It is hunting season in the Florida Panhandle. You can tell by all the pickup trucks and the silhouettes of rifles in the rear windows. Camouflaged men drag deeply from cigarettes, waiting for their baying hounds to run a deer out of the woods.
Gil Nelson and I are hunting, too. I have little experience, so I leave all the equipment and expertise to him. He hauls our weaponry in a small pack around his waist. He carries notebooks, magnifying glasses, rulers and worn-out nature guides.
We are hunting plants in Florida's Garden of Eden. Its real name is Torreya State Park, which is on the Apalachicola River 90 minutes west of Tallahassee. A crazy, mixed-up garden it is. God must have picked up a hunk of the Great Smoky Mountains and dropped them in Florida, complete with the trees and shrubs and wildlife.
Changing leaves _ you read right _ herald fall at Torreya. Waterfalls spew from steep cliffs. Copperheads lay coiled in the deep grass.
"Can you believe we're in Florida?" Nelson asks.
"I visit at any excuse'
Nelson is among our state's premier naturalists, the author of The Trees of Florida and The Shrubs of Florida. He wrote the outstanding guides Exploring Wild North Florida and Exploring Wild Northwest Florida, the latter of which I carry in my pack. His words about this park made me want to visit:
"Few of Florida's natural areas rival the unique attributes of Torreya State Park."
In addition to cliffs and deep ravines and hills and river bluffs and mountain-region flora, the park is home to 120 plants that wildlife agencies list as threatened or endangered. One tree, the torreya, is among the rarest on Earth and probably doomed to extinction.
"I visit at any excuse," says Nelson, a 49-year-old Tallahassee resident. He teaches computer programing for a living, but his passion from childhood has been natural Florida.
Last year he hiked about 1,000 miles through the state's wilderness. His idea of a perfect day is driving to the coastal St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in the middle of the night and walking until dawn.
"It's great at night," he says of the vast marsh south of Tallahassee. "You see meteor showers and hear some great frogs. You know what's perfect? A cool October night. You get a chorus of leopard frogs so loud you have to yell. In February, you get those spring peepers. In August, you can hear those narrowmouth toads hollering."
On weekends, with more time, he drives to Torreya (pronounced "tory-ah"). Sometimes he visits alone and sometimes he leads tours. Not long ago he brought Boy Scouts. It was a perfect trip until a boy picked up a venomous copperhead snake.
"It turned out the snake wasn't very upset, and it didn't inject any poison. The boy was fine. But we do have to watch where we put our feet here."
Plant books in the woods
I am a lousy botanist. Oh, I can bluff my way through the woods if I'm with a neophyte. Even though plants stay put I find them harder to identify than birds. Many species look exactly alike. I lack the eyes and the patience.
Nelson has both. As a beginner, he'd invite himself on hikes and learn from experts. As his interest grew, he'd set up camp in the woods, erect a card table and bring a library of plant books. He'd walk 100 feet and snip the leaf of an unfamiliar plant. Back at the table, he'd take out his magnifying glass and his books and identify it. Torreya was among his favorite places to botanize.
"There are a number of parks in Florida I consider unique," he says. "Torreya is something special, something amazing. Botanists for two centuries have come here. For someone who loves plants it is a paradise."
Once there were people who believed that Noah lived here because he built his ark from gopherwood, which is another name for the Torreya tree. The late E.E. Calloway, who lived nearby in Bristol, developed a theory that Torreya was the Garden of Eden and that Adam and Eve are buried nearby.
I will settle for a torreya tree. A copperhead snake _ I've never seen one _ will make me speak in tongues.
I hike behind Nelson, who is tall and bespectacled and has a salt and pepper beard. He wears a long-sleeved shirt and pants. I'm in shorts, in tick country. Oh, well.
We saunter among ancient pines. "What you're seeing here is presettlement Florida," Nelson says. They are long-leaf pines. Once they covered millions of acres in the Southeast. They were logged out and replanted with faster-growing slash pines. Today they're rare, though not here. Under them, wildflowers explode from the grass. We see purple asters, golden asters, blazing star, blue curl, wild buckwheat.
We slip into ravines and walk past cliffs. We climb one, too. I feel like we're in Colorado, looking down at the treetops below.
Interesting sights and smells
Torreya is the result of some wonderful natural history. Ice-age glaciers during the last 1.6-million years pushed many northern plants south into the area.
"It's a cooler climate here," Nelson says. "And there are elevation changes of a few hundred feet that are dramatic by Florida standards. That adds to the plant variety. Torreya also is at the northern end of the subtropical zone and at the southern end of the temperate zone. So you get some plant mixing. The Apalachicola River is the dividing line for western and eastern plants, but there's some mixing. The Apalachicola originates a few hundred miles away in Georgia. Seeds float down and take root."
Nelson plucks a leaf from a small plant. Crushing it, he says: "Smell that!" It's minty. "Don't think it has a common name. The genus is Dicerandra but I can't remember the species. Sometimes I'll walk into an area that has a lot of them and I'll be completely engulfed by the aroma."
I notice one of my favorite North Carolina autumn trees, the tuliptree poplar. Its dying leaves are turning yellow.
"In the next few weeks a strong cold front will get through," Nelson says. "Then you'll really see some color. The winged sumac will turn red. Sweetgum will be yellow. The sourwood trees, the same ones you'd see in the mountains, will be a rich crimson."
He touches me lightly on the shoulder to keep me from stepping on a snake.
"That's a rare sight, my man!" Nelson whispers. "What a nice copperhead."
Fanged enemies, doomed trees
The trail we're hiking should be called "Copperhead Road." Walking on, I hear something in the bushes. Two copperheads are mating. Or so it seems. They lie entwined, then untangle and hiss and get together again and snap apart.
Eventually, Nelson decides they're not mating but fighting. As I hunker and watch about 5 feet away, one charges me. I am quick on my feet.
We reach the ridge overlooking the mighty Apalachicola River a hundred feet below. We admire basswood trees and black walnuts, white oaks and eastern hornbeam. We're talking again about how foreign this environment feels to a Floridian.
"Hey, look here," Nelson says. I stare at a 10-foot tree. "Know what it is?"
It has tiny leaves. I guess red cedar.
"No. You're looking at a torreya tree."
They were among the most common trees here earlier in the century. They were so common that residents used them as Christmas trees. Three decades ago, a mysterious fungus arrived. Scientists are still trying to understand it.
Nelson points to a brown spot on the trunk. This torreya will be dead soon. He expects that all torreyas will be dead soon. Perhaps its extinction is natural, part of evolution, but it's sobering nevertheless. Nothing is permanent.
It takes about 40 minutes to hike to the truck. We shake hands and say our goodbyes. On the way out of the park I see a young couple walking along the road, holding hands.
Pilgrims in the Garden of Eden, perhaps they are searching for Adam and Eve.