She was a sapling then, barely a branch tucked into a loose piece of concrete. I don’t know how she got there, but I can imagine she sprang from the leavings of one of the millions of birds that either fly over or roost on this disconnected, decaying span of Overseas Railroad, paralleled by the newer, misnomered Seven Mile Bridge
If you can remember all the way back to part one of this series, you may recall I told you that as 30-year-old-me reclaimed her life, post-marriage, one of the first things I did was travel to the Florida Keys. That was the first time I saw her, and I saw myself in the way the sapling clung to that rubble, feeling alone and weak, making my way in a world I never imagined.
Every year since, I’ve looked for her on my trips south. Every year since, she’s grown stronger and bigger and more at home in her odd surroundings. Every year since, without my realizing it, seeing her has become as much of a ritual as my over-the-Card-Sound-bridge beer. Each time, she comes into a view in the distance, greeting me like an old friend as I drive south over the new Seven Mile, as slow as I dare, as if to soak in as much of her as I can. Her branches seem to wave at me, a thousand green needle-like leaves waving “hello, old friend!” reminding me how great, beautiful things come from the discarded leavings of others.
“Do you want to take a picture of your tree?” El Cap asks me as we start over the bridge, and I feel a pit in my stomach. Did she make it through Irma? The state park system has systematically removed Australian pines from its properties, citing shallow root systems that don’t stay in the ground during heavy winds. What are the chances a spindly little tree, rooted in a bridge from over 100 years ago, withstood the storm?
At Pigeon Key, my heart sinks. The small outcropping of buildings, halfway between the two Keys, have suffered the wrath of Irma. Pigeon Key is closed; the ramp leading down from the bridge to the island, not serviceable. The buildings are not… well, they’re not in the right place, exactly — they seem lower than they should be, as if they’ve been blown off their supports. If buildings couldn’t take it, I wonder, as I steel myself, what chance does a lone, displaced, unwanted tree stand? Updated Mar. 2: Pigeon Key is actually open, according to an update from Newman PR, the agency representing fla-keys.com. “Visitors can still visit via a ferry from behind Faro Blanco in Marathon,” Ashley Serrate with Newman PR says.
As I turn my attention from the key back to the bridge paralleling our own, I see a bit of green in the distance, growing larger as we get closer. Sure enough, there she is, taller and more beautiful than ever. The Old Seven Mile has clearly seen better days, but this lone rebel of a tree? She’s spectacular.
This shouldn’t have surprised me; they Keys’ soil is nothing but dimpled limestone, so it didn’t take much for a persistent sapling to wend its roots into the pockmarked concrete.
I cheer for her — and for all the scraps of flora that not only survived, seemed to thrive through Irma. And I’m reminded again that, while man exists on the whim of nature, nature exists in spite of man. For a tree with origins in Asia, its descendants carried far from their homeland, then blown or carried onto an isolated stretch of decrepit bridge, to survive all that? Well, if that can happen, why wouldn’t this tree make it through a hurricane? After all, as Dr. Ian Malcolm pointed out in the first Jurassic Park, life finds a way.
In 2003, for my first encounter with her, I was driving solo, and back then, digital cameras weren’t exactly awesome, so although I took a (blurry) photo, I deleted it years ago. Similarly, I don’t have many pictures of myself from that time. I wish I had both, not only so I could see how the two of us have grown stronger, but also how, 15 years ago, no one would have believed either of us could make it this far.
Update: Newman PR also reached out to let us know the tree has a name. His name is Fred.
Six months after Hurricane Irma ravaged the Florida Keys in 2017, Cathy Salustri explored the chain of islands to see what damage remained. This piece originally appeared at Creative Loafing. Read the next in the series here, or, if you haven’t yet, go back and start at the beginning.