Alone in the Apalachicola National Forest, I was sitting on a fallen tree. Prominent longleaf pines stretch as far as I can see, brown/gray trunks and green fans of needles. Outer layers of bark have been blackened by frequent fires, and everywhere there are wiregrass clumps-curving tan strands that resemble baling wire.
Interspersed among the wiregrass are small blueberry plants, the smallest native being Vaccinium. In late spring, the tiny purple fruit are often called sugar berries because of their sweetness. Other plants include rabbit tobacco-silvery leaves that can be brewed as tea to fight asthma; button snakeroot-sacred plant of the Muscogee people; and deer tongue, a vanilla-smelling additive to pipe tobacco that produces purple flowers in fall.
Death is here too-bleached snags of tall pines and lifeless saplings of sand live oak that have been repeatedly knocked back by fire. Fire is the grand landscaper here, a natural force that is often simulated by man. When mature, longleafs are the most fire resistant of all our trees because their bark has many layers. It is evolution Southern style, since warm weather often brings daily thunderstorms and lightening, which can ignite fire. Without fire, the oaks would slowly dominate, and the winged whirly-bird longleaf pine seeds would not find the bare mineral soil necessary for germination. An ancient cycle disrupted.
Besides the occasional passing plane, it is quiet here. The breeze rustles pine needles and sparse stalks of broomsedge. Woodpeckers work a snag. Songbirds carry on a chorus.
Sitting here, the temperature mild and sky overcast, makes it easy to be still. There are wood ants to watch, the kind that expels bits of charred pine needles and bark from their underground tunnels. A biologist friend once pointed out a tiny mammal jaw around the lip of a wood ant mound. "A bat," he announced upon examination, "a tiny bat jaw!"
Many people would choose to sit beside water for relaxation, and indeed, water is soothing. But it is inspiring to sit among trees that have adapted to fire and drought and have flourished. As a species, they seem to withstand nearly everything nature throws at them, except for one species. Man has the ability to transform this ecosystem, either through clear-cut logging and development, conversion to tree farms of other pine species, or through simple neglect by ignoring its fire requirements. Only two to three percent of the original longleaf forests remain-an immense loss of about 87 million acres. This stand in the Apalachicola National Forest survives because man has allowed it, because a few strident voices insisted upon it. In the 1970s and 80s, at Forest Service hearings, I am proud to have raised my voice for longleaf so I can enjoy their grandeur, in silence.