Merrill Hills: Overstory in the Forested Seep, 25 Million Years

by Tim Gilmore, 6/20/2012

Beginning of the Rosemary Ridge Trail loops up to the left, down to the right. Heading right-down, the trail instantly narrows, crooked, punctured with scrub oaks growing like squiggles. Pine straw cushions red the path. Resurrection ferns climb a small crooked oak. And just behind this place in which to be lost, houses and fences and filthy water where Jones Creek has stagnated. Overhead, a helicopter. Now the path turns to loose sand in palmetto thicket closing in on the sides. Deer moss dots the ground as though stones could live and grow. Sand leads into the rosemary scrub, and some patches of wild rosemary grow taller than tall men. Somewhere here, the bobcat.

The Jones Creek Trail shoots off the Lower Ravine Trail on the other side of Lake Ray from Rosemary Ridge. Here the land contours. It rolls smoothly into hillocks. It sinks into creeks and burbling sponge loam. Tall trees needle straight up through the canopies of the tops of trees beneath them and beneath the ravine ridge. A bald cypress soars over the creek that waterfalls around little islands and peninsulas of tree roots and ferns. The creek flows red with the tannins of the oaks. Cypress knees sculpt themselves upwards in the red waters.

Cinnamomum Camphora


Laureaceae              Asia

Wild Cherry                Horse Sugar

Dead tree downed, rotten. Kick it. Full of cockroaches.

Osmathus Americanus

Wild Olive,


Oleaceae            S.E. U.S.

Oak-pine-hickory forest growing in acidic-sandy-clay-loam soil. The canopy containerizes the constant humidity.

Sweetgum                    Pignut Hickory           Witch Hazel

Ostrya Virginiana

Eastern Hophornbeam

Betulaceae       U.S., Canada

Cinnamon ferns

Magnolia Grandiflora

Southern Magnolia

Magnoliaceae S.E. U.S.

American Hornbeam, also known as Bluebeech         KEEP OUT  Invasive Species

“Cogon Grass”

Slender, swaying, deformed little skeleton tree, the Prickly Elder or Devil’s Walking Stick. Set down against a hillock over the ravine down which flows Jones Creek, the Devil’s Walking Stick bears thorns.

Then crossing a downed tree over the flowing red water to a tiny island the size of an elephant, island of cinnamon ferns and a bald cypress, island wending toward a wedge end at which to stand, place your foot on an old pine stump, looking out to creek, the captain at the bow. Jones Creek forks and rushes around either side of this woodland miniature freighter with raccoon prints on its sides. Crossing downed tree, it’s easier to keep your balance when you’re moving than when you’re standing still (life lesson). Elderberries. Pileated woodpeckers. Centipedes.

The trail lies in the Jones Creek flood plain. The forest lies in prehistory. Bottomland hardwood hammocks grew here 25 million years ago, a number that blows time out of the water. What is time in such a depth of itself? At what point does time become its own undoing? At what point does time’s reach become so vast that time itself disappears within its own reach? And all this time, these trees. Further back than these trees can go, still these trees. Time so deep that time cannot be cognitively understood as time, and when you get to that point, still these lovely tall green trees reaching up out of the soft, red pine-needle ground.

Red ground from which all this green.

Bayheads, baygalls, forested seeps—forestlands where water works without end to seep slowly into the ground. Ground is part water here, and water’s part ground. Then this perfect line of poetry: “Red maple, sweetgum, loblolly bay, sweetbay, and black gum dominate the overstory.”

Poison oak, poison sumac, poison ivy triangulate beneath the longleaf pines.

On a dead branch over the shore of Lake Ray, the anhinga stretches its wings, stretches its eel-like neck into an elongated S. The anhinga, or the snakebird, has swum through these waters among the lily pads, its body entirely underwater, only its snaky neck and long sharp head visible above the surface of the lake, and the snakebird / anhinga has stabbed the fish before it with its sharp, serrated bill and flipped the fish in the air and gulped it down its gullet. But now it stands in the tree, wings out, head speared toward the sky, prehistoric totem pole.

“We were walking. Emily, me, Daddy, and our imaginations. We were at the arboretum. We talked about how Ms. K. was coming back to teach after her only daughter had died. I stopped to look at a little burrow. Emily and Daddy caught up. We kept walking. I was in front and I stared at the map. Emily was second and I had to keep telling her to watch out for bumps made of roots. Daddy kept stopping so he could take notes.”

“My wife, here we saw the watersnake, you and I, but it did not speak to either of us, and I will not blame you for my sinful desire for the fruit.”

From 1941 to 1961, Humphries Gold Mining Co. strip-mined zircon from these woods. In the 1970s, the city bought 120 acres between Monument Road and Fort Caroline Road to buffer the East Arlington Water Reclamation Facility. For 30 years, the land remained undeveloped and the forest resurged. In 2006, residents formed the Jacksonville Arboretum and Gardens, Inc., and leased “13 distinct and different eco-systems” from the city, just off Florida 9A. And 25 million years ago, loblolly bay, red maple, and poison ivy grew in water burbling up and seeping down into the loamy, rich ground. You didn’t need to lease them then.