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

Meeder and his colleague Mike Ross found the boulders ten days after Andrew, when they undertook a quick survey of the storm's damage to Elliott Key. At the time, they had just completed a preliminary writeup for a study of a mangrove site on the mainland directly across the bay from Elliott Key, a mature forest with 60-foot-tall trees, some of them perhaps 80 years old. Then the hurricane arrived, Meeder says, and "changed our whole attitude."

A tour of Meeder's now-decimated mainland mangrove site tells you his attitude change wasn't for the worse. Balanced on a downed mangrove inside a muddy chaos-zone of crushed and twisted limbs, a shock of dark hair exploding from the back of his Jamaican Red Stripe cap, he positively glories in the devastation of the hurricane. "Right after the storm, there was essentially no green at all out here," he says, his voice teetering on the edge of surfspeak. "It looked like a death scene from Hell, man, it was really incredible. You ever read the trilogy The Hobbit and all that? Going through the dead swamp to get to the castle? You know, that's what this reminded me of."

Ten yards north, the smaller and more agile Ross clambers nimbly from tree to fallen tree, easily staying ahead of us. Meeder moves comfortably over and through the broken mess; I pick my way like a particularly clumsy orangutan. Meeder and Ross know this ground well. Over the last year and a half, they've surveyed its topography to the centimeter, painstakingly dissecting a two-kilometer stretch of terrain along Biscayne Bay. All around us an instant mini-jungle of red-mangrove saplings has sprung up. A year or less old, some reach heights of six or seven feet, their bright-green leaves standing out like fresh paint against the drab gray-brown of dead and decaying wood. "After the storm there was no green," Meeder says, repeating himself for emphasis. "We had a few trees survive, and then we had this understory growing. All the big stuff dead, except one or two, and now we have all this young stuff growin' like crazy."

It's a tale that has replayed itself throughout coastal South Dade, but nowhere so dramatically as here, just north of Biscayne's mainland headquarters at Convoy Point, directly east of Homestead. Patterns of mangrove destruction vary, depending on position relative to the center of the storm and the height of the trees involved. In some places, Andrew's tides actually acted to protect mangroves. Heading north by boat from Card Sound Bridge along the back side of the Keys a few days after the hurricane, Meeder says, you would have seen the high-water mark recorded on the mangroves as a green line that ascended as you approached the storm's eye. Starting at two feet above the normal high-tide line, the green line would rise to perhaps eight feet, eventually climbing above the trees' highest branches. Mangroves and parts of mangroves submerged by the hurricane tide kept their leaves and lived; those exposed to the leaf-stripping wind died. But in the hardest-hit areas, including Meeder and Ross's study section, the storm surge itself became lethal. Twisting and tearing the trees, it enthusiastically threw its efforts into what Meeder light-heartedly refers to as "serious structural damage and instant death."

At the same time it was destroying the mangroves, however, the hurricane literally carried with it the seeds of this mainland forest's reconstruction. Mixed in with the piles of debris brought to the bay's western shore by the storm A known to those in the coastal ecology trade as the "wrack" A were thousands and thousands of six-inch-long red-mangrove propagules, or seeds. Powered up by direct sunlight, sucking nutrients from a year's worth of leaf-litter and almost a century's worth of rotting wood knocked down by the storm, a multitude of seedlings exploded from the wreckage about a year after Andrew. Today, where we are standing, they've formed a low canopy of their own. Meanwhile, the decomposition process continues all around, turning their predecessors into one more layer of the nine-foot-deep muck beneath us. "The microbes in this wood would boggle your imagination," Meeder says. "They're just eating that wood up. Some of these trees -- the reds rot real fast. You couldn't stand on a red this big around now in most cases. It'd break on you it's so rotted."

I look down at the tree on which Meeder and I are standing. Perhaps seven inches in diameter, dead and thus (to my untrained eye) unspecifiable as a red, white, or black mangrove, its solidity suddenly seems questionable. Then again, Meeder wouldn't lead me onto a bad mangrove, would he?

"You're on a red," Ross says.
"Is that a red?"
"This is white."
"I'm sorry," Meeder says as we step onto a safer perch. "I got mixed up."

The red/black/white distinction has more importance than keeping us from plunging into the muck. White and black mangroves, which prefer slightly higher ground than that occupied by the more common red variety, are able to resprout leaves when defoliated A an ability the reds lack. Where we are, perhaps five percent of the white mangroves survived, and Meeder estimates they now form 90 percent of the uppermost canopy. Where the smaller, more numerous reds are still too young to produce propagules, the whites are loaded with seeds that fall off easily when touched. "Now, what's gonna happen in the next ten years is these things are gonna compete with each other," Meeder explains, speaking of the forest as a whole. "And some of 'em are gonna survive into big trees and the other ones are gonna be shaded out by those and just die back, and we're gonna end up with a mosaic -- a highly patchy mosaic of mangrove forest coming back."

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