TV and its table into to tent and continued watching from our bed until sleep compelled us to retire. We felt like we'd discovered the ultimate lap of luxury with the sunset, our flickering candles and watching television under the stars.

The next morning we found a much longer and harder trail to occupy us. We hiked from the picnic area near the Gregory house along a trail that took us past the CCC stone bridge, Rock Creek, and through upland areas of the park. The trail traversed deep ravines with thickets of the rare Torreya tree, up and down the ravines and ridges that finger through the park, across broad expanses of sandhill scrub with rocky cliffs and amphitheaters, back down to the river bottoms, and straight back up knife-edge ridges to the shoulders of the bluffs. We drank the rest of our water on that hike, but were rewarded with a diverse array of topography and plant communities that one couldn't imagine could occur in one half-days' hiking. During this second days' hiking we saw a white-tail deer (immediately after my wife mentioned "here" is where I'd expect to see a deer), and a barred owl. This hike was very, very strenuous to we who had become used to walking relatively flat areas over longer distances. The wife's summary during the drive home and remembering afterwards proclaimed that that second hike "spanked our butts". I don't exactly disagree. But I'd return in a heartbeat, straight to that lovely campground #17, and do it all over again.

Below is a list of common names of the 50 or so tree species I identified during the hiking in Torreya St. Park, more or less in the order in which I remembered them as I wrote them down after each hike:

Tulip tree (grand examples)
American beech
2 different hawthorns
Basswood (linden tree, lime tree)
Water oak
American holly
Carolina silverbell
Red mulberry
Florida sugar maple
Winged Elm (state champion here has lost its crown, and status, alas.)
Sand pine
Loblolly pine
Slash pine
Bald cypress
Needle palm (you mightn't ever see so many in the wild as here)
Red buckeye
Southern magnolia
Mockernut hickory
Wax myrtle
White oak
Southern red oak
Swamp chestnut oak
laurel oak
Southern red cedar
Southern live oak
Boxelder maple
Red maple
Yaupon holly
Red bay
Wild cherry
Laurel cherry
Black gum (upland tupelo species)
Crab apple
Turkey oak
Bluejack oak
Longleaf pine
Witch hazel
Chickasaw plum
Swamp tupelo
Ashe's magnolia

The Torreyas were among the most memorable trees, and to see thickets of them was magical, since they grow wild nowhere else on earth. I saw the largest sparkleberries I'd every seen; lovely individuals of this arborescent blueberry. I must return again to ferret out the elusive Florida Yew, which also is found in the park.

The 2 park staff members we interacted with during our stay were very obliging and helpful. They helped make it a most wonderful weekend. We returned with a couple of pounds of locally-harvested tupelo honey as a souvenir.

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Saturday, September 1, 2007

Evinston-Micanopy Bob Cunningham Memorial Walk

Today was another in our series of Evinston to Micanopy round-trip walks. We call it our Bob Cunningham Memorial Walk, after a dear outsider artist friend who joined my wife and I on one of our Evinston-Micanopy-Evinston round trip walks one year, only to break off from us and the walk a quarter of the way through and relocate to Iowa the next day, never to be seen by us again. The walk from Evinston to Micanopy is 4 miles, making the round trip an even 8 miles.

We began our outing with a long chat with Freddy Wood, his wife Miss Sue Wood, and Freddy's brother Ashley (Ash) in the Wood and Swink store where our post-box was located when we lived in that lovely hamlet prior to
purchasing our 1935 restored bungalow in the northwestern part of the county. We sat in ancient chairs near the wood stove which supplies heat to the Wood and Swink store during the winter months. We hadn't seen Freddy and Sue since the Evinston-Cross Creek paint-out in February, when we last walked the route. Freddy farms the land behind the store in the photo, above, and Miss Sue is the long-time post-mistress. Freddy's father was postmaster for several decades until his wife took over the job. The store and post office has been in the Wood family since the turn of the century, a store that is listed in the National Register of Historic places. I was pleased to learn that in two or three weeks time okra, peas and tomatoes will be ready and for sale in the store. My wife and I relished eating vegetables that were picked by Freddy that day, when we lived in Evinston before. We really relished knowing that buying and eating Freddy's produce had been a continuous community tradition for many decades before we lived there, among just a handful of families. We'll show up there in 2-3 weekends, cash and carry-bags in hand.

The first four miles of the walk went fast, since we were fresh and walking in the cool of the morning. We took note of bird calls, blooming plants and other natural features along the sandy roads to Micanopy. Upon arriving, we lunched on sandwiches and soup at our usual haunt, the Old Florida Cafe.
A cowboy-hatted, cowboy-booted, jeans-wearing man with an enormous gray Brahman steer, a big white goose, and a liver-spotted Australian shepherd-dog offered rides to passersby across a little alley near the center of the road that runs through the short antique store lined main street.

That same managery minus goose, can be seen in this rainy-day video clip recently posted on YouTube by some other happy visitor to Micanopy. We laughed when the cowboy mounted his massive steer and rode around the sunny thoroughfare, white goose and liver-spotted sheep dog tailing behind, the animals maintaining a polite and ordered distance as the great cow with rider stepped out its measured pace along the street.

The return walk back to Evinston was completely different from the initial walk. The sun was fully up in the sky, the road was hot, and the humidity and temperature had risen appreciably. We were forced to shake off the languid feeling of having eaten a delightfully full meal, and had to stretch muscles that thought they were finished exerting for the day. Out came the hats to shade the sun from our brows and eyes. Limbs and feet felt the heat of the day, and the return walk dragged on in comparison to the earlier effort. We were tiring, and feeling the "stretch" part of the walk, and were drinking frequently from bottles of the previously frozen water we'd carried with us.

Despite feeling the burn from resuming the walk in the hotter part of the early afternoon, we were happy. We had water to spare; there were shady breaks at regular intervals; and we anticipated the satisfaction that we would soon complete the last of an 8-mile walk during the high-summer heat in Florida.

Evinston was quiet when we arrived. We simply got in the car and drove away, promising to walk the route again with friends, or without, when the weather cooled a bit. The whole journey, including trekking, lunch, and travel time to and fro, was about 6 hours. We'd do it again in a heart-beat or two.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

In Praise of Walking - 1911 Book

Note the permanent sidebar link to the Google-scanned text of a book that has been part of my library for a long time. "In Praise of Walking" contains delightful essays on that topic by Carman, Hazlitt, Stevenson, Thoreau, Burroughs, Symons, and Morris.

Google Books has an on-line scanned copy of this lovely book of essays that every dedicated walker should read and ponder.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Workaday Walks

Monday, August 20, 2007. A long morning jaunt in the farmlands of northwest Alachua County, Florida began on a dirt road that passes between a tobacco field and a millet field on its way north to a cattle ranch on the Santa Fe River. The tobacco was all but harvested; now just bare stalks with a crown of small leaves and a few spikes of pale pink flowers stood naked in the field.

The millet was a different story. It was vigorous, robust, and seemed to be loving the hot rainless weather we've experienced lately. Individual stalks stood about waist-high. Six to eight foot plants towering over their brethren at the extreme edges of the field hinted that this field had been cut over once before. This field of millet was destined to be silage for cows, and the second cutting was nigh (the friendly farmer presently appeared driving a large tractor with a sickle-bar and began cutting as the walk began). I broke off several millet spikes that were bursting with seeds to take home to add to a trellis upon which I've interwoven the seed heads of the many sunflowers I grew this year to attract butterflies and birds to the yard. Cardinals and other summer locals have been busy at work on these offerings during the past week or two.

The modest pleasure of drawing then observing birds and butterflies to one's home is an easy way to begin to reconnect one's self to the natural world and to become more aware of the lives and workaday doings of these lovely creatures. I recommend the effort to everyone with a little patch of earth that they might devote and cultivate to that purpose. Perhaps you might set up and stock a bird feeder or two and begin to plant annuals and perennials that attract birds and butterflies native to your area. Or let a piece of your yard go wild for a few seasons and see what a gentle yielding to nature brings. The rewards are many. I promise.

The walk in the floodplain woods on the far side of the millet field was equally rewarding. Here and there majestic spruce pines towered over younger blue beech, Florida elm, and swamp chestnut oak. Portions of this parcel of land, once mostly cleared and farmed during the last hundred years, preserve a portion of the rich floodplain slope forest that once dominated the area. How does one know that? This parcel abuts the 1200-acre Mill Creek Nature Preserve, purchased and managed by Alachua County, a piece of land that holds not only the southernmost population of American Beech in North America, but one of the southernmost populations of beaver as well. Species from the preserve, saved from the plow, are just barely starting to recolonize those portions of the adjacent farmed area that have lain fallow for a number of years. The remarkable diverse forest of the adjacent preserve is truly one of the natural jewels of Alachua County. The floodplain woods and associated wetlands and drainage features on the far side of the millet field will be placed under conservation easement, and will become a de facto addition to the larger Mill Creek Preserve. One couldn't be happier. This is how development should work, no matter the scale.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007. Today I walked around a 2-acre parcel near a freeway interchange that is slated to join a gaggle of hotel properties already in the area. The land was underbrushed a few years ago and a portion of the ground beneath towering live and southern red oaks has been choked by the exotic invasive Cogon grass. While it will be nice to eradicate a patch of this awful African invader, the loss of mature native oak canopy for development of a hotel property is troubling. One tree of note stands on the property line, and will be likely incorporated into the site's landscaping if I have any say (and I do) - a tree in the citrus family known by several names, including toothache tree, prickly ash, and Hercules club. The tree's foliage is shiny green, and when chewed, turns the tongue, teeth, gums, and palate uncomfortably numb - hence the name toothache tree. These native trees prefer dry open habitats. There are commonly encountered along fence-lines in pastures and farm fields ("planted" by perching birds who've eaten their fruits), but also occasionaly as dwindling hold-outs in well-drained early-successional upland woodlands that have grown up where old fields have been abandoned. The particular individual on this property is quite large and branchy. The species is host to the giant swallowtail butterfly.

My treasure from this walk was a guayabera pocket stuffed with native passion-vine fruits. The seeds within these green ovoidal fruits are covered with a fleshy growth that is tart and fruity tasting. I'd not tried it before today. I was pleasantly surprised by how much flavor Nature can imbue into this edible native food.

Later in the day I walked a few blocks downtown to post a letter and to return a book to the county public library. I'd walked those particular sidewalks many times. This walk was different, because I was engrossed in a new book - Jon Clinch's "Finn" - a new novel by a new author that imagines Huckleberry Finn's father, "one of American literature's most brutal and mysterious figures", to quote the blurb on the back cover. Reading while walking familiar paths is a pleasure in and of itself. You might try it, especially if your reading is generally accomplished indoors.

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Exploring O'Leno State Park

I Hiked the Parener's Branch Trail at O'Leno State Park north of High Springs, Florida on a gloriously sunny Saturday this weekend. I started as early as I could to beat the 90+ degree heat predicted for the hottest part of the day. The 6000-acre park on the Santa Fe River is minutes from my home. I have walked the trail and explored the off-trail environs numerous times. Saturday's rewarding mid-summer ramble was 5-6 miles long.

I spent a good while investigating a large upland sandhill community that had been subjected to a controlled burn a few weeks or months ago. I made sorties into the burn from the surrounding fire breaks. Longleaf pines of various ages now stood on bare sandy ground among fresh patches of native grasses and forbs that have been released from competing hardwoods by the fire. Fine-scale topographic features within the burn area are much easier to discern now that the area has been cleared of the thickets of invading hardwoods:

  • Broad sandy mounds marking the eroded sites of long-abandoned gopher tortoise burrows;
  • Barely noticeable ruts of an old cart-path (parts of the park were farmed between the demise of the little town of Leno before 1900 and its acquisition and development as a park in the 1930's);
  • An old fire break;
  • Gopher tortoise trails. Gopher tortoises have dug many new burrows in the burn and are presently wearing new trails from burrow to burrow and to feeding areas, skirting newly fallen logs and other obstructions as they navigate their newly revitalised landscape. The density of new burrows in this area is very encouraging. Gopher burrows are known to house around 300 species of commensal organisms from the cotton mouse to the indigo snake. Many of the burrow-sharers are listed or endangered species too. This is why protecting the tortoises and their habitat is crucial.
It was a strange sensation to hear and feel sounds emanating from the ground beneath my feet as I paused a few yards away from the entrance of one new burrow to listen to a tortoise digging away underground.

O'Leno State Park is home to the River Sink, where the Santa Fe River slowly swirls around in a large circular sinkhole as it drains underground. Trails in the park take one past several more-or-less linear water-filled depressions variously called lakes, sinks, and branches (Parener's Branch is one example). These small fresh water bodies are windows into the Old Bellamy Cave System (50,000 feet of divable tunnels as of 2007) through which the Santa Fe River flows underground for roughly 3 miles through a maze of conduits 80-100 feet below ground level before surfacing as a first-magnitide spring at River Rise Preserve State Park to the south of O'Leno. The natural land bridge between the sink and and rise of the Santa Fe River has been traveled by native Americans since time out of mind, and historically, by the Spanish conquistadores/explorers/missionaries, and European-American settlers and their descendants. The evolving story of the the discovery and underground exploration of this world-class fresh water cave system beneath this land bridge is simply amazing. But I was there to walk and to observe the above-ground plants and wildlife. I leave the dangerous cave diving to the true adventurers.

Each of the sinks, branches, ponds, "lakes" and other hidden and mysterious linear water bodies along Oleno's trails has its own character:
  • Jim's Sink - is picturesque, and reminds one of a Japanese painting. Just now, in late summer, the floating fern Salvinia obscures nearly half of its surface. Yet the basin is active with the sounds of fish sipping insects off the surface and occasionally jumping from the black tannin-stained water with a loud splash. There is an abundance of false indigo shrubs near the bench/overlook.
  • New Sink - further along the trail, is completely different. Salvinia and marsh pennywort have choked the surface of the water and there is little or no false indigo to be seen. Rather, vegetation of the surrounding woods dominates. A tiny island populated by a few woodland trees sits near the overlook. It is evident that the ground around this island recently gave way and left the island standing above the sunken water-filled ground 10-15 feet below. That evidence, and the paucity of water-loving vegetation give credence to the name of the sink. Wetland plants that one would expect to see there simply have not had sufficient time to build up appreciable populations. Here one is reminded that the river flows through a lacework of underground caves and channels, and that the ground beneath one's feet is perhaps not as solid as it seems.
  • A nameless sink - A few hundred yards North and West of Jim's and New sinks I noticed the ground falling away into another depression out of sight from the trail. I bushwhacked through the woods and encountered another small water-filled sink. This nameless feature has its own complement of vegetation different from that of the other sinks. Here a ring of tall buttonbush stands at water's edge. Moving upslope within the circular depression are fine examples of river birch, Florida maple, and parsley haw. There are lovely little haw thickets, and stands of sparkleberry, a small arborescent blueberry species in the piney woods along the sink edge.
It was pleasing to make these small discoveries and to expand my knowledge of the park. Besides these highlights, I made a few other small discoveries notable at least to me.
  • At the first confluence of the "green" Parener's Branch trail and the short "orange" bicycle trail connector (trail segments are marked by painted blazes on trees or by inconspicuous 4X4 trail markers) I found several native hibiscus plants in bloom. This particular rosemallow species has ivory-yellow petals with a blood-red throat. I'm not yet sure of the species, but the individuals are standing among fans of saw-palmetto and shiny blueberry in a scrubby area where sand live oaks were the predominant tree.
  • On a stretch of trail north of the sinks I spotted a very large Bluff Oak standing in a forest of large-diameter live oaks, pignut and mockernut hickories, and hop-hornbeams about 250 feet off the trail. This bluff oak was about 40" in diameter and its maximum crown spread about 80 feet. I believe that to date this specimen is the largest bluff oak individual that I have found in this part of Florida.
Walking takes on many forms. You can keep your eyes on the path and rack up miles and miles in a day. Sometimes I prefer to saunter, to look up into the treetops, to meander repeatedly on and off the path, and to stop often to contemplate everything from a flower or a giant tree to the subtle evidences of human activity that ceased a century or more before. Walking has its rewards, and they are not always the rewards you set out to achieve.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Dean - First 2007 Hurricane

Tropical Storm Dean has strengthened and so becomes the first hurricane of the 2007 season. Hurricane Dean is walking its way across the Atlantic at 18-20 mph and appears to be headed for the Yucatan. A National Weather Service posting indicates that an Air Force Reserve hurricane hunter aircraft will be dispatched this afternoon, and the NOAA will send its Gulfstream-IV on a surveillance mission.

You might want to bookmark this Google Earth site to track the storm's progress.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Walking Is Like Breathing

I've considered the long Summer Rambles along town-to-town rural roadways of north-central Florida that my wife and I enjoy. The essence of these extended day-long journeys can be seen as a dichotomy between movement and rest. So consider this movement-rest dichotomy, from the general to the specific.

  • The Earth: The surface of the earth is not flat. It moves. It breathes. It heaves and falls, and it rests. For the most part, our rural walking paths follow a varied surface dictated historically by historic landforms.

  • The Road: The roads we walk are never linear because they follow the land's undulating surface. The way rises and falls like gentle unhurried breathing. The road curves this way and that as it follows the contours of the land and the patchwork of farms and section lines. On straight level stretches the road rests; on the curves and dips the road moves. It moves and breathes with the earth except in those places where Arrogant Man has bent it to his purpose and forced the road to unaturally lie where it wouldn't otherwise.

  • Walking: We begin our walk from a state of rest and about 10 miles later end the walk and rest again. Walking, we stride with purpose through the sunny stretches and linger in the shade. We stop to contemplate a lovely tree, or a sandhill crane in a pasture, or the blush of new growth painting the outer branches of an oak hammock. Then we start again. We stop to drink and stretch, exchange a touch, a kiss, then start walking anew. Movement and Rest. We fall into the rhythms of the land and those of our own bodies.

  • Conversation: Speaking repeatedly begins, swells, then ebbs into silence. Within each utterance, each spoken syllable is either a consonant that stops sound, or a vowel that sustains a sound. Our speech is a stream of vowel sounds (literally the movement of our vocal cords) broken by the rhythm of consonantal silences (the voice apparatus at rest), with longer or shorter pauses between utterances.

  • Breathing: Inhale-Exhale. Each breath fills our lungs with the smells of Summer, of hay and horses, of swamps and pinelands. Breathing out is relaxation that expels care, worry, and stress. A slight pause, then it starts again. Inhalation is movement. Exhalation and the pause that follows is rest. Movement and rest. These are worthwhile things to contemplate.
Our lives, second to second, minute to minute, day to day, year to year, from beginning to end, are a symphony of rhythms. What we do within these nested intervals is how we live our lives. We select the notes, and can choose where pauses will occur and we may orchestrate the movements and rests. We are free, even, to chose the ensemble of players that help us play out our lives' rhythms and music. Unhappiness is the result of either exerting too much control on the rhythms and movements, or conversely, not guiding and orchestrating the rhythms of our lives just enough to achieve or maintain a balance. The ideal: The Happy Medium. The Golden Mean. Restraint. Moderation. Just Enough. Not Too Much.

I believe Humankind's biggest Sin and Error is to dishonor the natural rhythms of the Earth and Nature, and of our human-ness, and to alter them for its unnatural and greedy desires. The history of modern/western industrialism is a record of Man's imposition of dissonance and disharmony everywhere he goes. In the present moment we commonly find ourselves walking far out of step with everything, including our own heartbeats. Is it any wonder that there is unrest and despair in the world?

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Monday, August 13, 2007

When Walking Wont Do

There are places you just can't walk to, especially in Florida, places where folks may still try to sell swampland like the Marx Brothers did in their movie debut The Cocoanuts.

Kayaking (my boat, left) will get you to many of those places. Paddling solo or with companions affords many of walking's benefits: the quiet observance of nature's flow and rhythms, and periods of stillness that draw one's thoughts inward and that invite contemplation of one's place in the universe. With the expansive sky above and mysterious water below, you find yourself floating on the fluid and limpid surface between the depths of your inner landscapes and the boundless potential of the human spirit. That is a good place to visit.

Perhaps it's time you got on the water, or got to walking.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Fall In The Air

I once wrote the following after a pleasant late-summer saunter through woodlands near Gainesville, Florida.

I visited a place off of Millhopper Road early this morning, west of the interstate. The hike began and ended on the top of a grassy rise dotted
sparsely with pines. The morning air was cool and dry and breezy, and the countryside was mostly quiet except for the wind sighing in the pines, with that unmistakable hint of Fall in the air. Blessed, rapturous, wonderful Fall! In the air!

On this clear morning I am quietly quite beside myself with anticipation and excitement, for soon comes my favorite time of the year when the air is sweet with drying vegetation, when the slant of the sunlight through the trees is wonderfully "just so" and has that morning-in-the-mountains feel for me, and when the passerines begin their sojourn back from the North. Autumn is a time when the natural world slows down, pulls up and takes stock, takes a new cleansing breath, flies its banners, and then exhales sweetly into the restful winter. I, on the other hand, become innervated by that sweet expiration. I move around more, feel more creative, am happier, accomplish more. I breathe deeper and contemplate more. My tread is lighter and I feel blithe and light on my feet. My internal landscape seems keener, more focused, more alive, more Summer-like, as if the slanting light of shorter days permits me to see and guide myself anew and clearer by my own confident inner lights. During the Fall and early Winter I feel more right with the world and move through it cleaner and more peaceably than at other times in the year. My heart swells and my capacity to love widens.

What a wonderful gift this change of seasons is for me, and what a wonderful gift it is to be walking literally and figuratively through the seasons with such as you. Oh, great days are ahead! Great Days.

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Summer Rambles

Long summer rambles through miles of farmland in Florida's Marion and Alachua counties are a gift and a blessing. Soon on the road, one feels like a familiar old machine that is well-oiled and running perfectly and realizes that we humans were built for walking long distances with each other. You become acutely aware of every sight and sound.

The walkers' pace permits you to see things seldom noticed, especially at the scale of, say, a leaf hopper. You encounter things along the way in a manner that you could never experience in a car. Things like bits of wire, colored glass, pieces of bleached armadillo husk, turkey vultures hunched over a raccoon carcass, or a baby goat straining at the fence for a scratch behind his little spikes and a taste of your sweaty fingers. You hear unseen cows bellowing from hidden pastures a mile away. Frogs of all stripes burp and croak and squeak from culverts and roadside swales, cautious of one's tread or the big banded water snake lurking in the sedges. Crickets and grasshoppers and katydids and cicadas buzz and clack all around, orchestrating a plangent communal jangle that abruptly trails off into silence without explanation. The sounds of nature, at first foreign, become familiar and full of meaning and messages.

Above and all around, the fierce and omnipresent sun presses like a hot iron. Yet walking over open ground under the sun brightens your mood, as if the sunlight were pooling in your heart and viscera, driving ill-will and the day's cares out of your pores with your sweat.

Traversing these long and unhurried distances reconnects us to the physical world. Conversation shared with one's walking companion is as expansive as the sky and can be by turns lofty, philosophical, or jocose. There is no complaining, no guile. You instinctively assume Nature's mien. There is no rancor or jejuneness in Nature. Only beautiful richness and complexity adorning simple honest purpose. The way one's life should be.

These are some of the lovely lessons I've learned as my sweet wife and I have gone a-walking this summer.

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