Officially it’s the solstice, but summer has long since come to the pine flatwoods.
By 10 a.m. it’s hot. I’m in Venice at Curry Creek Preserve to visit the longleaf pines, unusual in this area. They’re one of the southernmost remnants of the once grand pine forest, which blanketed 150,000 square miles in the Southeast before European settlement. In Florida, longleaf pine merges with south Florida slash pine and is known for its large cones and long needles in bundles of three. Slash pine cones are half the size; their needles come in bundles of two or three.
To settlers, the pines seemed endless. The settlers turpentined trees for tar and resin. Others were logged to build the ships of the world’s navies, as well as houses, furniture, sewing machines, cradles and coffins. Only 2% of the original forest remains. Gone are the ivory-billed woodpeckers that once thrived in these evergreens, though the pines are still favored by eagles that nest in their branches.
We think of woods as dense dark places. Pine savannahs were sunny and open. In the mid-1700s on his travels through the Southeast, William Bartram rode through a “vast forest of the most stately pine trees” dotted with numerous shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers. Curry Creek Preserve is a scene recreated from Bartram: pines spaced apart with an understory of saw palmetto, wax myrtle, staggerbush and fetterbush, plus a few oaks.
Clumps of wiregrass, bracken ferns, grape and greenbrier vines and wildflowers make up the ground cover. Clouds drift overhead, mirroring the shapes of the trees.
As I pass by, a gopher tortoise pokes his head out of his burrow, preparing to forage among grasses which have greened up in the recent rains. A cardinal flies across the trail, letting the world know this place belongs to him. Off in the distance, another male claims his stake.
I stop by the creek to check out a cardinal airplant. A little blue heron flaps, off squawking loudly.
Across the way, neatly mowed lawn comes down to the water and philodendron grows up the oaks.
My side’s a tangle of greenbrier, saw palmetto, cabbage palms and oaks slathered with Spanish moss and air plants. Since when did we equate beauty with order?
As always it’s the small things that captivate: mushrooms, a lacey winged dragonfly, the pale pink blooms of beautyberrry, a dainty sulfur butterfly no bigger than my fingernail, bees nectaring on goldenrod, the gorgeous red and white blooms of tarflower.
Though the sun has moved up the sky, I’m oblivious of the time. At midday I stand on my shadow.
This “paradise’ didn’t just happen. Taxpayers made it possible for these “environmentally sensitive“ lands to be acquired by Sarasota County. Land managers such as Jeff Weber and other Natural Resources employees keep them as close to the “real Florida” as possible.
Visit the Sarasota County website for park locations, hours and events such as free nature walks led by naturalists. Or call the county at 941-861-5000 for information.