Last week was long- Monday through Friday on the road, multiple cities, not enough sleep, too much food, not enough exercise. I spent the last 3 days in Southern Florida, which sounds nice, except that a) I was barely outside, and b) I wasn’t near the water. Well, not the ocean water, anyway. As the plane descended toward the Ft. Myers airport, I saw a flat plain of dark green pine forest stretching off in the distance. You don’t usually think of pines when you think of Florida, but huge portions of the state are carpeted with them.
Tangent: The photo right I snapped Wednesday AM at the Philadelphia* airport. Here’s something odd: I’ve seen countless spectacular sunrises from airport concourses. Airports are often in areas with significant air pollution, which enhances the orange tint, and somehow even the ugliest concrete landscape becomes beautiful for just a moment when bathed in that light. Unless I’m super-tight on a departure/connection, I stop for a minute or so to check out airport sunrises. When I do, I’m always the only guy doing so; everyone else just speed-waddles on by with their rollers-bags, laptop cases and Starbucks in hand. I want to say, “Hey, wait- check it out! There’s a huge ball of fire rising up in the sky!” But of course I don’t, and everyone else just zips by the most amazing thing any of us ever see in this life.
*Yes, I was in Philadelphia as well last week. As longtime readers know, I attended college in Philadelphia and so lived there for 4 years in the 1980s. From time to time my travels take me to the city. In the old days I used to do little nostalgic stopovers to see the campus, or maybe one of the crappy apartments I lived in. Nowadays, older, wiser and less nostalgic, I skip memory lane and head for the important stuff- a cheesesteak at Jim’s.
My knowledge of trees in the continental US is weakest in the Southeast. I’ve spent little time there, and nearly all the time I have spent there has been in urban areas, and before I became plant-aware. As I’ve read about and researched various North American plants, and specifically trees, I’ve noticed how much diversity there is in that portion of the country, and have started hoping for an opportunity to revisit the region. Looking out the plane window, I was pretty sure whatever pines were growing below were new to me.
For the first day and half I was stuck indoors, but Thursday before dinner I managed to break away for a run. I ran, clueless, through and across a series of shopping plazas until coming upon another pair of runners who directed me onto a dirt path off into the brush, which made a loop around a moderate-size pond. I left the asphalt, following the path through the high brush, and son saw the route would take me to the line of pines on the far shore.
Tangent: I’m going to come clean and state right up front that I’ve never had any desire to live in Florida. Too flat, too humid, too buggy, too, well… Florida. But what’s interesting about visiting Florida is that so many of the residents you meet there are obviously wildly enthusiastic about the place, how great it is, the climate, quality of life, etc. It’s almost as though they’re all moonlighting for the tourism board or something, and it’s funny, because I guess that’s how I- and many of my outdoorhead friends- come off when talking about Utah. Many of the Floridians I met are as high on life in Florida as I am on life in Utah, and yet we’d each be horrified at the prospect of living in the other place. Different strokes, I guess.
This brings up something I’ve been meaning to mention for a while: the relative “rooted-ness” of native Utahns.
One of the big differences between the Northeast-Midwest and the West/Sunbelt parts of the US are how long people have lived there. If you go to say Ohio or Indiana or even Massachusetts and walk into an office and start talking to people who’ve worked there, most of them grew up there. But if you go into an office in Phoenix or Seattle or Ft. Myers, almost no one grew up there. In general, there’s a higher level of “transience” or lack of “rooted-ness” in the more recently-settled, higher-growth states.
Side Note: As an East Coast Transplant moved West, this effect leads to the strange head-scratcher for me of people who live in kind-of-yucky places but never move. I can never understand why; anytime I try to engage them in a conversation about it, it devolves into (a more polite version of) this:
ME: Why do you live here in Cleveland?
THEM: Oh I grew up here.
ME: But why are you still here?
THEM: Oh my family’s here, and my wife’s family’s* here…
ME: But doesn’t this place kind of suck?
THEM: Yes, but my family’s here, and my wife’s family’s here…
*Guys will often pass the blame to their wives in these types of conversations. “Yeah, I’d like to move out West, but my wife, she likes to be close to her mother…” they’ll say. Really? For me, finding out that your fiancée required you to live in Cleveland to be near her mother for the next 50 years would be one of those deal-breaker things I would’ve found out before I proposed to her, like finding out if she’s gay, a Jesus Freak, a Singlespeeder, a Republican or poisoned her first husband or something…
But Utah is a surprising island of rooted-ness in the American West. Utah natives, especially- but not always- Mormons, don’t like to leave. After my company was acquired, the new company pitched 6 of the inside sales folks who worked for me on moving down to Ft. Myers. Not one of them had the slightest interest*. None of the 6 skis, bikes, or to my knowledge has climbed a mountain in the last decade, but leaving Utah was out of the question.
*Not even the single guy who loves to golf and hates the cold.
This isn’t the case BTW, with non-native Utahns, who are about as transient and un-rooted as Westerners elsewhere.
Nested Tangent: AW and I have been here 15 years now, and we seem to be pretty dug in. It seems as though if newcomers get past the ~7 year itch here, they tend to stay. In our case, the closest we came to leaving was back in 2001. My previous employer had been acquired, I’d done my year of
indentured servitude integration support, and took nearly a year off before looking for my next gig. We spent a fair amount of time and discussion thinking about other areas, with Portland, OR being the leading contender*, but ended up staying.
*I am convinced that every liberal non-LDS couple in Utah goes through a “Let’s move to Portland” fantasy-phase. It’s a similar-sized city in a beautiful part of the country with great outdoor access. But unlike Salt Lake, it’s green, it’s liberal, it’s got a real city center where you’d actually want to walk around, and it’s not smack-dab in the middle of a state where the “politically moderate” means just a half a degree left of batshit-crazy**. In the end I vetoed Portland. Rain gets me down, and the closest legal singletrack was an hour’s drive out of town.
**Speaking of which, did any other local readers check out the matrix showing the issue-positions of the Republican Senatorial candidates in Saturday’s Salt Lake Tribune? The thing reads like a Spectrum Of Craziness. I just love Republican primary races in Utah. It’s like, “Hey, the incumbent isn’t crazy enough- vote for me, I’m crazier!” And the next guy is like, “No way- I’m crazier! Vote for me!”
Slash Pine, Pinus elliotti, (pic left, not mine) is a common pine native to the Southeastern US, stretching across Southern Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, the very Eastern “toe” of Louisiana, and throughout Florida. Its range also stretches through much of the Caribbean and Central America, and this highlights one of the most interesting things about Florida: it shares so many species with the Caribbean/Central America. A small population of actual Crocodiles (not just alligators) live in Florida, and it’s also within the native range of the irritating-bark Manzanillo tree (though it’s largely been eradicated from the state.) The state’s full of tropical birds and all sorts of interesting reptiles; the peninsula is like this little outlier of Central America in the lower 48.
Tangent: Speaking of birds, I recorded this amazing bird song one morning by my hotel. At the time I couldn’t see the bird, and assumed it was hidden among the palm fronds. But, when I played the video at home, it turned out the singing bird was visible, and you can see him along the left side of the trunk intermittently from about 0:26 on. Anyone have any idea what bird this is? (Alexis?)
Slash Pine is named for the “slashes”- stretches of swampy ground- on which is grows, and that brings me to the one of the most interesting things I noticed about the Ft. Myers area; every time I poked into a wooded area, the ground was either sodden, or filled with standing water. And according to the locals, the rainy season has yet to begin! The tree has longish (5” – 11”), slightly-drooping needles in bundles (pic right) of 2 or 3 (on the same tree/branch/twig) and fairly ordinary-looking, modest-size (4” – 8”) cones. The bark (pic left) has an orange-brown tone and is sort of flaky, like peeling plates. Although the tree can grow to over 100 feet further North in the sate, from South Florida southward, it almost never grows taller than 60 feet. The Southern trees- which I saw in Ft. Myers- are considered a different variety. P. elliotti var. densa (and formerly were considered a separate species.) Besides height, another difference between Northern and Southern varieties is that seedlings of the Southern version go through a “grass stage”, where they look like little clumps of grass (like many Mexican pines) Slash Pine often hybridizes with other native Florida pines, including Loblolly, P. taeda, and Longleaf, P. palustris. (Pic below right, not mine = Longleaf Pine seedlings in grass stage.)
Slash Pine is fast-growing and short-lived, reaching a maximum age of ~200 years. It’s often grown on pine plantations, both within and beyond its native range, as far a field as Texas and Kentucky in the US. It’s also been introduced elsewhere around the world. In South Africa it’s escaped cultivation, and now grows wild as far North as Zimbabwe (!) It grows well in acidic soils (which waterlogged soils often are.)
Friday morning I awoke before dawn to check out other trees and birds around the hotel. I’d noticed a clump of pines not far from the lot that looked different than the common slash pines and walked over for a look. But when I got up close, I saw they weren’t pines at all, but something completely different. They were Cypresses, specifically Pond Cypress, Taxodium ascendens.
Cypresses are a taxonomically confusing series of trees in the family Cupressaceae, the family that includes everything from Junipers to Redwoods to Western Red Cedar. We’ve seen Cypress only once in the wild, 2 years ago in Mendocino (Mendocino Cypress.) Pond Cypress is way different from Mendocino Cypress, and of course completely unlike anything we see in Utah.
T. ascendens is closely-related to (and some feel it is actually just a variety of) Bald Cypress, T. distichum, the better-known Cypress from swampy areas across the Southeast. The 2 trees have similar leaves and peeling, papery bark, but there are some significant differences, beyond the obvious difference in size. Bald Cypress grows in large, extended swampy areas, in which there is significant (if slow) water flow. Pond Cypress grows in isolated swampy pockets/depressions, in which there is almost no water flow, and in which the water and soil are much more acidic.
In this shot (above) you can see the standing water the trees are growing out of. The whole “pool” is only maybe 60-70 feet across. Like Slash Pine, Pond Cypress is well-adapted to the wet, acidic conditions of the Ft. Myers area. Interestingly, when viewed from afar, stands of Pond Cypress often are domed in profile. The trees toward the center of the pocket/depression, in deeper water, grow tallest.
Though the bark of the 2 trees is similar, that of T. ascendens is thicker, a possible adaptation for increased fire resistance, which makes sense as fires are likelier to reach their isolated stands than the expansive swamps where Bald Cypress grows.
Work travel’s always a bit of a drag, but when you’re a tree geek you can salvage a trip by finding a new species or two. That’s 2 new pines so far this year. I have to go back to Ft. Myers next month. I’m adding bird guide, supernoculars and headlamp* to my packing list.
*I’m thinking night-bug-hunting in the swamp. How cool does that sound?