Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Old Sentinel of Alachua Sink


There's a certain sense of excitement I feel every time I walk down the narrow path onto Paynes Prairie. What animals will I encounter today? What plants will be blooming or setting seeds? What surprises does the Prairie hold?

But, even in my eagerness, I rarely pass under the giant live oak at the trail head, without gazing in awe up into the broad green cathedral of its canopy. It's not a deliberate ritual born of repetition, but a spontaneous moment of admiration and respect, like a child looking up into the kind, all-knowing eyes of his grandfather before letting go of his hand to run into the playground.

It's appearance alone--massive gray trunk, expansive canopy and huge, arching limbs adorned with green, species-rich thickets of resurrection fern and other small plants--would be enough to bring me up short. But, more than anything, it's this tree's setting that fires my imagination. Perched on a bluff over Alachua Sink, with a wide view across the Prairie, I wonder what events this ancient sentinel has witnessed? How many times did Don Thomas Menendez whose La Chua ranch house stood on this bluff in the 1600's, stand in this same shade and gaze across the Prairie? Did French pirates rest here after either of their two raids on the ranch? How many Indians, explorers, settlers, soldiers, missionaries, ranchers, cowboys and curious school children has this tree comforted with its cool shade? How many weary travelers tied their horses to it? Bartram? Cowkeeper? Who leaned against it to steady their rifles? Binoculars? Scopes? How many people hid behind it? From whom? How many people waited here for someone to arrive in their canoe? steamboat? powerboat? How many people have stood here in awe?

The time I've spent gazing up at this giant oak, watching the interactions of wildlife and conjuring scenes from the past, must certainly run into the hours. But, as far as the tree is concerned, I'm just another of the countless human specks that have blown across it's roots over the centuries. Dreamers and schemers have come and gone, but this grand sentinel remains.

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