The National Champion Bald Cypress was killed January 16, 2012 in Longwood, Florida. Murder is the operative word. The “Senator” was burned to the ground by a young lady who went into Big Tree Park to smoke meth, lit a small fire and caught the 3500 year old tree on fire. As a plant person, this was very sad news. As a devotee of the big tree world, this was a catastrophe. I had been to the park three times in my life to reach across and touch the patriarch. It had been reported as the world’s fifth oldest tree. However, I’m not so sure that was true. A disaster for sure. Think of all the memories. This beacon in the forest had been used as a landmark for the Indians, the Spanish, and finally, for the rest of us. Dr. Gary Knox at the University of Florida emailed me the bad news and forwarded a link to the incident which included a short video of some very upset citizens – and the Senator saying goodbye in flames.
It wasn’t long before what happened was known and the young lady responsible for the “accident” was arrested and quickly became national news. An aspiring model, she never knew that her foray into smoking meth would lead to such fame and derision. Evidently she took pictures of the fire, downloaded the images and showed friends, saying, “I can’t believe I burned down a tree older then Jesus.” Some might conclude this not the brightest way to hide a crime. With the laws on the books as they were, she was given five years probation and allowed to walk.
Six months later she was arrested for DWI and given jail time. On a long ago webpage, I posted her picture and her name and righteously called for the death penalty. But time has passed and I’ve mellowed. I hope she’s well, I really do. I think, perhaps, she’s volunteering every now and then to plant trees in a park. You can still google “Senator burned” or anything about the Senator – and boom, there are hundreds of links that appear with her name, her image, and her sad plight in the world. Punished for life. There are a lot of ways to get fame and fortune in the world. Burning down the Senator is not one of them.
The Senator was the big guy in the Big Tree Park in Longwood – just east of Orlando, Florida. This was one amazing tree. I find this such a sad ending for a tree that’s been through 3500 years of enormous challenges – and survived. This tree has been through hell. It’s stayed alive through floods, droughts, fires, hurricanes, and the worst threat of all – in recent centuries – a forest full of loggers and dreaded land use managers.
Below is the plaque at the site that interpreted the tree. It was 165’ tall. However, the top blew out in 1925 and the tree was reduced to 118 feet tall until this fire. It was 17.5 feet in diameter. In 1929, President Coolidge dedicated the site with a plaque but the plaque and a wrought iron fence were stolen by vandals in 1945. People have been up to mischief here for a long time.
The Senator was evidently quite hollow and the trunk served as a raging chimney for the fire. I know it’s quite passé, but to me that smoke pouring from the tree is the connection from the past to the present to the future. There it is, wafting into the heavens, mixing elements, energy and enthusiasm once again with the smoke of those long ago Indian camp fires. It’s just the way things are. There’s not much we can do about it now, except, perhaps, we should just keep on planting.
There is a small silver lining to this story, however. 185 miles to the South, a nurseryman had previously snitched some cuttings and grafted trees of this old clone, which led to new trees of that very clone, which led to a celebratory planting day that is recounted here:
The end result is a new tree is in place, a clone of the original tree, carrying thirty five hundred years of history into the future. That special tree has been given the name, The Phoenix, so darn appropriate for a tree that refuses to die, determined to to rise from the ashes of destruction.
Duke Miller said:
I now think this is your best essay. The point where human folly meets natural beauty and human meanness wins. Oh woe is us. Counting the molecules in the air until they are so foul no one can breathe. Watching the plastic accumulate in the ocean as it swirls around in the ancient pattern. Shooting the climate refugees at the gates of the rich. Turning away from endangered animal species because we can’t bear to look at them. Spending more money on virtual reality than the dying reality of nature. Rolling over in bed and thinking what the fuck have we done to each other? But I guess in the end, it will all be just fine. The humans will kill each other off and then the years will wash the planet of all traces of our disaster, which we call enjoying life to the fullest. Thanks. Duke
I give a lot of talks across the south – nursery, landscape and plant world – I used to show the tree, the fire pics, and her mug shot, a kind of punishment I could inflict – I even kind of followed her on google and she even had a FB page. At first I despised her, but over the years I’ve softened, imagining all kinds of positive ends to her career, her life. I remember someone saying that it really isn’t important for what you’re remembered for; it’s just important you’re remembered. Sara Barnes. I remember her.