Dead of 3,500-Year Old
Senator Is Still Unsolved
It’s been almost week now since the oldest tree in the U.S. burned to the ground in Florida. Investigators still have no idea what felled the 118-ft. tall bald cypress. But we should all be mourning the passing of a contemporary of Alexander, the Great, in our backyard.
Some would say, though, so what? Rainforests are being burned all over the world at record speeds and they’re much older. The oldest is still standing in Malaysia after 130 million years, which makes the Amazon, at about 50 million years of age, a far too-young-to-die forest.
Perhaps that’s why an increasing number of botanists are saying, screw it, we’re dropping the Latin. Meaning that the official procedure of naming plant species in Latin is getting in the way of quickly identifying new species.
Sadly, more and more are not even lasting that brief time, in ecological terms, that the Senator did. According to researchers, there may be as many as 100,000 plant species that are not yet known to science, waiting to be cataloged. That is, if we can find and describe them in time. Besides, Latin is already a dead tongue.
What botanists fear the most is deforestation, invasive species and climate change, all of which represent immediate threats to up to one-third of all species on the brink of extinction within the next 50 years. Such species need to be all fully documented while they’re still around.
Which means that, besides more academics needed to cover such a vast and demanding field, more expeditions to remote locations are also necessary, more professional trackers, public funding and general interest in rescue forests and plant species before they’re all gone for good.
Thus, the additional requirement for naming them in Latin before making them officially known, a rule that’s been in place since the early 1900s, does get in the way. It’s a painstaking, outdated and anti-practical process, since it requires a completely different set of skills from botanists and researchers alike.
Lately, though there’s been a welcome movement towards simplification, and scientists are no longer expected to write the descriptions in Latin, only the names. But even if that rule is, eventually, relaxed, there’s obviously much more to do.
In the jungles of Malaysia, for example, a mere hectare of the luscious Taman Negara may be home to an estimated 14,000 species of plants, 200 mammals and 240 types of trees. Great part of such flora and fauna hasn’t been properly classified yet.
Add to those, between 200 to 300 species of birds and thousands of insects making their lives on the jungle floor. And a number of native populations spread out throughout its forests, some having settled there as far back as 10 thousand years.
If the Senator was a contemporary of Alexander, this rainforest was born with the dinosaurs of the Jurassic era, but has survived their demise, and a few Ice Ages on its own. And it may be better protected by Malaysia as a national treasure, than the Amazon is by the countries that share it.
Still, ancient natural beauties, survivors of multiple planetary cataclysms and brutal environmental changes have proved to be no match to our own destructive power, so no one is counting its blessing just yet.
Much of the recent increase in the Amazon’s deforestation may have had to do with Brazil’s economic growth, some say. Malaysia and neighboring Southeast Asian countries are still struggling to get a foothold on their own development and fight against poverty.
As such, the rationale goes, the economic value of their native lands hasn’t been fully realized yet. Which is something that environmentalists sincerely hope that it continues to be so.
DEAD OF A FRIEND
Economic development doesn’t seem to have played such a big part in the case of the suddenly young, sadly missed cypress in Florida. The tree had been standing tall in a park since 1927, the year it was named after Senator M. O. Overstreet, who donated the land to Seminole County.
As such, it was relatively protected, which doesn’t mean to say it hasn’t faced off some formidable nemesis in its time.
Nearly 18 feet in diameter, it braved the elements through thousands of years before any man was around. It survived logging epidemics, which claimed many of the giant trees that once stood in the county, and endured centuries of hurricanes, including one in 1925 that lopped off 40 feet from the top.
That’s why arson is still being considered a possibility for its untimely death. An unintentional cigarette butt, thrown casually by a passerby. Or even a strike of lightning, which may have happened as long as two weeks ago. Senator, as most old trees are, was hollow in its center.
Now that it’s gone, children who are brought to the park on field trips to hear tales about the Florida of old, with swamps and Indians and plenty of animals, have one more story to be told: about a very tall tree that beat all odds, became the country’s oldest, and was killed by a flash of fire.