The Great Story of the Stinking Cedar in the Garden of Eden.
It is older than tree sloths, alligators, whale sharks, and bees. It is older than the Bering Sea, Hawaii, half of Australia, and the dwarf planet Pluto.
It is called "stinking" for the musk of celery, tomato, and turpentine that wafts to your nose when you sniff its needles. Its seeds, after they fall, also have the uncanny ability of mimicking the smell of mammalian sewage.
The evolutionary theory is that the seeds were consumed by roaming Paleolithic giants, carried in the gullets of mastodons and spectacled bears and giant sloths, and spread to new homes upon digestion.
One ecologist estimated that there were 600,000 stinking cedars in Florida before the twentieth century. By 1950 most had been harvested for fence posts, shingles, and Christmas trees.
Stinking cedars perfumed bungalows. Shingles kept living rooms warm while stinking cedar planks fenced and guarded yards. Children unwrapped presents scented with turpentine. The trees wove in and out of Floridians' lives, creating the bulwark for the passage through time.
Minus colossal, Paleolithic carriers, hunted out by early Americans, stinking cedars are restricted to where their golfball seeds fall. And because of climate change, a pathogen previously unknown to science is slaughtering Torreya newborns. And the warming planet's heat laps at their branches, the once-vermillion needles shading to the color of rust.
With all these changes, there are as few as six hundred stinking cedars left in the world. It is one of the oldest and rarest of Earth's living things.
Some humans are constructing a lifeboat for the creature, an exodus from the extinction we're causing. This journey may carry us away into a different story about our relationship with nature, a story with several characters, one that heralds the death of Eden without mourning.
A not-for-profit group of citizens, the Torreya Guardians, have gathered samplings and seeds of stinking cedars and shipped them to over thirty locations around the world. They fret the species will wink out, and so they are FedEx-ing its progeny to backyard refuges.
Through Skype I managed to contact the Torreya Guardians' president, Connie Barlow, who also works as a travelling preacher with her husband. For a living, Connie and her husband preach not Christ but the gospel of Darwin.
They address astronomy and ecology and archaeology at prisons, libraries, schools, Catholic and Unitarian churches. They are self-proclaimed "evolutionary evangelicals" who live in a van, journeying the North American continent.
They drive and park, lecture under crucifixes flanked by bars or stained glass windows, and reveal the formation of all being from what has come before--the constant rearranging of atoms and DNA into mesmerizing new forms, an odyssey of biology.
"Tell me," Connie says, "a story more wondrous than that of a living cell forged from the residue of exploding stars. Or a transformation more magical than a fish falling out onto land. Or a myth more compelling than a reptile taking to the air and becoming a bird or a mammal slipping back into the sea and becoming a whale."
This is the cosmic tale of deep time swirling in the supernovas and condensing into the first microbe, tree, salamander, and human, the wheel of spark and death, the ongoing saga of our collective journey that they call the Great Story.
In 2003, during a break from evangelical wandering, Connie was strolling Torreya State Park in North Florida, where the last stinking cedars are. She searched for the park's namesake and bridled with panic as she saw dead and wilting branches, peeling bark, charcoaled bodies, needles strewn around the ground, encircling the fragile trees like shadowed halos.
A page of the Great Story, Connie Barlow believes, is when we humans were born, another when we became aware of the flood we are causing.
But some scientists believe the Guardians are a catastrophe. Famed biologist Daniel Simberloff called assisted migration and Connie Barlow's work "ecological roulette."
Jason McLachlan, a paleoecologist at Notre Dame, claimed the Torreya Guardians' actions "will be a disaster" and that their logic is "pure bullshit."
Simberloff and McLachlan are terrorized by invasiveness, by foreigners running amok like kudzu, Asian carp, and white Europeans. In their view, taking one animal, plant, or fungus out of a given environment and predicting its life in another is infeasible, a die cast.
Yet untouched by this fright are hordes of horticulturists and gardeners and farmers and ranchers. They've long grown foreign plants like soy and daikon and corn and potatoes, hybrid creatures like tangelos and sungold tomatoes, European crossbreeds, Polynesia transplants, species from every corner of six continents. In almost any ornamental garden anywhere, there sprout foreign flower armies.
Paleobotany studies have revealed that early Americans gardened forests and plains; the gramma grass adaptation to fire, for instance, was aided by humans. And humans have moved species because of climate change. Over 1,200 have been documented as shifting habitat in the last thirty years.
It is not hubris anymore to say that people are in charge of the planet. There is no "leaving alone" when eight billion people crowd the earth's skin.
Perhaps it is from a false memory of blissful cohabitation that some scientists dig their boots in, resisting the recognition of our historical, global impact on worldkind. Perhaps they cannot see how the death of Eden will enable a new story.
The man who classified theToneya was a Florida lawyer and botanist, Hardy Croom, who named the stinking tree after science colleague John Torrey.
In 1837 Hardy Croom boarded a ferry with his wife and three children. They were bound for Charleston, South Carolina, where the family had decided to relocate. The vessel with 133 on board was named Home.
Midway through, the steamer encountered unexpected hurricane-force gales. Ocean spilled over the sides, and every passenger bailed with pans and pails, including Croom and his wife. When the sea snuffed out the engines, the boat drifted. Moments later, it smashed on rocks near the Carolina shore.
There was a survivor report of Hardy Croom's youngest son gripping the edges of the steamship, watching his family slip one by one--mother, father, siblings--into the sea until he too, the little boy, was washed away.
Following the disaster, Congress enacted the Steamboat Act, a declaration requiring that every vessel carry a life vest for each passenger.
The waves that sank Croom and his family, that dragged him to the frigid depths from the pursuit of uncatalogued life, helped him, and the other ninety-nine lost souls on board Home, to have a lasting effect on our travels.
Every time a person sees a traffic-cone-orange pile of flotations aboard a ferry, or feels the secure styrofoam-like fluff beneath a water-bound seat, or should be saved by one in an unexpected storm or a grounding or a too-tight turn, she should thank Hardy Croom, the first cataloguer of stinking cedars; his wife; his innocent children; and everyone else who went down on Home, for their deaths provided salvation to float upon.
Torreya State Park is soft and fertile with a tree canopy high and shady when I visit in July. There is a sense of the neotropical, a rest stop for Appalachian moisture on its way to the equator.
I am here to see the last stinking cedars. There are around two hundred in the park, seventy-three percent diseased and sixty percent antlered by whitetail deer. The rest are noodling towards the sky but dying young, like tales that can't quite grasp the imagination.
The Torreya trees that I find first are locked inside steel, wire-mesh cages, and almost to a one, are as bare as sandblasted marble. The stinking cedar remains on the ground are a dull brown, and each part looks shriveled, shrunken. All but three of the first dozen trees I spot have lost their crown needles, and appear as spent torches standing upright.
I toe a limp branch, finger the dead crowns. I think it would be a sad thing to name a park after a tree that's gone extinct.
Stinking cedars are also called gopher wood. But "gopher" has little to do with burrowing animals. It is an anachronistic moniker, whose meaning is lost in time and translation.
Gopher trees would prove essential to the life's work of a Florida lawyer turned Biblical explorer named Elvy Edison Callaway.
E.E. Callaway was sixty-five in 1945, when he sat in the office of a ninety-eight-year-old physician-turned-metaphysician, Dr. Brown Landone. The older Landone had spent his life with the Gnostic Order of Melchizedek and written a number of spiritual texts, such as Transforming Your Life in 24 Hours.
E. E. Callaway was a lean and question-mark-shaped man, and Dr. Landone must have thought him amicable or in search of meaning, for he gave the younger lawyer his Teleois Key, an algorithmic formula based on numbers one, four and seven.
The Teleois Key translated and transmitted knowledge of God. It told Landone to instruct Callaway to go to North Florida on a secret mission, on which he would not elaborate further.
The good doctor died two weeks later.
In an area, and era, of rising conservatism, Callaway was pro-civil rights, pro-suffrage, pro-birth control, and anti-Prohibition, and argued cases for the NAACP. Prior to meeting Landone, the climax of Callaway's life might have been the meeting of his wife, a school teacher, at a square dance, an illicit date that got Callaway kicked out of his Baptist church.
It's unclear why Callaway would listen to Landone and his Dan Brownesque eccentricities. Perhaps his marriage (which soon crumpled) or his family (which he soon abandoned) or the sense of meaning that is absent from many lives as they grow old, itched at him until he made the drive north from Tampa in 1953.
Callaway travelled to Bristol, at the edge the wilderness, where still two-thirds of the county was uninhabited. E. E. exited his car and examined the land near where modern-day Torreya State park lies. He breathed in the mountain air that rolls off cliffs and collides with ocean. He kicked an Appalachian rock that had been scooted thousands of miles by ice.
He learned, he wrote later, that the best honey came from tupelo trees. The tastiest fruits grew in North Florida soil. The best gold was found in its rock. The purest waters poured from the Smokey Mountains, nourishing the planet's most succulent oysters. And people in North Florida lived longer. Calloway discovered that four rivers flowed into one, the wide, alligator-filled Apalachicola River. In very few places do four rivers sinew together-nowhere, claimed Callaway, in fact, except the lost world of the Tigris, Euphrates, Gihon, and Pishon.
Then Callaway rediscovered what some people in North Florida still call gopher wood.
Subsequently, he announced to the world that he had located the Garden of Eden in Bristol County, Florida.
The second day I am in Torreya State Park, my lemongrass insect repellent proves more dinner bell than deterrent. From the moment I'm on the trail looking for stinking cedars, I have twenty mosquitoes orbiting my face with the noise of squealing motors.
Golden orb weavers dominate the trees. They are phosphorescent arachnids with leg spans as wide as coffee cans. When I don't face-plant their webs, I stir up their homes with a stick, while their scurrying masses send phantom ants down my spine.
Meanwhile, ticks leap for my calves, and chiggers burrow in my socks. Copperheads buzz nearby, and there's my fear of alligators at river's edge, and black bears and panthers.
Also, the crew of Animal Planet's Finding Bigfoot is filming in the park; however, I understand them as more Eden-getters, pursuing a missing link to a prophecy of our reacquaintance with a world lost.
I pick up a piece of cane with five leaves on it and begin slapping mosquitoes, my shoulders, face, ears--my skin goose-pimpling. I stare at the ground to spy snakes, conjure a hole in space with my stick to catch the orb weavers' nests, one foot in front of the other, singing Bob Dylan to alert bears and maybe 'squatch too.
Combined with the blanketing humidity, I have a hellacious experience searching for Torreya in the Garden of Eden.
Callaway wasn't the first to pursue the lost world. Columbus went inspecting for Eden in Venezuela. Dr. Livingstone presumed it was in Zambia. John Calvin preached that it lay hidden beneath Iraq. William Warren, the president of Boston University, took a sabbatical Arctic cruise to confirm its location at the pole. This illusory dream is so compelling, it has inspired the abandonment of gold, tenure, country, and family.
I see it as a puritanical desire to get back to a mythical, flawless existence: a natural heaven realized. As the thinking goes, we pulled stakes during Genesis or the Green Revolution or the Industrial. And if we could only find our way home, across time and evolution and technology, flip through the pages of the Great Story, we could be at peace with creation, as we were at humankind's introduction, before the plot became messy.
If only we could return to that treasured beginning that is not bound within the covers of any history.
After an hour of singing and slapping, I find a healthy Torreya tree, a sapling about two and a half feet tall and wrapped in a cage. The tree is fingerthin but thriving, a darker hue than what I'd seen earlier, zestier and lizardskin-green.
In addition to being damaged by climate change, deer, and parasites, the stinking cedars suffer their ancient rootstock: The old roots must sprout trunks because the trees do not live long enough to seed. Eventually the stock will rot as will the young progeny, before either has time to set out descendants.
It strikes me as an irony for the species itself, an ancient tree kept perpetually immature. Like a man-child absorbed in fantasy.
The stinking cedars do not seem at home amid all this aggression, crowded by gargantuan beech, ash, palm, and shortleaf pine. They look shrunken, emancipated, out of place, everything else in Florida so robust and healthy.
It is only until the sixth specimen that I think so. It is enveloped in a slope where stands of hickories, magnolia, and needle palms circle around.
Here all the mosquitoes stop whining, and sunbeams break canopy. The Biblical rays gild a twenty-foot evergreen that smells like turpentine and raw sewage.
The tree appears as it should in its habitat--a midcanopy species that is finally in midcanopy. Unlike its cousins crowded by hardwoods it is not riffled or crippled, not meek or unnecessary.
For the first time, a stinking cedar appears to me to look in-home, with a little bit of sun but shaded by an ash, circled by palms. Torieya shines, the dew on its needles like gold.
The fantasy is that the stinking cedars will keep blooming saplings from their decrepit rootstock until one seeds. But it takes Samsonian effort to keep the trees alive. The biologist at the state park described for me on the phone the man-hours required to cage the saplings away from deer, burn away competition, and keep parasites at bay.
But Europeans began burning coal to manufacture steam in the eighteenth century, which germinated into climate change. Around the same time, they exported plants and animals along with capitalism.
More recently, the ten warmest years on record have occurred since 1998.
"That phrase, 'loss of innocence,' has become stale with overuse and diminishing returns;" writes Christopher Hitchens, "no other culture is so addicted to this narcissistic impression of itself as having any innocence to lose in the first place."
At Torreya State Park, I stand and take the trees in, amazed that I am beholding a living ancient in its habitat, older than dinosaurs, rarer now in the world than diamonds.
I know that every molecule floats back into the river of time. We spiral out with the galaxies we're born from to one day end up suspended, cold in a lifeless but ever-expanding universe. The Great Story, the Great End.
But some ends, like Hardy Croom's, can have redemption.
What I fear is the inability to know the largest scale on which a given turn, a givenbon voyage might lead to an unpredictable future, might decide that future now, with one seed in one hand. One time.
But we've already cast anchor. That is as undeniable as the glacier melt haloing Greenland or the hundred species of tree frogs winking out in Costa Rica or the slopes of Himalayan rhododendrons blooming a hundred days ahead of schedule. Or the stinking cedars dying in their homes.
I'm not sure when I realized gopher wood, for Callaway, meant stinking cedars. According to Genesis, gopher wood is the tree Noah felled to construct the ark.
Noah squeezed out gopher pitch for the boat's pitch. He sawed Torreya lumber for the boat's keel, bow, and stern. He then loaded up two of every creature, or so goes the tale, and waited for the rain, floating for five months. The ship was eventually grounded on a mountain where Noah founded civilization.
Humanity blossomed, its origins forgotten, the stinking cedar the lifeboat that rescued our species.
There is something to Callaway's rediscovery of gopher wood in Florida, something about the weakest becoming our salvation because they show us what is possible.
Which maybe means that after centuries of unconscious gardening and decimating, people could become Exodus. That mass extinction could be powered by an awareness that every volcano, asteroid, and sea boil has lacked. That maybe we aren't lost environmental sinners.
But a death is necessary, and we must kill the idea that our innocence was ever possible.
Extinctions are ordinary as life. Molecules from ancient supernovas form our thoughts, our cars, as do the cadavers of Triassic ferns.
But perhaps a conscious act can cut away illusions, free our evolutionary rudder. Perhaps this new myth discovered by Callaway helps us globe-trot into uncharted terra incognita.
We may be grounded on a mountain or capsized in a hurricane. But leaving port is the only plot line because Eden, whatever it was, flooded in this story long ago.
If Torreya was gopher wood, the rare trees floored the pens of every animal species in the Genesis menagerie. The stinking trees creaked under horse hooves, elephants rutting, tigers sharpening their claws, and snow monkeys urinating, which the cedar would have absorbed without smelling much different.
I imagine the flood survivors standing watch on a deck made from Torreya--the son who had caught Noah in the buff, crashed on a sanded cedar plank, a seed-bearing dove perched on a stinky rail.Torreya roof, Torreya bow,Torreya stern,Torreya keel,Torreya pails. The great ocean-assisted migration that carried life ahead for us.
That we might be on the brink of taking a step toward accepting responsibility for this story fills me with cautious awe.Homo sapiens, the iceberg, the asteroid, pyroclastic cloud--they may yet carry something to the edge of the world on a rainbow promise. The alternative myth, I suppose, is tragedy.
Callaway's new property was just south of what would become Torreya State Park. He transformed the land into a road-trip attraction. He painted large signs declaring the Garden of Eden to the highways. Tickets went on sale from a kiosk for $1.10 apiece. Callaway would refund your money if it rained or if you got lost coming down.
Visitors could drive in to Callaway's theme park and climb the four-mile Garden of Eden Road. The entrance was a dirt path that rolled over plains, skirted a steep ravine, ascended through forest and wrapped around sandy hills with wily gopher tortoises, salamanders, and Callaway's gopher trees.
Callaway dug up three petrified stinking cedar logs and set them out on display. He claimed they were extras from the construction of the ark.
Elvy Callaway believed his mission from the Teleois Key was to bring Eden back to the world. To mark all the trees that enabled Noah's departure and share their message.
Inside his ramshackle tourist attraction, Callaway set out signs identifying landmarks such as "BIRTH PLACE OF ADAM." Another read: "LADIES, ON THIS NATURAL OPERATING TABLE GOD TOOK A RIB FROM ADAM'S SIDE AND MADE MOTHER EVE."
Another hand-painted marker read, "THE LEAVES OF GOPHER TREES IS A PERFECT DESIGN CONVEYING A SPECIAL DIVINE MESSAGE. No OTHER TREE IN THE WORLD HAS SUCH A MESSAGE."
His contrarian revision of the Fall, writes Callaway in one of his two memoirs, is that Eve knowingly chewed the apple.
She ate, and got Adam to bite, not to be cast out of the garden but to take responsibility for the lives that they were given. To lead them beyond innocence.
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|Author:||Peters, Clinton Crockett|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2017|
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