Tuesday, January 17, 2012

67 Hours Later

You agree to a slight detour and leave the highway in a small Florida town. You turn onto the Ronald Reagan Parkway and then make a righthand turn onto a small sideroad, flanked by bike lanes and the same dense tropical forest you've seen along the way. Half a mile up the road, you turn into a small parking lot, where you are instructed by signs not to back into the parking spaces. There are three other cars in the parking lot. You get out and stretch, use the small restroom facilities, walk past the children's playground and onto the raised boardwalk. You pass a family with two small children walking back and one middle-aged man.

Six hundred feet later, you think you see it ahead of you and then suddenly you let out a gasp which makes your family think crocodile or snake. But no, to your left, emerging from the foliage, standing tall as a mountain rises one of the biggest trees you've ever seen. You've been to Vancouver Island's Cathedral Grove before, so you've seen big trees, but this one still has the power to shock and amaze. Signs tell you the tree was bigger until a 1920s hurricane lobbed the top third off the tree. A small sign indicates the name of the company that now protects this tree from lightning strikes. A bronze plaque installed by President Calvin Coolidge notes the foresight of those who came before, who allowed this tree to grow and grow. These, you find out, were largely the Seminoles, natives of Florida, who used this tree as a landmark.

The big tree is called The Senator. It's a pond cypress. It is 3500 years old. It was old and massive at the time of Christ. It precedes the Great Wall of China, Cleopatra. It's a contemporary of Moses. It has fresh leaves at the top.

As you walk to its sister tree, the one you thought was the big one, the one that's only 2000 years old, Lady Liberty, you remember Cathedral Grove and the warnings to avoid the park on windy days, lest one of the monoliths suddenly topple. They do without warning. There are no such signs here.

On the way back to the car, you stop to look at a cardinal in the leaf litter, a small stream passing under the boardwalk, and to note the sparseness of undergrowth between the trees.

You get back into your car after this quiet interlude, glad to have made the discovery.

67 hours later, you are home. It is cold and still dark when the telephone call comes from your mother, who is still in Florida. Her voice is shaken up.

"That big tree burned down this morning," she says. "The one you went to see." The one she planned to see for the first time this week.

You feel heartsick, stunned. You find footage and photos and feel worse. A dozen firefighters struggled with hoses in vain as the tree burned from the top down, inside out. You read how this tree used to be a major Florida attraction, before the Mouse came. You tell others but they weren't there, didn't sense the majesty as you tilted your heads as far as they would go in order to be able to see the top.

3500 years. 118 feet in height. 400 inches in diameter. The world's fifth oldest tree. It burned then collapsed like the Towers in New York.

No one was hurt in the blaze or the fall. Arson is highly unlikely. And wood burns.

But still, and likely because you were just there, not even three days before, it feels devastating, this loss. You think about all the history that went up in smoke and down in ashes.

The only consolation is that you did go, that you did see its glory, that you did gasp out loud. 67 hours before.

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