This Land

Seeking Wisdom Among the South’s Oldest Trees

Latria Graham listens to ancient cypresses and old-growth forests

Photo: Collage by Nancey B. Price (Trees: Casey Horner on Unsplash)

When I was ten, my parents started searching for their first home, taking me and my younger brother, Nicholas, with them. At a two-story yellow house with blue shutters, I clambered out of the van and ran toward the biggest tree in the yard. “Mommy, Mommy, it’s a Mongolian tree,” I exclaimed, proud I could finally identify something from the World Book encyclopedias I had studied for the past year, which seemed focused on faraway species I wouldn’t get to see until I was an adult: dolphins, redwoods, elk. (My mispronunciation was a peril of reading about a magnolia but not hearing the name out loud.) My mother loves to tell that story at dinner parties. Every time she does, I want to sink under the table, even though the tale perfectly encapsulates my relationship with nature: studious, curious, enthusiastic, not always quite right.

My parents purchased that house, and the evergreen with the dinner-plate-sized blossoms became my tree. As I grew, the magnolia did too—we are now both somewhere in the middle of our life spans. When I’m working on hard stories, I trim a couple of flowers from its branches and put them in a bowl of water, their scent filling my office. During a challenging point in my career, I got images of the blooms tattooed on my hands, fusing the notions of purpose, home, creative gifts, and admiration for nature. My family still affectionately refers to the magnolia as my Mongolian tree. 

Trees like this are time machines, tethering us to a place or moment: If we spend an afternoon under the right one, it can tell us about the past hundred years. A tree stripped of its branches on one side says something about the strong winds that cut through a valley. Trail marker trees, former saplings bent at unnatural angles by Indigenous peoples, still serve as guideposts and memorials. Burls and scarred bark can indicate climatic stress, environmental disasters like fires, lightning strikes, and microscopic infections.

In Central Florida, two trees connected just as strongly with their community: a 3,500-year-old called the Senator, and the estimated 2,000-year-old Lady Liberty, both of them bald cypresses—the South’s answer to the West Coast’s giant sequoias and the Southwest’s bristlecone pines. The stately species has soft, fine, lacy needles and roots so strong storms rarely topple them. They can grow almost anywhere, even salty, swampy places inhospitable to almost everything else. That describes, at times, much of Florida. 

The Senator once reigned as the oldest tree east of the Mississippi, and the oldest documented bald cypress in the world. It and Lady Liberty were forming rings during the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the age of European exploration, and the many wars waged on this soil. And as Florida became populated, presidents and citrus pickers alike flocked to see them. “It’s generational,” Jim Duby, who manages the Seminole County Natural Lands Program, told me of the trees’ allure. “People would go out there for birthday parties and weddings. I think people return to those trees to relive those memories and be in awe of nature.” 

Precious few structures remain in the South from before the 1600s—there is no Machu Picchu to climb, no pyramids to explore. So I seek out alternatives in the natural world, monuments that allow me to fathom the passing of decades, centuries, millennia. In the fall, I made a pilgrimage to do just that in Longwood, Florida’s Spring Hammock Preserve, in Big Tree Park, the home of Lady Liberty, now one of the oldest organisms in the Southeast. For many years the tree, about forty feet away from the larger, older Senator, was known simply as “the companion.” In 2005, Geneva Elementary School students gave it a name, one inspired by a branch that stretches from the main trunk, resembling the statue’s torch-bearing arm. But before you can appreciate Lady Liberty today, you have to reckon with the Senator—or what’s left of it. 

In 2012, two friends allegedly decided on the hollowed-out center of the tree as the perfect place for a smoke session, and set a fire to keep warm. The flames quickly burned out of control. Now only a jagged stump remains, surrounded by tall black metal fencing. The heartwood is still scorched black, a decade’s worth of rain unable to erase the stain. Above, blue sky marks the gaping void where the tree used to crown.

On this day, just beyond the boardwalk that leads into the park lies the last of a smashed and rotting commercial pumpkin, its orange flesh out of place among the moss and palmetto fronds. The interloper speaks to a threat stealthier and less dramatic than fire—the introduction of invasive plants and insects capable of altering the vulnerable balance of flora and fauna. Big trees like Lady Liberty become specialized habitats for other plants, animals, birds, and insects. As I sat on a bench, eyes raised to the canopy, I pondered. What else disappears when trees die? Where do the green-and-red orchard spiders go to build their intricate webs? How long will the ferns that once flourished in the shade last? Where will the ebony jewelwing damselfly hide from the great crested flycatcher?

What is Lady Liberty saying to the trees around her now? What would she tell me if she could? The elder of a constantly shifting community, what does she know of change? As I sat in the presence of the last of the Southern giants, the forest creaked, groaned, and breathed around me. Beings with skin, bark, scales, and feathers tended to something primeval, living out their days in this green cathedral, hoping for long-term survival.

I am included in that number. It is a humbling thing to understand just how small and fleeting human lives are, the entirety of my existence merely a snapshot to this tree. Some folks consider trees as just things, the carbon dioxide they convert to essential oxygen almost secondary to what else they can provide for us—fuel, furniture, meeting places, even landmarks that helped us find our way before GPS. Prior to our putting our faith in technology, trees also played significant roles in the stories we told one another. Bearers of metaphor and creation, they have long symbolized eternal cycles—the thrum of life and solemnness of death.

Trees can also be oracles. Back in the 1900s, sightseers here had to leap from log to log to avoid the swampy water below in order to catch a glimpse of these ancients. Now, even though it is the wet season, the land around Lady Liberty is dry. Old-growth cypress forests in the Southeast like this one are shrinking as they struggle to cope with environmental stressors, a changing climate, and diseases brought by nonnative insects. Lady Liberty survived twentieth-century Central Florida’s zeal for logging, farming, ditch digging, and canal building only to find that the pace of progress might be too much. 

In the 1990s, a University of Florida professor and Marvin Buchanan, a North Florida nursery owner, used a fallen limb to clone the Senator, and a couple of younger versions of the elder have made their way into the ground. One of the progenies, now fifty-plus-feet tall, stands next to the playground at the front of Big Tree Park. They call it the Phoenix. 

Sensing Spring Hammock’s remaining giant might also be in peril—or at least hoping to blunt any future man-made devastation—in 2015, the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, an organization that propagates the world’s most important old-growth trees before they disappear, collected genetic samples from Lady Liberty in a bid to preserve the legacy of the tree. “None of them took,” Duby said. Soon all we might have left of Lady Liberty are stories. 

Planting a tree is an act of faith. None of us alive to read these words will ever see if the Senator’s cloned trees will reach or exceed the measurements of their predecessor. The trees will outlast us. I wonder what they’ll say about who we were.