EcoShakespeare is a series of expeditions into uniquely north Florida/ south Georgia ecosystems. Each adventure is led by a master of their field and includes a scene performed from A Midsummer Night’s Dream that relates to the trip. Florida State University English professor Dr. Bruce Boehrer ties Shakespeare’s words to our local habitats, creating a one of kind blending of art and nature. Part one takes place in a secret, ancient forest…
Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
We begin this EcoShakespeare project, appropriately enough, in a longleaf forest that exists much as it did during the time of William Shakespeare. The “Big Woods,” as Tall Timbers’ Jim Cox calls them, sit on private land. Few people will ever get the privilege to walk under those ancient longleaf pines, in one of the few places where Henslow’s sparrows and red cockaded woodpeckers are relatively easily seen. And it’s one of the few places where you might find longleaf pines that lived while the Bard’s plays were being penned.
You can see the numbers in the video above. The American southeast was once covered in 90,000,000 acres of longleaf. Today we have 3,000,000. Of that, only 8,000 has never been cut. Jim compares it to the entire population of the Earth being whittled down to a city the size of Milwaukee. And while 3,000,000 acres is still a vast reduction from the historic number, it’s much better than 8,000. So why do we emphasize the especially low acreage of remaining old growth forest?
It’s something that I can appreciate as I stare down my fortieth birthday next year- a mature longleaf offers more ecosystem services than a young one. Red cockaded woodpeckers make nests in trees that are over 90 years old. The heart wood of these older trees is more likely to suffer from red heart disease, a fungus which softens the wood and makes it easier for the woodpeckers, over several generations, to make a cavity. Jim Cox, answering questions from our adventurers, says the birds’ numbers are looking much better after getting dangerously low. He attributes this to artificial cavities sawed into less mature trees. But for the RCW to leave the endangered list, it has to make it without our help. And for that, we need more mature trees. The problem with that is that… you have to wait… and wait… and wait… for enough of them to get to that right age.
Another ecosystem service offered by a mature longleaf is its wrinkly face. As a longleaf ages, its bark becomes gnarlier and rougher. This creates more surfaces for insects and other invertebrates to inhabit. And as is true in any ecosystem, those little creepy crawlies are food for all of the much prettier animals that we travel with binoculars to try and spot. An ecosystem will not thrive if the bottom of the food web is not healthy.
Years ago, when we started EcoAdventures, I accompanied FWC’s Andy Wraithmel and Liz Sparks to several birding spots along the Apalachicola River. Near sunset, we stopped in the Apalachicola National Forest. When you drive down State Road 65, you may notice painted white bands on the longleaf pines. These are trees with RCW cavities, or that have qualities that might attract the rare woodpecker. We stopped by a cluster of those trees, Liz and Andy admiring the good work that has been done to restore the habitat.
Looking at the shots of the National Forest that we included in the video above, the differences between it and the “Big Woods” are subtle. The trees look a little skinnier, perhaps, but even a 500 year old longleaf will never be that much thicker than a young one. In one shot, you can see the planted rows of slash pine that timber operations started using after having cut the slower growing/ higher quality longleaf.
Andy and Liz talked to me about the thinning of trees (longleaf habitat features widely spaced trees), regular burning, and other restoration activities that have the forest looking a little more like it once had. But, Andy noted, none of us would be alive to see the forest fully recovered. Except, maybe, the immortal Oberon and Titania.
Next week, we look at Shakespeare’s upbringing as we forage for food along Lake Iamonia. Also, marital tensions between Oberon and Titania escalate as the king plots with Puck to use the herbs of the forest against the queen.
Special thanks to WFSU’s partners for this EcoShakespeare segment, The Southern Shakespeare Festival and Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy. EcoShakespeare is funded by a grant from WNET’s Shakespeare Uncovered. Catch their take of a Midsummer Night’s Dream Friday, January 30 at 9 pm ET on WFSU-TV. For more information on Shakespeare Uncovered and WFSU’s associated TV and Radio projects, visit our Shakespeare Uncovered web site.
Shakespeare Uncovered is made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Major funding is also provided by The Joseph & Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, Dana and Virginia Randt, the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, the Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, The Polonsky Foundation, Rosalind P. Walter, Jody and John Arnhold, the Corinthian International Foundation, and PBS.