It is mid-January, and the grass is beginning to grow in Northeast Florida; it has reached at least 80 degrees for three consecutive days. In a recent class, a writing exercise led us to a book on gardening: a good rule is to begin fertilizing the heartiest shrubs as soon as the grass begins to grow. It is sobering to fathom the stacks of botany texts all waiting for revisions. It is an exercise in empathy, to watch these unthinking wildflowers and ornamental trees bloom; to them, it is nothing unusual. The sun is strong, the ground is wet: it is time to grow.
There was a stretch of forest north of St. Augustine where I used to hike when I moved here a decade ago. “Preserve land” is what they called it. The road had been recently paved and lined with trees, magnolias and clusters of sabal palm. The area comprised a section of what was once 20 mile road, a stretch known for its clandestine use by runaway slaves. The developers said that they hadn’t realized it was historic until the mandated archeological study, and that because of it, they would not develop portions of the 15,000 acre parcel. What land, I wondered, was bereft of history? This forest was the first place I’d seen a pileated woodpecker, which, when mounted to a tree trunk and perpendicular to the ground, seems just a bit larger than a housecat. I have encountered no less than five species of snake there, was visited by a gopher tortoise, and sat beside two piglets who, though considered invasive, endearingly tested the limits of their legs. When they inevitably cleared the land to invent a ‘town’ named Nocatee, they left scarcely a tree. The beige homes sit on otherwise vacant lots, scorched, dotted with saplings that have been staked with rope since they are without established roots. The forests they took were mostly second growth: the previous ‘developers’ had been lumber companies. I’ve come to resent the very word ‘develop’, though before moving here, it only reminded me of a darkroom. The film has been pulled from its stop bath: a chance to see an image our eyes have seen our entire lives as if for the first time.
Using an old Thomas map, my father found a stream that holds native brook trout several miles into the rock-patched blueberry grounds of Downeast Maine; he navigated by way of tying cut lengths of moving straps to saplings along otherwise unmarked trails. The cold section of the Mopang he found was not by atlas, however, but by wading the stream until he felt the shock of icy sand under the August current. Centuries of steady trickle have carved the bank out in that spot, though low-hanging branches obscure it. When we visit, we fish the spot until the brookies are too wary to bite and release them to catch another time. An angler catches fish not because he is smarter, but because he has put in the time, and because fish, like people, are predictable. If a hole holds, and nothing too drastic happens, it will continue to hold. If a fish has food and can breathe well enough, there he will remain, even as the space declines, until the oxygen levels plummet. Demonstrable patterns we too have yet to overcome.
Small game hunting taught me to pace my gait by ear: if I cannot hear the low whirring of the forest, I am moving too fast. Most days are hikes only; I do not fire a shot. Though brutish in its intent, walking through the woods prepared to take game awakens something essential. The late capitalist male: a consumer, alienated from himself, from the very arrangement of molecules 4 billion years in the making. The code remains, yet it serves little function, save excretion and the urge to reproduce, both of which he overemphasizes as crude vestiges of what he has lost. As ineffectual as it might be to pass a dozen grocery stores on the way to the woods, he is there not to kill, but to remember something that feels like a dream his DNA suddenly awoke from and cannot entirely recall.
In the Guana Preserve, a lifted, diesel truck was running on the forest road. When passing, I asked the driver if the plumes of black smoke were due to a cat-less exhaust. “Piston seals are shot,” he replied, a trace of guilt in his tone, “But I should be able to get another five years out of this tank.” I did not respond, and thought instead of the trout in our spot, and of the mornings I spent imploring the newly planted loquat tree to save its fruit for spring.
There are those of us, made from the same carbon as the grass, who have no sense of this thing. We do share DNA with the grass: a homologue of the aptly titled “Eyes Absent” gene first found in fruit flies. Perhaps they “see” something divine in the majesty of this place, as if it were willed and could be built again – a sandcastle reformed at the next low tide – but appear unimpressed by its rareness. The distance a beam of light travels in thirteen billion years and, so far, only this gravid orb. It is not that they do not comprehend it; who among us does? We sense its power the way a dog senses someone at the door. He cannot tell at first whether it is man or wind, and if man, where he came from or why. He senses it nonetheless. So it us for us when we consider the vacuum of time and space, dark matter, really anything that approaches the infinite. Those who have not sensed this thing become unintelligible. What can I channel for him but the passive empathy I give to the lily who will issue forth prematurely and never bloom in full?