Sunshine State

I am taking my dog for a walk among the thick longleaf pines of the West Floridian woods. I am on a trail that cuts across marshland, swampland, farmland, grassland, and every other kind of land.

Autumn is in its infancy in the Sunshine State. The air is cool. And I just read in the newspaper that there have been 712,000 cases of COVID-19 within our boundaries. Not to mention all the damage from Hurricane Sally.

Oh, it’s been quite a year.

I am here because I needed to see some trees. I needed a pine-scented breeze. I needed this.

The Florida woods are not like other places. You don’t get a sense of how big they are when you’re in them. You can only feel their immense size. It’s disorienting. Your phone loses reception, so you have no GPS to gauge your mileage. And even if you did, who cares?

You don’t come out here to play on phones.

The woods are a cathedral. These trees do something to you. They remind you that this world isn’t exactly what we think it is.

You leave your house and immediately you’re within the Age of Concrete. You see only what highway engineers want you to see. Overpasses, big box hardware stores, flashing lights, signage, and here comes another strip mall. Goodness knows how much we love our strip malls.

But that’s not the world. That’s not life. It’s only one tiny part.

America is one third forest. There are the boreal forests in Alaska, the tropical forests of Hawaii, the majestic old growths of Appalachia. Maine is 89 percent forest, West Virginia is 78 percent forest. My home state is over 50 percent forest.

I have a friend who once hiked the entire Florida Trail, which cuts 1,000 miles of old forest from Big Cypress National Reserve to Fort Pickens.

I’ve also hiked and camped small parts of the Florida Trail with my dog. To camp in the middle of these trees is haunting. You hear sounds at night that will totally freak you out. A possum becomes a Florida panther. And a gecko sounds just like an adult alligator.

I once found a bobcat sifting through my food bag. I shined a flashlight at it. The thing was the size of a lap dog. It hissed at me before finally romping off into the tallgrass. I’ve never been so grateful to have a change of pants.

In the deep woods, many longleafs still bear the old catfaces from Florida’s turpentining days. At one time Florida was covered in turpentining mills. Turpentiners would carve V-shaped whiskers into trees with machetes and drain the trees’ lifeblood into buckets.

Now and then, you still find these old trees, scarred and mangled. You feel sorry for the old trees because they were stripped, bled, and you know that had to hurt.

But then, you feel admiration for all evergreen conifers in this wilderness. You’re not sure why. Things are different out here. Out here they become your pals.

Maybe it’s because these trees are part of your blood. Literally. Floridians breathe in pine pollen December through May. If doctors were to draw our blood, they would see yellow dust in it.

These trees have always been in our line of vision. On every highway. Every backwater. Behind every filling station. And in the night, when you take out the garbage, they are all around you, groaning in the faint breeze like they are alive.

Because they are alive.

Longleaf pines are much more than giant pieces of celery. They’re breathing creatures. You might not know that, but they are.

A pine can communicate with other trees. Its roots travel miles beneath soil, forming a veiny interweb scientists call mycorrhizal networks. The fine, hairlike ends of these herculean root systems join with fungal life and form a kind of complex internet among trees.

These trees share water, nutrients, food, and send distress signals to each other. A longleaf has a signaling system it uses to spread news of draughts, disease, or insect attacks, and nearby trees will change their behavior.

When the destructive sawfly invades, for example, the longleafs don’t just sit on their stumps. A tree will change her scent. Soon all her friends are reacting. The new fragrance drifts throughout the woods, setting off a chain reaction across the behemoth forest. The scent attracts chalcid wasps who swarm into the woods to save the day from the wicked sawfly.

And I think that’s pretty cool.

But sometimes I lose sight of it all. Life itself. And how majestic it all is. I forget that it’s happening all around me. I forget the resilience of it. I forget about the beauty of trees.

These pines were here before me; they will outlive me. They were here when the Conquistadors needed masts for their square-rigged ships. They were here when fledgling colonies needed lumber. And when turpentiners demanded their sap to manufacture warship paint, the trees gave blood. They resisted fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, industrialism, commercialism, and subdivision-ism. They can endure nearly anything except guys with chainsaws.

They are the most lovely creatures, and it’s sad how often I overlook them. How can a guy grow up beside the most complex and marvelous things to ever exist and hardly notice them?

But I notice them today. They’re strong, thick-skinned, broad-limbed, humble to a fault, and long lasting. They will keep growing in the face of heartache, outlasting disease, famine, dry spells, and rare snows. They will keep being sturdy, no matter how sad this world gets.

And so will you, Florida.

So will you.

27 comments

  1. Nell Thomas - October 3, 2020 8:45 am

    Sure enjoyed your tribute to the trees.
    When I get to the point everyday that I have listen to all the news on TV that I can stand and read all the pros and cons on social media, I seek a comforting escape. Lately it has been the trees – from the most majestic to the very young – just getting a start. Spending time with them will take your worries away.

    Reply
  2. Charlie Mathers - October 3, 2020 10:37 am

    And now I know it is true. You and I and John Muir are spirit brothers. We share a deep visceral love of trees and forests. Mine started with redwoods but now includes trees of the Smokies and the Rockies and Alaska and even Vietnam. Trees are sacred to me. I don’t know why. Trees and dogs. Mine wants to go walk with trees now. Talk to you later , Sean. I love you!

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  3. topdock - October 3, 2020 10:41 am

    Your depth of knowledge is incredible. You are the Renaissance man. Good one Sean.

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  4. Leslie in NC - October 3, 2020 10:52 am

    Forests and trees – from the live oaks, palms, loblolly pines, slash pines and sand pines of my home state of Florida to the beech, poplars, spruce and tall evergreens of my current home in the Appalachians, I love and appreciate them all.

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  5. Ann - October 3, 2020 11:46 am

    How easy to take trees for granted….this was educational and hopeful…once again…you keep hope flowing.

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  6. Trilby Devine - October 3, 2020 12:27 pm

    Perfect…Thank you. Deep breath❤️

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  7. Jane Elder - October 3, 2020 12:30 pm

    I never knew a lot of this. Thanks for the info.

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  8. Shannon - October 3, 2020 12:39 pm

    I love how you love Florida. That’s the way I feel about my state, Texas. 5th generation Texan here. ❤️

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  9. Sue Carol Browning - October 3, 2020 1:13 pm

    You and Jamie need to go two places that I would like to know you experienced. One is the coast of Maine. Go all the way up to Lubec and across to Campobello. Drive on the ocean floor at low tide to Minister’s Island. You will, in Lubec, be the first ones in the USA to greet the sun.
    The other one is much closer. Go to Hot Springs. The history is fascinating and there is one of three Arkansas glass chapels in the woods there, the Anthony Chapel. Visit the other glass chapels and compare them. Mine for quartz and soothe yourself in the hot springs as folks have done for centuries.
    We miss you in Kentucky and sure enjoyed your visit to Auburn and the Vineyard last year.

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  10. Amy - October 3, 2020 1:30 pm

    Sean, my mother used to say, “One way or the other its all gonna work out”. She was right. “It” always does. Due to 24 hour infotainment (formerly called the news) we are surrounded with blues, despair and agony. We forget that we are just a tiny portion of creation. Politicians don’t really matter, Covid 19 doesn’t really matter, looting doesn’t matter, Antifa doesn’t matter, etc. People and ideas change over time and they come back around. There’s nothing new under the sun. Take a long, deep breath of that Florida fall for me, will ya? Thanks for reminding me about the things that really do matter today. I needed that.

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  11. Judy Ray - October 3, 2020 1:48 pm

    We had a pine tree in our backyard. It started to die and gave off a terrible odor. The smell of death. It was very sad.

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  12. John - October 3, 2020 2:05 pm

    When I lived in Newport News, VA, I had a favorite spot in the woods in the city park I called my Cathedral. No one else knew about it, it was all mine, just a clearing in the trees. Now in Colorado, I love to walk past a Ponderosa Pine, inhale its sweet butterscotch smell. Trees: I love them all!

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  13. Jess Rawls - October 3, 2020 2:32 pm

    Sean, as a fourth generation Floridian, I appreciated this column. Florida is a beautiful state and I cherished having grown up there. I enlisted in the Army in 1966 and had plans of returning to the Sarasota area when I retired (1992), but there had been an enormous influx of people from everywhere, that I decided Sarasota was entirely too crowded for me. My family finally ended up in Athens, GA, and it’s a pretty nice place. It’s been great living here and now I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Bulldog fan!!!

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  14. Nedra Tucker - October 3, 2020 2:44 pm

    Mr. Sean I am 65 years old, I have traced my ancestry 3 generations back to Holmes, Washington, Bay and Walton Counties. I have cousins in Gulf county. NW Florida is in my DNA. I do believe this is one of your best Stories. You have described my feelings for our Piney Woods in wonderful detail. For a moment I could smell the pine sap and fresh air. We have been through rough times with hurricanes. We are a tough group of people and will remain 850 Strong. We live in Paradise with no question.

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  15. Debbie - October 3, 2020 3:35 pm

    Learned something new from you today Sean! I’m 68 years up and was born and reared in Mississippi and Alabama, 40 of those years in the Pine City 65 miles north of Mobile. I never knew about the long leaf/sawfly/wasp relationship. Thank you for that info! Never too old to learn new things!

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  16. Christina - October 3, 2020 4:18 pm

    I feel like I just went through a nature walk in the Floridian forest, breathing in the fresh pine scent. Our poor trees here in California have endured so much fire lately…

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  17. Linda Moon - October 3, 2020 4:39 pm

    The Sunshine State lacks one thing I need: High Mountains. But trees and forests deserve my notice and maybe some hugs, too. I would love to exchange a hug with you right now, Sean. LIFE itself will stay sturdy because of trees, mountains, furry cats, Florida, Appalachia……a never ending list in this world!

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  18. Nancy Vining - October 3, 2020 5:55 pm

    Thank you for this. My daughter, her son and I are temporarily living in Fairhope due to a pine falling on her house and punching through the roof, then ceiling over our front bathroom … Sept 16th during Sallie. I wonder if the other pines in Lake Forest heard it scream that night.

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  19. Elizabeth - October 3, 2020 6:06 pm

    I was really touched by this and felt that you wrote a beautiful love letter to the trees and to FL itself! Beautiful! I am always comforted to realize that we still have so many forests in our land!

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  20. Melanie Johnston Levy (Caleb and Sean Cangelosi's mom) - October 3, 2020 7:07 pm

    Thank you, young man, for your heartfelt words…i wish I could meet you and thank you in person…

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  21. Dawn Bratcher - October 4, 2020 5:08 am

    Excellent article regarding pines and your home! I love our pine trees in Alabama, too, as we covet their straw for our flower beds! If you are lucky enough to live in the woods on a river or lake, in the cool of the night, open your window & listen to the wind blowing through the pines! It’s a lovely rustling & the whippoorwill calling in the night! Downright heavenly❣

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  22. Karen Erwin-Brown - October 4, 2020 6:52 am

    Ok…you could almost make me love pine trees. I never knew all that kinship stuff. I do have an amazing, humongous magnolia in my front yard and 5 oak trees in my back garden that are probably close to a 100 years old. Oak trees are a favorite except when the yellow stuff covers everything and the wormy stuff takes over the patio.

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  23. Mary J. Washnock - October 4, 2020 12:44 pm

    This is one of your best, Sean. I live in South Georgia so I know exactly what you’re describing here. Also I wanted to point you to Patrick Smith’s book about early Florida, A Land Remembered. It is in the top 5 of my all time favorite books. You are probably already aware of this book but if not, read it !
    It’s my personal belief that many of today’s problems in our world are due to the fact so many people are completely out of touch with nature. It has a very healing quality that is much needed today !

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  24. Mary Martin - October 4, 2020 9:43 pm

    I love this!

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  25. Mike Bone - October 6, 2020 9:02 pm

    I am so glad you wrote about longleaf pines (Pinus palustris). All across the South tree farmers are moving from loblolly (Pinus taeda) to longleaf. Longleaf is a far superior tree. Rust and pine beetle resistant and fire tolerant, the longleaf delivers a straighter, stronger heavier log. It takes a little longer for them to mature. I plant them for my kids. I don’t know if you have read Janisse Ray’s book “Ecology of a Cracker Childhood”, but it is a great story about these majestic trees.

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  26. K. D. Kempf Jones - October 7, 2020 9:55 pm

    AMEN! Sean and – AMEN! You bet those amazing pines are revitalizing our Overstory even as we read your heartening and truth-filled words! Keep it up WE Need to hear your perspective now. – Best, DiAn

    Reply
  27. Melissa Williams - October 8, 2020 5:42 pm

    Another one of my favorite writers was from turpentine country, Celestine Sibley. She, along with another favorite, Lewis Grizzard, were the reasons I used to read the Atlanta Journal/Constitution. You remind me of a combination of those two writers. Keep up the good work! 💜💜💜

    Reply

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