Back to Nature (Published on - Sept. 8, 2004)
Hurricane leaves a foreign landscape behind
Buildings lay in flattened, scattered heaps. Over bare, leafless tree limbs metal strips drape down like hanging silver Christmas paper. Glass, Styrofoam, raw lumber, clothes, household and personal belongings litter fields, streets and streams for miles and miles and miles.

Fences are festooned in tufts of yellow and pink insulation. Raw lumber, children’s toys and teddies, furniture, upturned freight trucks and piles of soggy debris change a once pastoral landscape into what appears to be a war zone.

Light posts and trees are snapped in two, as if they had been match sticks. Ancient trees that have stood the test of time are uprooted like pulled-up dandelions. From every direction, from every corner to the smallest nook or cranny, the wreckage peeks out from under “what used to be,” like a crumpled deck of cards simply thrown to the wind.

A newborn goat tries to suckle a mare in a field trashed with hurricane fall-out. An old dog begs us for a drink. His left eye appears to be infected from his unnatural environment. As we slowly navigate debris-strewn back roads, children run out to our vehicle to grab arms full of bottled drinking water and baby wipes to clean their hands.

“Have you got running water?” I asked one child.

“Yes ma’am, but we can’t use it,” the young boy explained. “It’s amputated.”

“I’m not sure what you mean,” I inquired further.

“It’s amputated. Ya’ know, too dirty to use.”

“Oh,” I said, responding with a gentle smile.


“Yes ma’am, that’s what I mean. We can’t drink it or wash with it,” he said, and then yelled for his mother to take the work gloves we unpacked from a bin in the back of the Jeep.

Barns, swept away, a memory in the past, force unsheltered cattle and horses to bunch together tightly under any remaining trees, a very few and far between. Most of the cattle lay in the fields miserable with little or no shade, dangerous landscape and limited supply of fresh water.

A strange combination of scents hangs thick in the hot humid air – not really spilled sewage alone but of decaying debris, molds, things not in the right place, landscape upside down, fences downed, rivers overflowed, piles of garbage, water standing, streams suffocated with leaf litter, trees dislodged, floating, decomposing alongside mangled sheets of plywood and once precious antiques and long lost teddies.

I will always remember these smells and the sounds or lack of natural sounds. My mind had trouble comprehending the visions in front of me. With so many inquiries plaguing my mind about the impact upon the environment I searched for answers. I was steered to a large brick building near a staging area. There I met with Don West, center manager of customer services with the Department of Agriculture.

I asked him about the damaged forest areas. After several questions on the after affects of Hurricane Charley and the immediate environment he stopped and pointed upwards asking, “Do you hear anything?” I listened carefully. I’d realized that something about the sounds of metal and tractors disturbed me but hadn’t yet put my finger on it. I heard people talking, trucks loading, but could hear no wind in the leafless trees and yes, no birds. He looked curiously at me.

“Where are the birds? There are no birds.”

Later Don also explained that even though trees had been topped off by Hurricane Charley they may sprout and root again in the future, but most likely they’d be much weaker and might not be able to withstand future storms. Long-term research indicates that in some cases the inland vegetation which was uprooted or destroyed after Hurricane Andrew never recovered. Beach areas were more adaptable and were in a sense continually changing but inland species are stable and are not equipped with the same recovery attributes.

The two largest problems Florida is faced with now is low oxygen levels in rivers such as the Peace River and, because of the flood waters and massive rains, water standing and stagnating creates a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Massive breeding of mosquitoes can actually kill calves by getting into their nostrils and suffocating them. Also, mosquito-borne illnesses will be on the rise.

As I write this, Hurricane Frances threatens to bear down upon us from the eastern shoreline of Florida. Only time will tell how our vulnerable sandy peninsula will survive or sustain two major hurricanes within three weeks apart. Where will all the birds go? What will be left to carry on? Civilization has stripped her of her natural abilities of abundance. She has little reservoir. Who will survive in this foreign landscape?

Sending up prayers of sage and cedar, back to nature.

Karen can be reached at

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