DOING SQUATS AT OAKLAND NATURE PRESERVE
Tara can’t walk. Her movement can best be described as a penguin waddle. How did we get here?
On a morning so pleasant the Floridians were apologizing for the cold, we set out to help plant native grasses and conifers on an ancient sand dune. As we walked from the Oakland Nature Preserve offices to the restoration area, stepping over bobcat scat along the way, Emily, a bundle of energy with a face that always wears a smile, explained that the Preserve, covering 128 acres just outside of Orlando, is a sanctuary for many native plants and animals that are being decimated by urban sprawl. The star of the show, and the reason Tara was originally drawn to this opportunity, is the Gopher Tortoise. The tortoise, a keystone species that shares its burrows with more than 350 other species (including owls, frogs, snakes, and even mice) and the fading sandhill ecosystem that it inhabits, rely on the wiregrass we were here to plant.
After quick lessons in dibbling and recognizing tortoise burrows, we paired off, carefully watching where we stepped. Tara, 11 other volunteers, and I got to work putting 2,500 wiregrass plants and 250 longleaf pines into the ground over a 1 acre tract of sand dune. Tara chose to be the one to put the plants in the hole I dibbled. Tara chose poorly. Hundreds of squats later, we’d done our part to restore this habitat and build up Tara’s quads and hamstrings.
In a few years, they’ll burn everything we did. This ecosystem relies on fire. The wiregrass seed needs the fire to propagate. The longleaf pine needs the fire to burn away both invasive and aggressive native competitors. And the animals all tuck into the tortoise burrows to ride out the fire and will have a new, flourishing landscape shortly after the fire is gone. A much more interesting and fascinating life cycle than anything Walt has imagined.
If you’re in the Orlando area, get away from the artifice of Mickey Mouse and his commercial constructs for a day and enjoy the trails, wildlife viewing, environmental education opportunities, and serenity that the Oakland Nature Preserve has to offer.
A big thanks to the employees and volunteers at the Oakland Nature Preserve. We loved helping, learning, and getting a free workout. Also, Tara got to pet a gray rat snake. Tara petting animals is likely to become a recurring theme. Stay tuned.