The toppled giant in our front yard has become an attraction for gawkers and a shrine for mourners.
Word has spread: You should see the colossal tree felled by the winds of Hurricane Irma. People stream by in cars and on foot to snap photos. One lady knelt and wept. Somebody left a bouquet of white flowers.
They offer condolences:
“Wow. That was some tree!”
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“I’m so sorry.”
We are still adjusting to the sight of our beloved Bombax ceiba tree on the ground. It was 60 feet tall, probably 90 years old. The grande dame of the neighborhood was a spectacular redhead in wintertime, the Maureen O’Hara of Coral Gables’ collection of classic beauties.
After the tree came down, it looked like a brontosaurus had died on our street and left its skeletal remains. The root ball that ripped up underlying limestone and the sidewalk is 12 feet high. The deep gash in the earth and dangling roots make it appear that the tree was disemboweled at its base.
Throughout Miami, throughout Florida and the Caribbean, people are grieving the loss of trees during a hurricane season from hell. Trees were friends, neighbors, green guardians of territory. Memories were entwined in the branches. Seasons were marked by the blooming of flowers and shedding of leaves. Trees were the stoic constant, born again and again, withstanding development, pollution and the transience of humans. If only we could grow old so gracefully. Now, victims of scything gusts, they are gone.
As Irma shrieked on Sept. 10, we went to the windows of our house not covered by plywood and watched the wind whip trees back and forth, as if they were performing a manic dance. We heard banging and thumping noises. A seagrape tree went down, and an avocado, dragging a bougainvillea with it. A coconut palm fell across our entrance gate. Then came a loud, prolonged crack. We bunched around the front door window. The ceiba, also known as a kapok, red silk cotton or floss tree, was prone. Lucky for us, it fell from the swale west onto the street. Forty-five degrees in the other direction, our house would have been smashed. This tree had survived so many hurricanes. Did a tornado tear through our ravaged block? We were more shocked than relieved.
“During the storm, I could feel a great spirit departing,” said neighbor Gail Williamson, a medical anthropologist whose mother helped found Merrie Christmas Park in Coconut Grove. “Trees hold so much prana, or energy. This leaves a tremendous void. I broke down and cried when I first saw it. Even my Uber driver was upset. It’s like a rare creature has been dismembered.”
I broke down and cried when I first saw it. Even my Uber driver was upset. It’s like a rare creature has been dismembered.
Gail Williamson, on seeing the felled ceiba tree in Coral Gables
Trees are spiritual pillars in many cultures. Not only are they homes for the dead but they have magical and curative powers.
“Ancestral souls reside in trees and have a transition space to the afterlife in the top branches,” Williamson said.
The ceiba, called the Yaxche in the Mayan language and Iroko in Africa, is considered sacred by Santeria followers, who believe orishas, or spirits, live in the tree.
“Never underestimate a person’s emotional attachment to a tree,” said Jorge Zaldivar Jr., a plant expert and author who owns Guavonia Farm in the Redland and is a board member of the Rare Fruit Council International. His family’s huge Haden mango survived Irma. “The Irma recovery process is going to include adjusting to an altered landscape.”
He mentioned a ceiba at the Bay of Pigs Memorial in Little Havana, so I went to take a look. It was barely nicked. Among the flying-buttress roots, worshippers had placed offerings of plantains, squash and candy canes. There was a dog food bag full of bones, a plastic statue of St. Lazarus, and white flowers, like the ones laid at our tree. Prayers had been made for health, wealth, fertility, revenge — and protection from Irma. The ceiba’s spirits had granted many petitions, and it stood tall, emanating grace.
The ceiba originated in southern China and grows throughout southeast Asia, northern Australia, western Africa and Central and South America. In Thailand and Myanmar, the dried flower cones are an ingredient in kaeng khae curry and nam ngiao noodle soup. The white silky fibers of its seed pods were used to fill mattresses and lifejackets.
The ceiba has conical spikes on its bark.
It can grow 100 feet high, with a 50-foot canopy. It produces large satiny flowers with five petals in January-February. Some varieties are pink or orange; ours were scarlet. When they fell to the street and grass they turned to goo, and cleanup became a bigger, messier chore each year. But we adored the blue and gold macaws that feasted in the upper branches.
“The ceiba is a showstopper,” said Larry Schokman, director emeritus of the Kampong, David Fairchild’s former home and a National Tropical Botanical Garden. Schokman, a Sri Lankan tea farmer before he moved to Coconut Grove, has two ceibas, one the offspring of a tree at Rio de Janeiro’s Sugarloaf with fire-engine red flowers, and a pink one from Miami.
Schokman said he was in tears the day after Irma when he surveyed the 65 trees that fell at the Kampong. But 31 have already been propped back up, and next week they’ll use a crane to raise a massive baobab that was planted 80 years ago by Fairchild with seeds from Tanzania at the U.S. Department of Agriculture property. When Cleo blew it down in 1964, it was transferred to the Kampong. When Katrina blew it down in 2005, it was saved again.
“We’re going to have more and stronger hurricanes in Miami and we need to learn to prune to lower the center of gravity of our canopy,” Schokman said. “We have short memories. Each disaster, we lament the loss of trees because every tree has a story.”
We don’t want the story of our ceiba to end. Our kids grew up under that tree. They used to hang a curtain over a branch and hold puppet shows, and crashed into it learning to ride bikes. Friends chatted in its shade. A skinny palm somehow took root at its foot, Laurel to the fat tree’s Hardy. As Shel Silverstein would’ve said, it was a giver.
Now its burly boughs have compound fractures. Brown leaves are piling up; it’s autumn in Miami. Injured trees (and some can be saved with the right effort, but the city says it can’t save the Bombax ceiba) are being chopped down or limbs are being amputated and hauled to vacant lots converted into tree graveyards. Their fate is sealed in the chipper.
We ought to collect that mulch for the next generation of trees and scatter it like ashes.