Nature follows its normal spring patterns even as humans deal with a deadly virus
I am walking a service road at Carlton Reserve in Venice. The world may have been stopped in its tracks by a virus, but spring is unfolding in front of me like a magic carpet rolling across the countryside.
There is no holding back the season, which, like some jolly green giant, is ranging through natural places, slathering everything with the bright green of new growth.
A recent prescribed burn has revitalized this tract. Saw palmetto puts forth bright green leaves and golden blooms amid burnt fronds. A major plant for hundreds of pollinators, even on this cloudy cool morning it is a draw for bees and the occasional butterfly, which gravitate to it to nectar.
Wildflowers — tickseed, lowly fleabane and thistle — pop up from the ashes.
In his book Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, astrologer/physician Nicholas Culpeper (1616 -1654) wrote that fleabane grows under the sign of Venus and, indeed, the bright yellow and white flowers remain cheery even in the driest of places.
Mars, Culpeper wrote, drives thistle, which spurts up inches a day. Avoiding its thorns, butterflies feed on gorgeous purple blooms.
In damp areas, blue flag iris appears, an awaited harbinger of spring after a long cold winter.
My friend John Beckner once told me about hunting for native orchids with Carl Luer near Homestead on a bitterly cold morning in 1961. (Both men, now gone, were renowned orchid experts). With icicles dripping and smudge pots sending up clouds of black smoke to protect the citrus crop, John recalled, “It felt like Napoleon retreating from Moscow.”
In South Florida, winter is pretty much a thing of the past. Rising temperatures of land and water have changed the climate. The last time I photographed icicles was at Old Myakka Preserve in 2007.
The old rule of thumb is that spring travels 15 miles a day up the East Coast. That inspired Edwin Way Teale and his wife, Nellie, to undertake a 17,000-mile pilgrimage from Florida to Maine in 1947. They passed through 23 states, getting underway on Valentine’s Day near the Everglades. They reached their destination on the slopes of Mount Washington in New Hampshire on June 21, the summer solstice.
Teale turned his journals and photographs of their pilgrimage into a book, North with the Spring. It was the first of a four-volume seasonal undertaking. Wandering through Winter was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
While the Teales were going north, Mr. Toad, a fictional character invented by Kenneth Grahame, was making his way south through all kinds of misadventures, including automobile wrecks. I like to imagine that he and the Teales might have passed each other on the road, but Toad lived on another continent, in another era — Edwardian England.
“The past was like a bad dream; the future was all happy holiday as I moved Southwards week by week, easily, lazily, lingering as long as I dared, but always heeding the call!” Kenneth Grahame wrote in The Wind in the Willows.
Going south in winter has been a universal aspiration of northerners. One of the first to let the world know about the magical Florida spring, Harriet Beecher Stowe settled in Mandarin near the St. John’s River in the 1860s. From there she sent dispatches to her newspaper up north about how she delighted in opening the windows of her house, listening to the birds and eating fruit off the trees.
Throughout Florida’s history, dozens of notables made the pilgrimage south each winter and spring. In his official photograph, John Kunkel Small, head curator at the New York Botanical Garden, appears the proper German in dark suit, starch collar and stick pin. In another photograph, he is bare-chested, pushing a boat through the Everglades.
The dean of flower hunters, Small botanized Florida starting in 1901. Each spring for more than 30 years, he drove his “weed wagon” about the state, collecting plants for the Garden’s herbarium. He gave his name to more of our native plants — including saw palmetto — than any other person. So every time I see saw palmetto, and sabal palms, I think of him.
At Curry Creek, William Bartram comes to mind as I walk among the longleaf pines. Bartram first botanized Florida in the mid-1760s with his father, John Bartram, who, in 1728, had created the first botanical garden in the Colonies. It was in Kingsessing, then outside Philadelphia.
Another captivated soul, William longed to return to Florida and finally did so in the 1770s, recording his findings in journal entries and drawings that became Travels, published in 1791 and still in print.
He traveled through the longleaf forest that was the matrix of the Southeastern coastal plain, seeing the trees put out new growth buds familiarly known as candles — just as I am experiencing here at Curry Creek Preserve. The longleaf sport white candles; slash pines, which dominate other tracts — such as Sleeping Turtles — have tan candles. I can almost hear the young trees boasting, “I’ve got more than you“ and “Mine are the biggest and the whitest!”
Moving to Florida was my dream after I visited Jacksonville with my family one winter at the age of 9. I was enchanted with the place — the warm air scented with wildflowers, shorebirds, gloomy gray skies giving way to sunshine — and I ached to get back all through the long winters of my youth.
These days, although we are restricted to our homes by a virus, luckily, we are still able to seek respite in nature. Sarasota County parks have remained open to the delight of walkers, runners, bikers, rowers, photographers and botanizers like myself. We have Debbie Blanco and other land managers to thank for maintaining these precious places. They — and Mother Nature — are keeping us sane.
Every day for an hour or two, I get out into this beautiful spring. In my walks, cardinals let their presence be known. Not to be outdone, red-shouldered hawks scold intruders off their turf.
A winter resident, the catbird is still around, but summer returnees are here, too. Swallow-tailed kites and the chuck-will’s-widow impressing his lady love with evening acrobatics are celebrating the season.
This day at Carlton, I hear the distant call of the Northern quail. “Bobwhite. Bobwhite,” he announces himself to the world.
“Spring is like life,” Edwin Way Teale wrote in his book. “You never grasp it entire; you touch it here, there; you know it only in parts and fragments.”
On Border Road, dragonflies (along with cyclists) swish past. They have started their annual migrations and a swarm enfolds me as I get back into my van.