The Language of Nature

Destruction. Upheaval. Change. Rebirth. In the two years since Hurricane Andrew, Biscayne National Park has had to learn an entirely new vocabulary

It could have been worse.
Again sketching on the cardboard box (holding new door handles for the Elliott Key visitors' center), Kopf shows me how, at Adams Key, the wind for the most part blew against the direction of the storm surge. At Boca Chita Key the two combined forces, ripping palms and Australian pines out by the roots and obliterating a set of 1930s-vintage concrete bungalows. "No sign of 'em, no idea where they went. Any one 'em," Kopf says, his amazement at the sight still evident. At age 60 a veteran of three decades of life and storms on the Keys -- including Hurricane Donna in 1960 -- Kopf remains fascinated by Andrew. "A different thing happened there," he continues, referring to the structures on Boca Chita Key. "It got undermined. The water crossed that land with such velocity that -- when you're standing at a beach, you feel the sand eroding under your heels? That's what happened there. It washed out from under them."

Downstairs, under the elevated visitors' center, Kopf shows me a half-dollar-size black disk about two inches up on the base of the building's central pillar. Placed there by the U.S. Geological Survey, it records the high-water mark during Hurricane Andrew. That may not seem to be much of a storm surge, but the water had to travel about one-third of a mile overland from the Atlantic to get there, a substantial distance.

Following that trail into the woods at high noon, a time calculated to find the bugs asleep in the bushes, is like wandering into Jurassic Park two years after the dinosaurs have taken over. Only in this case it's the vinosaurs -- fast-creeping native and exotic vines that have thrown a green shroud over the tumbled casualties of the hurricane. About a hundred yards in, a north-south track crosses the trail. Almost swallowed by overgrowth, it offers an object lesson in the explosive recuperative powers of the tropical hammock. Bulldozed six lanes wide in 1968 by developers seeking to forestall creation of the park, this was to be Main Street for the imaginary city of Islandia, its link to Key Biscayne via an eight-mile causeway through the Ragged Keys to the north. When the park service took over Elliott Key and environs in 1968, most of the roadcut, like the developers' dreams of Islandia, was allowed to fade back into the forest. Enough still survives -- kept open by the park service -- to allow golf-cart passage, no more.

A short tromp north on Main Street (or, as the rangers call it, "Spite Highway") brings you to another east-west trail, the outbound leg of a mile-long interpretive loop. Nearby, one of a few surviving concrete interpretive signs poses an out-of-date question from the center of a still-devastated jumble of dead wood: "Can you imagine any kind of order in the bewildering, tangled, jungle-like green growth around you?" With the exception of a single surviving tree, leafing directly out from its delimbed trunk A this is how Elliott Key must have looked just after Andrew, like the shell-pounded island target of a World War II amphibious landing. Here, too, there have been invaders, ready to exploit any toehold they could seize. Air-dropped by birds that ate its orange berries, an exotic shrub called Colubrina asiatica has dug in along Spite Highway. Down along the beaches crawls Itomoae alba, a native but out-of-control variety of morning glory also known as "moonvine," throttling small trees trying to re-establish a diverse pioneer community. More familiar exotics such as papaya and pineapple have taken advantage of the destruction of the forest canopy to spring up, like a fruity fifth column, from seeds that possibly date back to the settlers who farmed the key decades ago.

One of Elliott Key's exotic invaders gives park personnel more headaches than any other. The air-mobile, deep-rooting Colubrina -- described by biology technician Diane Riggs as "actually a very pretty plant [with] green, shiny leaves" Acovers ground quickly and clings tenaciously to what it has taken, shading out any resistance. When the park launches its planned counter-Colubrina-insurgency campaign this fall, workers will have to carry out search-and-destroy missions in the tangled terrain of a blown-down hammock. The mosquitoes will take no prisoners. And the insidious shrub itself will prove a maddening adversary, its continuous berry-producing capabilities making even the act of extermination (hacking, followed by herbicide) a means of seed deployment.

Walking along the rocky Atlantic shore of Elliott Key at dusk, I come upon an artifact straight out of a surrealist's dream. Beached on its back at the high-tide mark, surrounded by foul-smelling seaweed, is a white refrigerator that suggests nothing so much as the castaway concert grand of The Piano. Half-expecting to see Holly Hunter pop out of the bushes to berate me in sign language, I open its door for a furtive peek inside. No light comes on, but otherwise it seems in working order -- less rusted than the one in my kitchen, and stocked with tossed seaweed-and-coconut salad, accented by silverfish and live snails.

A few yards away from this culinary treat, my feet crunch on broken fragments of elkhorn coral, washed in from the reef by centuries of pounding surf. Even without the added muscle of a hurricane this is what biologists would call a "high-energy environment"; it tosses around heavy kitchen appliances and pulverizes coral as a matter of course. When it really wants to exert itself, it chucks big boulders dozens of yards inland into the woods. I have this on good authority from associate research scientist Jack Meeder of Florida International University's Southeast Environmental Research Program.

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