Sunday, April 8, 2007

A disappearing walk on Florida's wild side


Sherry Boas
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel April 8, 2007)

I took a walk out to get the paper on a recent Sunday. The newspaper box is about a quarter-mile away, where the dirt lane that leads to our house abuts the county-maintained paved road.

On the way home, instead of retracing my footsteps, I meandered back through the woods. A 120-acre parcel borders our property. In what was once a citrus grove, untamed lemon trees remain beneath a canopy of 20-year-old slash pines, stately oaks and sprawling tangles of grapevines and Virginia creepers.

When our family moved here in 1992, the pines and oaks were babies. At 5-foot-4, I was taller than most of them. Today their towering trunks dwarf me. All are big enough to be harvested and, a few years ago, many were. The out-of-town owners hired a logging company to come in and thin the woods. About every third tree was cut down and trucked away. Perhaps the trees were made into lumber or crushed into pulp for paper. We all use a great deal of wood products, and I don't begrudge the owners for thinning the forest. But as a neighbor who passed the woods daily, I found the process difficult to watch.

For about a year afterward, the forest looked raw and ragged. The sandy soil was marred by tire tracks; discarded limbs littered the ground. The uncut pines stood meek and spindly, unfamiliar as they were to so much exposure to sun and wind. Eventually, time erased the rough edges. The slash pines filled out. Scraggly oaks, with new space to expand, responded by stretching outward and upward. The tire tracks faded beneath a blanket of pine needles and oak leaves. As I walked through the woods on that Sunday, the ground underfoot felt surprisingly soft and springy. Each step produced an ear-pleasing crunch as oak leaves, dry and brittle from weeks without rain, crumbled underfoot.

I made my way over fallen limbs, around twining vines and stumps left behind by the loggers. Treading carefully, I avoided anything sharp -- pine cones, twigs or the carelessly tossed beer bottles left behind by others. The deeper into the woods I walked, the quieter it became. Sunlight filtered down through a pine canopy, birds fluttered about and sticky webs built by giant banana spiders stretched tautly between tree and twig.

It was a lovely walk, an excellent alternative to my usual trek down our long dirt driveway. But as I wandered through the quiet woods, I couldn't help wondering how the land there will look a year from now. The 120 acres has been pre-approved for a mixed-use development. Although the project is still being planned, at some point the construction will begin. Most of the trees will be cut down to make way for paved roads weaving through a maze of town homes, retail establishments and cookie-cutter houses on lots the size of postage stamps.

I'm not opposed to development and have little sympathy for those who move into subdivisions and then complain about new subdivisions popping up all around them. But I can't help feeling sad when I think about another large stretch of land bound for the chopping block.

My thoughts focus on the animals that live there. What's to become of them?

When bulldozers move in, wildlife dies or, at the very least, is displaced. I've seen bobcats, coyotes, gopher tortoises, foxes, raccoons, armadillos, snakes, owls, opossums, squirrels and all types of songbirds on that land. A family of scrub-jays, Florida's only endemic bird, lives close by. Once, much to my astonishment, a deer -- the only deer I've seen in this neighborhood -- took a daring leap across an abutting road. Knowing that these animals will be forced to abandon their homes when construction commences is a sorrowful thought.

I don't know how to resolve the problem of encroaching growth. Landowners have a right to sell and subdivide their property, but plants and animals need places to live too. As I wandered through the woods that Sunday, I savored the beauty of this peaceful spot and hoped for the best.

Maybe, when developed, at least a fragment of its essence will remain. Maybe some of the displaced wildlife will venture onto my own tract of undeveloped wilderness and take up residence there. Maybe the future homeowners will plant trees -- many trees -- and encourage nature rather than trying to eliminate it.

We live in a world of many maybes and few certainties. Our control over the actions of others is limited, but in our own backyards, we have incalculable power. It takes just one person, one tree at a time, to make a difference. If we each did that, planted more trees in our home landscapes, imagine the effect on the environment.

If animals could talk, I bet they'd say thank you.

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