The Giving Tree

The death and afterlife of a national treasure.

| Winter 2016

  • The former 3,500-year-old bald cypress tree named The Senator.
    Photo by Kyle May/Flickr
  • Long before Spanish sailors reached the New World, the Miccosukee and Seminole Indians used the towering cypress as a landmark.
    Photo by Jon Clift
  • In August 2013, Seminole County’s Board of Commissioners called Buchanan to purchase two of the seven surviving clones of The Senator.
    Photo by Rain0975/Flickr

In the predawn hours of Monday, January 16, 2012, Ed Forrest, an off-duty battalion chief for the Seminole County Fire Department, woke to a voice on his two-way radio. A request was out for Tanker 24 to respond to a fire in nearby Longwood. Forrest recalls lurching from his bed, confused: Longwood is a small city on the outskirts of Orlando; 6,000 gallon water trucks like Tanker 24 are reserved for backcountry wildfires and infernos. Forrest called the dispatcher, who explained to him that the oldest tree in the state—a 3,500-year-old bald cypress named The Senator—had burst into flames.

Within minutes Forrest was accelerating toward one of the last vestiges of primeval Florida, a towering organism that had been photosynthesizing sunlight a century before the existence of Moses and millennia before the births of Socrates and Plato. A mile away Chief Forrest could see black smoke, and by the time he reached the forest preserve, streaking orange flames. Though the tree is normally hidden by lush vegetation, accessible only by a long narrow boardwalk, Forrest plainly saw the fireball engulfing The Senator’s crown. The tree was, in firefighters’ terms, fully involved.

Forrest watched flames shoot out of the tree’s full height, 118 feet above the ground. “It was like a blow torch, or a roman candle,” he said. “It was heartbreaking to see.”

It had been an exceptionally dry winter in Central Florida, and the fire had everything it needed—wood fuel, a good draft—to burn perfectly. A temperature-detecting camera estimated the heat at nearly a thousand degrees; fire chiefs considered sending a helicopter with a bandy bucket to dump lake water on the crown. Forrest craned his neck and watched embers spark off the top. Already fully ablaze by the time crews arrived, it was too late: at 8 a.m., the largest tree east of the Mississippi, one of the six eldest trees in the world, collapsed.

For a while, no one knew anything definitive about what caused the fire. All they knew was that overnight, the oldest living thing in Florida—a tree already three thousand years old when Ponce de Leon set foot on this peninsula in the early 1500s, a tree that had withstood innumerable lightning strikes, perhaps hundreds of hurricanes, and the logger’s axe—had mysteriously ignited and was gone in a single morning. Beyond the plaque declaring the tree Florida’s original spectacle, there was a huge hole in the sky.

A columnist for the Orlando Sentinel noted that a pile of twigs and branches had been discovered at the tree’s base, and wondered about whether someone had started this blaze deliberately. Had a homeless person let a campfire get out of control? Despite the otherwise calm evening, others suggested that lightning had struck the tree’s exterior. A division of forestry investigator concluded: it burned from within.

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