Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Lessons of the Dune

The story of the demise of Florida's Timucua people began and ended in the dunes near St. Augustine. They were the first thing Ponce de Leon saw when he arrived in 1513 and the last thing the natives saw as the last 89 Timucuans sailed away 250 years later. It was the perfect setting. The story of these dunes is, in many ways, a microcosm of the story of Florida itself. Most of this land was, at one time or another, covered by dunes. They represent Florida’s essence—raw and elemental.   

Anyone hoping to gain a true understanding of Florida and the people who live here should begin by studying the plants and animals that live in the dunes. Ponce de Leon would have done well to heed this advice. Imagine how differently things might have gone if he had spent his five "lost days" learning the lessons of the dunes and taken those lessons to heart. He wouldn’t have had to look hard to find them.
One of the first plants the explorer would have encountered would have been prickly pear cactus (Opuntia  humifusa)For thousands of years, Florida’s native people had not only learned to co-exist with these plants, they relied on them for food and medicine. At times, they even made short seasonal migrations to harvest the ripe, red “pears.” But for unschooled newcomers, prickly pears were probably little more than ever-present nuisances with long, pain-inducing spines.

Having ignored all warnings from the prickly pears, de Leon would have found even more species eager to teach him the perils of trespassing in places he wasn’t welcome. Of all the scenes I’ve imagined of Ponce’s first days, none is more satisfying than picturing him gyrating through a bed of sand spurs (Cenchrus spp.) doing the “Ow! Ow! Ow!” tippy-toe dance. You know the one; everyone who’s walked bare-footed through sand spurs knows this dance. While the Spaniard didn’t understand Timucuan, the language of sand spurs would have been clear. If he had taken this message to heart, de Leon might not have returned to South Florida a decade later and been fatally pierced by a different kind of “thorn,” a native arrow.
Most of the dunes lessons are not so painful. In fact, most require nothing more than mindfulness and a sense of curiosity. Take the lessons of the sea oats (Uniola paniculata). If de Leon had contemplated these important dune-stabalizing plants, he might have learned about adaptability. When sea oats are covered by sand in a storm, they simply sprout new roots from the buried stem and push up new growth from their growing tip.

If he had a microscope (okay, now I'm really stretching the imagination) he could have learned another of the sea oats valuable lessons—coexistence. These plants are colonized by beneficial fungi which increase the root's surface area and thereby enhance their ability to take in nutrients. The lives of both the oat and the fungi are bettered by their cooperative relationship.

Coexistence is a common theme in these dunes. Ambling among the soft, rolling swells of sugar-sand, de Leon would certainly have spotted gopher tortoise burrows. These burrows are used by at least 365 species of insects, mammals and reptiles of several species, all of which comfortably cohabitate in the dark passages.
This lesson might have been reinforced with a stroll on the beach (nobody can resist beach-combing). As he splashed along the frothy edge of wave-wash, Ponce might have found a Portuguese Man o’ War stranded onto the beach. As a seasoned sea farer, he would likely have known these animals as they are common throughout the Atlantic. He might have even felt a kinship with such an adventurous creature that goes through life on a private journey guided only by the prevailing winds (a jelly after my own heart!). But, familiar as he was, de Leon might not have known the animal’s greatest strength.  The Portuguese Man o’ War’s various body parts are actually different animals. This is not one animal but a colony of coexisteing, co-dependant species. None could live without all the others living together in this amazing animal/colony.

Our hero would also have done well to study the wrack. There, piled above the highest wash of the tide, he might have found affirmation of what the Timucuans were trying to tell him (and what a girl named Dorothy would learn centuries later), “there’s no place like home.” This could have been learned from any one of the many exotic seeds found among the seaweed and flotsam. If he had looked around, he would have found that none of the plant species represented by these seeds were growing in those dunes—none had successfully germinated here, not then and not now. Like all species, these exotic seeds evolved in specific conditions of climate and soil which means they have special requirements to germinate and thrive.

Wherever he went, be it vegetated dune swales or the nearby flatwoods, de Leon would have been surrounded by one of the elders of Florida’s plant communities—saw palmetto (Serenoa repens). Recent DNA studies suggest that some saw palmettos may approach 10,000 years of age. This would have been accomplished by the plants habit of regularly sprouting new, prostate stems and sinking new roots from them. Granddaddy saw palmettos could be the clonal descendants of plants whose fruits were eaten by Paleo-Indians (and paleo-critters). As we would expect of such an elder, the lessons of saw palmetto are both numerous and profound. For me, none is more important than the fact that they are hard to cultivate. When removed from an area, they have difficulty reestablishing. This lesson perfectly symbolizes the tragic loss of Florida’s native people just 250 years after de Leon.

Unlike the Timucuans, who have been silenced forever, the dunes remain; still here to teach their lessons to anyone who will listen. To learn one of their most vital and urgent lessons, we must return to the old master, the prickly pear cactus. Look again at those long spines. As I mentioned before, they help the plant defend itself. What I didn't mention was that they guard the plant's most precious possession—water. The thick, succulent pads are spongy reservoirs of water—a vital necessity that desirous, thirsty animals try hard to access. We modern Floridians would do well to learn from old man cactus.