Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Senator no longer stands

This post is not about politics. It is about a tree - a very old tree - that burned to the ground in January (slideshow here). Growing for 3,500 years in what is now Longwood, Florida, this particular tree was not only the largest pond cypress in the U.S., but the largest tree of any species east of the Mississippi River. The cypress (Taxodium distichum) was 17.5' (5.3m) in diameter and 35.4' (10.8m) in circumference, with purple-green flowers hanging in long tassels, needle- or fern-like leaves, and spherical cones. Predating them by millennia, the giant was used as a landmark by the Seminole Indians. It was only in the 20th c. that "The Senator" acquired its nickname, a nod to the man who donated the land it is on to the county in 1927. Big Tree Park was dedicated in 1929, even though a hurricane had taken off the top of the biggest tree 4 years earlier, reducing it from a height of 165' (50m) to 118' (36m). The Senator's age estimate was based on a core sample bored by the American Forestry Association in 1946. Local resident Jeff Serraes recalls the draw of the cypress in the 1960s, before the arrival of the region's theme parks: "It was a tourist attraction. It cost 25 cents to get in. There was nothing to do in Sanford back in those days. You had the zoo and Big Tree Park." Now the park is without its celebrity, which has been reduced to a 20' stump. At 5:50am on Jan. 16, firefighters responded to the fire and had to run more than 800' of hose through the woods to reach the tree. At 7:45am, a 20' section at the top of the tree toppled and within a 1/2 hour, more of the trunk collapsed. A sheriff's helicopter was used to dump water on the smoldering tree, which - because it was hollow - had burned for several hours from the inside out, like a chimney. At that time, we were led to believe that arson had been ruled out as the cause of the fire, and lightning was suggested even though there was none in the area that night. Well, news broke last night that it was in fact arson. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services arrested 26-year-old Sarah Barnes on charges of intentional burning of land, a third-degree felony, in addition to possession of methamphetamine with intent to sell and possession of drug paraphernalia. She and a friend had been inside the tree taking meth and reportedly lit a fire so they could see better. After the Senator ignited, Barnes took photos of the tree in flames with her cell phone, which she later uploaded to her laptop. Her downfall? Showing people the images and admitting, "I can't believe I burned down a tree older than Jesus."

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