Note: This essay is one of the first place winners of the 2009 Walter F. Spara Writing Competition.
For those of us who grew up roaming the forest around the Escambia River in the north end of Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties, Hurricane Ivan was a life altering event. While a 20 feet tall wall of water was breaking on the coast, wiping houses off their foundations, lifting bridge spans off their pilings, and snuffing out the very lives of many who refused to heed evacuation orders, a killer wind was laying waste the ancient forest of the Upper Escambia River watershed. Majestic oaks, pines, hickories, cypress, and gum trees—many too big for three grown men to reach around—were blown over as if their attachment to the ground was never meant to be permanent. The massive trunks of some trees were snapped off 20 feet above the ground by unrelenting winds that may have reached 140 miles per hour. Folks my age will not live long enough to see this forest recover to its pre-Ivan condition. The pristine lowland forest that existed here before Hurricane Ivan now only exists as a twisted, mangled shell of its former self.
Though it resembles a war zone today, when I was a teenager, long before Hurricane Ivan came calling, I had never seen a more beautiful forest than that one which the Escambia River flows through. If I hadn’t discovered girls about that time, I could say my heart was fully given then to the beauty of the forest. The trees growing right along the river’s banks were the biggest in this area, with regard to both their height and the circumference of their trunks, and they were always healthy, creating their own rich moist humus to satisfy their thirst and hunger. During those days, there wasn’t much to keep a tree from realizing its full potential, and most did, taking on full shapes with respect to their type. The leaves always seemed big and glossy, growing in clusters right out on the ends of the branches where they’re supposed to be. In mid-summer the leaves in the canopy of that forest could blot-out the noon sun. Of course, in the wake of
Hurricane Ivan, there aren’t enough leaves left in the forest along the Escambia River to blot-out a dime-store flashlight beam, let alone provide enough shade to maintain the health of the soil on the forest floor. Unfortunately the leaves that are growing tend to just pop right out of the main trunk of the tree or along its main branches—indicating stress and disease—rather than out on the ends of the smallest branches, the way leaves grow on healthy trees. The standing trees that are still alive are full of mangled branches, many growing only on one side of the tree, giving the tree a hunchbacked sort of lopsided appearance. Many of the healthiest looking trees that survived the storm are leaning now, leaving them in a precarious position where the right conditions would send them crashing to the ground.
Another effect of Hurricane Ivan is that there are far more sick and dying trees now, even four years after the storm, than there were before. Because of the moist soil in the flood plain of the river, and the dense canopy that once shaded that moist soil and kept the moisture in, the forest along the river was virtually drought proof, so the trees were always healthy and beautiful, even in the midst of drought conditions. Since Hurricane Ivan, however, the canopy is mostly gone, exposing the once rich moist soil to the glaring sun and heat, causing extra stress on the remaining trees during hot, dry conditions. The result of this extra stress has been the slow death of many trees that survived the brunt of the storm. Sick trees are a common sight now, and they are fairly easy to spot because their leaves are scarce, while many of the branches are showing signs of rot and fungus. Before the storm, a rotten branch was fairly rare, but it was the only type of branch that had cause to break off and fall out of a tree. Since the storm, though, it is not uncommon to see live main branches-some as big as a man can reach around—lying on the ground. These live branches are victims of wind-caused stress cracks on the top of the branch where it connects to the trunk. On the very large branches, water collects at this spot, andinstead of running off or evaporating, it seeps into the stress crack and causes that area to rot. Consequently the otherwise healthy branches break at that point and crash to the ground. Before Hurricane Ivan, a sick or dying tree in this forest was most likely evidence of a lightning strike. Now, however, the culprit is almost always wind damage as some trees are cracked deep in the trunk or their roots are broken and damaged due to the severity of the bending and swaying caused by the high winds. Though the damage is invisible to the casual observer, the effect on the tree is obvious.
Lastly, a walk in the forest along the Escambia River was once an experience akin to those that inspired the poetry of Emerson, but now just walking there is practically impossible. Before Hurricane Ivan, the ridges and hammocks in the Escambia River watershed were as close as Florida gets to the beauty of the forests in the Northeastern United States. The undergrowth was sparse and walking was easy, so a person could take his or her time and enjoy nature. Since the storm, though, the forest is almost impenetrable. Downed trees are stacked one-on-top-of-another, their massive bodies strewn carelessly about the forest floor as toys left behind by a spoiled child. Now, just to get through the tangle a person has to weave over and under huge tree trunks, spending more time crawling than walking. Before Ivan downed these trees, the canopy overhead was absolutely magnificent with brilliant colors in the fall. Even during that time of year, the canopy was still dense enough to keep significant sunlight from reaching the ground, shading those hammocks where I once hunted, stalking effortlessly across an uncluttered forest floor. However, since Hurricane Ivan blew the trees down, the canopy is very thin at best. Now there is more sunlight than shade on the forest floor, promoting the occurrence of all manners of dense undergrowth, including weeds and vines usually only seen in open fields or along roadsides. This new siege of misplaced weeds and vines is doubly restricting because it is entwined with and entangled in the twisted branches in the tops of the downed trees. Not only is it nearly impossible to walk in the forest now, but why would anyone want to? Not even the deer can go there anymore.
Imagine the home you grew up in, with all of the things you love securely tucked away in the places where they’ve always been. You love your home; you are comfortable there. Now imagine a giant picking up your home, turning it upside down, and shaking it until all of the things are shaken from their places and scattered about, then setting your home back on its foundation. It appears this is the action Hurricane Ivan took on the forest of the Upper Escambia River Watershed. Everything is out of its proper place: most of the trees are lying on the forest floor instead of towering above it, many of the trees left standing are slowly dying, even the trees that look healthy are losing large main branches due to rot and undetected wind damage, and an impenetrable jungle has emerged in the form of weeds and vines becoming entangled in the branches of downed trees. The forest I once cherished and enjoyed, with all of its beauty, color, and coolness has been turned upside down, and I shall never again know it as it once was.
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