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Levin: Southern Trip

At first glance, the pinelands of southern Georgia appear to be the exact opposite of the hardwoods of Vermont. Along the coastal plain west of Savannah, Georgia is flat, sandy, and fire prone.

Spanish moss cascades from ancient oaks and for their first few years of life, longleaf pine seedlings look and grow like untidy tufts of grass. There are no rocks here, just sand, sand… and more sand. Rain doesn’t linger on the surface of the ground; it percolates into the thirsty soil, collecting further down the line as swamps in clay-lined depressions or as watery braids feeding into rivers like the Altamaha, Ohoopee, Ocmulgee, and Oconee.

Vermont, of course, is rock-hard to the bone and much of it is steeply pitched. Trees grow in, around, and over rock, and water runs down hill, either on the surface or just below it, rising again to collect in the grooves and puddles that punctuate our forest. Everything in Vermont flows down hill: from water and wind to wind-blown seeds. It defines our sense of place. I identify my own home by its watershed: Coyote Hollow, which joins the East Branch of the Ompompanoosuc, which in turn flows into the Connecticut.

Historically, wildfire in Vermont occurred rarely - at intervals of centuries or perhaps longer - and has had very little to do with shaping the constituency of our woods. In Georgia, however, without fire there would be no pinelands. Oaks and hickories would replace pine, and the sterile, absorbent sand would become more fertile.

But despite these differences, there is something that lives in the Georgia pinewoods that reminds me of home. Both regions host what is known as a keystone species. In the northeast, it’s the beaver. In the southeast coastal plain, it’s the gopher tortoise.

Every gopher tortoise digs a burrow (or two) in the sandy pineland soil, a tunnel up to thirty-feet long and eight-feet deep, where the tortoise escapes fire, cold, and predators. A female tortoise nests in the burrow, the sun-heated sand warming her eggs.

Tortoise burrows are a lifeline for more than 360 species. Several animals - gopher frog, gopher moth, gopher scarab beetle, gopher cricket - live nowhere else on Earth. Other freeloaders include black widow spider, gray fox, armadillo, burrowing owl, toads, frogs, lizards, and snakes - like the eastern indigo snake.

I was in Georgia with eleven students from Hanover High School as guests of the Orianne Society, a science-based organization devoted to the conservation of imperiled snakes. The Society’s flagship species is the Indigo. It’s the largest most well-traveled snake in the United States, and it depends on the unintended generosity of the gopher tortoise.

For their part, Indigo snakes are a rather unsociable lot. They eat other snakes including diamondbacks as well as gopher tortoise eggs and hatchlings. Our group found a six-foot indigo basking in the sunshine on the apron of one tortoise burrow. Dark and thick as a bicycle tire, it was remorseless but beautiful.

Ted Levin is a nature writer and photographer. His latest book is America's Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake, University of Chicago Press, May, 2016.
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