Saturday, August 23, 2014

Spanish Moss

  Next time you find yourself in the hospital wearing one of those stylish backless gowns, take heart in knowing it could have been worse. Had you been a Florida aborigine with fevers, the local shaman might have wrapped you in Spanish moss and told you to hop on the grill while he lit a fire under it. Don’t you feel better?

  For thousands of years, Florida natives and the Euro-Floridians who followed have found many uses for Spanish moss. If there were such things as plant celebrities, Spanish moss would surely be a superstar.

  The name Spanish moss comes from early French settlers in Louisiana who called it barbe Espagnole, or “Spaniards beard”. The Spanish countered, calling it "Frenchman’s wig." Meanwhile, a Swedish botanist quietly entered the naming game.

  In the mid-1700’s, with the creation of Carl Linnaeus system of binomial nomenclature, that systematically organized all plants and animals and gave the Latin names, the business of naming Spanish moss was no longer in the hands of whimsical name-callers, but in those of high-browed academics with an eye toward serious science. So, with the pomp of a nobleman (which he was) Linnaeus stepped up to the proverbial plate and named the plant Tillandsia, in homage to his noble friend Tillands because of his tendency to barf (nobly, I'm sure) every time he got on a boat. Okay, so much for high–browed academia. In Linnaeus' day, botanists believed the tiny gray scales that sheathed Spanish moss’ wiry strands acted to repel water. It was later learned that the scales actually collect moisture and nutrients from the air, but by that time Tillands and his celebrated water-repelling stomach were firmly entrenched in the annals of botanical nomenclature. The species name, usneaoides, refers to its similarity to lichen called usnea or “old man’s beard”.

  Seen from a distance, the long festoons of Spanish moss waving lazily in the breeze give an easy, ethereal effect to any setting. Up close, however, all that southern charm is gone with the wind. Fluffy masses of wiry, gray strands evoke images of Einstein on a bad hair day. Look closer still and you might discover Spanish mosses best-kept secret--flowers. Many Floridians have lived entire lives against the backdrop of moss-draped live oaks without ever noticing the small greenish (sometime pale blue) blooms nestled among the strands. When you find one, take a whiff (but not too hard or the tiny bloom with disappear into your nose). The first time I smelled one, I recognized it immediately. While I had never been consciously aware of the scent, I knew it. Spanish moss blooms have probably scented every warm summer breath of my life,
   Early explorers were intrigued with Spanish moss--mainly because Indian women wore moss skirts and shawls draped loosely over their otherwise naked bodies. (Special note to any of you considering going "retro" and reviving this attractive fashion--over 160 species of insects, spiders, mites and other unfashionable critters are known to raise their annoying little families in this plant). In addition to clothing, the moss had other uses. Babies were sometimes bundled in it and a decoction of boiled moss was rubbed on the heads of newborns to give them curly hair. Later, simplers (folk healers who used plants for cures) used it for “female problems” and gallbladder ailments.

  While most of these folk remedies faded into obscurity, at least one bridged the gap between lore and science. In Louisiana, where Spanish moss tea was used by wild crafters as a treatment for diabetes, researchers have found that it reduces blood glucose levels in rats 4 – 8 hours after ingestion. To date, no diabetes drugs have been derived from Spanish moss, but research is ongoing.

  Another example of modern science propping up folklore is found in the use of Spanish moss as bandaging material by both American Indians and soldiers during the Civil War. Since that time, the plant has been found to contain an enzyme that breaks down dead tissue and enhances healing. It has also been found to have both analgesic and antibacterial properties. To top it off, tests at the Mayo Clinic showed that sterilized Spanish moss is more absorbent than an equal weight of cotton. And, we aren’t making Spanish moss bandages because  …?

  Perhaps the best known use of Spanish moss was as cushioning material for horse buggy seats and later, automobiles. In the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, a thriving cottage industry of gathering, curing and selling Spanish moss kept food on the tables of many Florida cracker families. Alachua County was at the heart of the trade. In Gainesville alone, three commercial ginning operations bought moss from private “pickers” and processed it for use by upholstery and car manufacturers.

  These days, having survived the simplers, moss pickers, and a devastating blight in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, Spanish moss has returned to doing what it does best – decorating our wild places with its graceful, southern charm and providing housing for warblers and countless little creepy-crawlies. Even chiggers need a home.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Ancient River Crossings

If I ever offer a series of tours titled, “The River Fords of North Florida,” Prairie Creek and Steinhatchee River will be the featured waterways.

Funny thing about streams; when they happen to run in the same direction we are headed, we are eternally grateful for them. We build some sort of floaty contrivance (a technical industry term) load ourselves and our stuff onto it, and then let the water do the work. But if we are travelling by land and our path arrives at that same river, it is now our greatest foe. 

For the early natives of our area, Prairie Creek likely served as a convenient artery for moving themselves and their goods between Newnan’s Lake and Paynes Prairie.  During wet periods they could have paddled onto and across the prairie (lake) basin. But when it became too dry for boating yet too soggy for walking, travelers had to walk the high ground around the basin. On the east side, this would have meant and unavoidable crossing of Prairie Creek. 

If you've paddled this beautiful run, you know its flanked by broad swamps for most of its length. This made good crossing sites scarce. One site with low banks, slow flow and shallow water fit the bill better than others. It was there that the vast majority of people traveling around Paynes Prairie likely crossed Prairie Creek for thousands of years.

As with most old crossings, Prairie Creek Ford and the trail leading up to it are now overgrown and barely perceptible. But for the paddler with an old map and a keen eye (or, at least a keen guide) the ancient cut, carved by a parade of boots, hooves and squeaking wooden wheels, is still visible on the river bank.

The story was the same for early travelers along the Gulf Coast. While many coastal streams were short enough to bypass around their heads, longer ones had to be crossed. As in other environments, these fords relied on shallow water. But they had another issue—tides.   Coastal waterways rise and fall with the tides—sometimes many miles upstream. So, it was critical that any ford of a coastal stream be above the highest reach of the tide (called the “tidewater”). Driving Hwy 19/98 through the Big Bend and Gulf Hammock areas serves as a good case study. This route carries you past the head of shorter streams and along the tidewater of the longer ones.

On Steinhatchee River, the best fording conditions are found a short distance above Steinhatchee Falls. Here, a hard, level plateau of limestone (the same one that forms the cap of the falls) provided solid footing for people and, later, horses and wagons. The Falls themselves are the tidewater in normal conditions.

Now, imagine you are an archaeologist looking for artifacts of earlier cultures. What better place to look than a place where you know people not only congregated as they prepared to cross, but also spent time. If you've ever hiked in Florida, you know how hard it is to pull yourself away from any place that offers a cool swim and a re-fill of the water jugs. 

Historians are grateful for fords as well. Early explorers (and many later explorers as well) apparently hated keeping log books and chronicling their routes in journals. They often mentioned only the most striking landmarks. So, for the historian sleuthing the records in an attempt to retrace an explorers route, mention of river crossings can be invaluable. Students of Florida's First Seminole War are especially fond of the Steinhatchee ford because it was here that Andrew Jackson's Army camped before pushing on toward the Suwannee and an eventual attack on the Seminoles living there.
We know the exact location of this camp because it was described as being alongside their crossing of Steinhatchee. In a time when the Florida frontier was still largely a mystery, the Steinhatchee crossing offers a rare opportunity to scribble an "X" on our maps of Jackson's invasion.

So, if all this talk of crossing and bypassing rivers has subliminally made you actually want to get ON a river rather than bypass it (if I was an evil genius, that’s the kind of mischief I would enjoy!); or if you, like me, enjoy the sense of connection to the past that comes from visiting a place where countless Indians, settlers and soldiers stood and scratched their heads as they pondered the river; or even  if you’d simply like to paddle a beautiful waterway with as little jabbering about fords as possible, I think you’ll find everything your adventurous heart desires on this Saturdays, (8/23) Prairie Creek excursion. If that trip isn’t to your taste (maybe you prefer more open water with less chance of pull-overs)  or if you find you a have a sudden and inexplicable urge to experience the excitement of a tidewater, we’ll be doing Steinhatchee River on Sunday (8/24).