Written post-Hurricane Ian, late September 2022, Punta Gorda, West Coast of the 160-mile-wide Florida Peninsula, USA
As on most days, the wind blows today in Florida, a mild and steady balm as it scoots Styrofoam across the street and back into my yard. To look at this leftover junk as a nuisance is a human reaction. Pick it up, I say to myself; what’s the big deal? The wind will blow, and it likes to play with leaves and twigs as well as Styrofoam after a big blow across the state.
The old oak by the fountain at the Y on Outer and Eighth, which has long been dropping leaves and twigs, will be cut down at the advice of an arborist, from the complaints of residents. It is a tree, so it was busy every day, as most plants are, dropping leaves, inviting critters in (squirrels, birds, snakes, bugs, lizards, cats, rats, and raccoons, whatever mammals and reptiles live in one’s backyard). The old oak also leans toward an electrical board that was placed there to feed this end of the residential area where I live. I am told there is fear that the long-lived tree will indeed lean far enough that it will cut our electrical feed someday if it hits the electrical board, so it must go.
I advocated for the electrical board to go somewhere else. Or the top eight inches of unused board cut off so it wouldn’t interfere with the guy who was there first, the tortured yet handsome and lovely old fellow -- gnarly, healthy on one side, damaged on the other, where he lost a limb during Hurricane Charley 18 years ago. He’s lived a long time with that serious amputation, healing himself year by year as is a Florida Live Oak’s want. It is a fellow of the oak family, for heaven’s sake, which heal themselves over time (one of the reasons they can live to 600 years). It supports its own life right where it is, for its own salvation on its long-lived frame. Because of its half-dead-looking side, to many, it looks decrepit, but to me it is simply an enduring live oak, living as long as he can with a wound that does not affect the rest of his body. The healthy side looks healthy. And the half-dead side gives it a je ne sais quoi that becomes it. To me, the old guy has a panache, a lively “I don’t care what you think of me” attitude. It is obvious he likes himself. The wound from the brutal storm-caused amputation is two feet long, his bark having methodically closed in on the once-five-foot gash left from the torn-away arm.
I am told another tree will be planted once my old friend hits the turf it has inhabited for so long. It will not be an oak, I am told, but it should be. They are fast-growing, sturdy, and offer vast canopies of shade (it’s at least 10 degrees cooler under an oak, which counts quite a bit in a hot and humid climate like Florida’s). That they drop leaves all year long is a problem? Please, compared to their noble beauty and benign shade? Please, humans, have a heart. Or if not that, be smart, which is your claim to fame on this planet.
Below is a list of trees I sent to the Board of our little community to consider as its replacement, a tree that doesn’t shed, doesn’t have intrusive roots, doesn’t harbor tree rats and snakes (although the foxtail palm does, and people are planting them like crazy), is durable in high winds and sandy soil and likes full sun.
Gumbo Limbo [bursera simaruba – some nurseries do not know “gumbo lingo,” only its Latin name]: Zone 9-10 (FL), full sun, fast grower, wind resistant (can withstand hurricane winds), 30’ tall, origin: Florida.
Multi-trunk foxtail: a palm, 30’ tall, self-cleaner (drops its fronds, no trimming needed), fast grower, full sun, best variety – multi-trunk, can be planted 3’ from a fence, origin: Tropical America.
Royal Poinciana AKA Flamboyant: Zone 9-10, 20’-30’ tall, full sun, fast growing, heat tolerant, heartbreakingly gorgeous; many throughout Punta Gorda, origin: Madagascar; in France, called “Flamboyant”.
Jacaranda: Zone 9-10, perfect along streets, driveways, long-lived, 25’ tall, full sun, wind resistant, gorgeous flowers, origin: Brazil.
Thuja giant fir: Zone 9-10, 14’ tall, 6’ wide at base, fast growing--3’-4’ a year, origin: Asia.
Tabebuia: Zone 10, full sun, sandy soil okay, gold, pink, purple blooms, no root problems, 25’ tall, origin: Tropical America.
You notice I don’t list the Florida Live Oak. Why bother? The HOA (Homeowners Association) has given the word that if you fear your oak will fall on your neighbor’s house, you will be responsible for the repairs. And here I thought the insurance company paid for damage from an Act of God. Because of this license to kill, homeowners have cut down perfectly healthy trees of at least 50 to 100 years of age, and our mobile home park now looks like a trailer park instead of the oak hammock (a cluster) it was when settlers first landed on this piece of heaven and let their cows grow fat under the shady heroes.
I would move if my rent weren’t so cheap -- $257 U.S. a month – and my property wasn’t on the ancient tidal waterway, Alligator (a 12-footer suns just across the water under the mangroves) Creek, named by the indigenous Calusa. I have cordially asked the HOA if I could have a replacement oak across the road in front of me, near the river. So far, no answer. Are the Caesars in charge afraid it will fall on an alligator and ruin its murky home?
The oaks drip with Spanish moss above the herons and cranes flying the waterway; the eagles and osprey duel with one another for the fish – mullet, trout, bass, and snook; and the ibis, pecking along in their pretty white herds, work all day devouring ground bugs with their gracefully curved beaks. The oaks are a frame, a shelter, caretakers of their terrain and its inhabitants. That they sometimes succumb to hurricanes is nature at its wildest; that they currently are allowed to be shaved off the planet by humans is idiocy.
But then, what’s a tree-hugger to do? The words human and idiot have long been considered synonyms.