By Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D.
April 28, 2022
It seems like just yesterday I was roaming the historic district of Fernandina Beach, collecting pecans. I was underemployed then, with lots of time on my hands, and I came up with an original idea for Christmas gifts for my family up north. Amelia Island heirloom pecans! I spent days in the fall scoping out the pecan trees that graced much of the downtown area and collecting nuts along the sidewalks and streets. I wasn’t alone in this endeavor. My friend Frank Zalenski, a former WWII B-29 pilot, was ahead of me in this quest, and one day he walked with me around the historic district pointing out pecan trees that he had found. We had many conversations about the best pecan trees in the area. Some had small nuts, some were harder to crack than others, and a few trees had the very best large pecans, the ones we preferred.
That season I spend many hours cracking pecans I had picked up from the streets, then roasting and seasoning them and packaging them as gifts along with this card. “Amelia Island Heirloom Pecans, hand plucked from the streets of Fernandina from heirloom pecan trees in the historic district. Hand-shelled, roasted and spiced by Pat F-T. Enjoy! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.” And then I put these special nuts in boxes filled out with unshelled pecans and a nut cracker with another note of instructions about “Zen and the art of pecan cracking” for those who wanted to shell the nuts themselves. I must say, that year my handmade Christmas presents were a real hit up north.
But that was then, more than a decade ago. Frank is no longer with us. And, alas, the pecan trees are rapidly disappearing too. The trees that were in unpaved parking lots have died when they were surrounded by concrete paving. Other trees seemed to have disappeared too. And then I saw why. A couple of weeks ago I was driving along South Sixth Street and witnessed a pile of large log sections, what remained of two mature, healthy-looking pecan trees on a small lot to make way, I imagine, for an oversized house. One of the trees cut down was in the far back corner of the lot, nowhere near where a house could be built. This is an act that is not illegal despite the work to have a city tree ordinance, which has no teeth in the wake of recent statewide laws that limit community controls.
Now, very few large pecan trees exist here anymore, and I fear for the remaining ones. So much for collecting “heirloom pecans from the historic streets of Fernandina.” That ship has sailed. It’s another bit of old Fernandina that exists no longer. This unregulated growth and destruction of nature is getting to be too much to bear for this long time resident. There’s just so much an ecologist like myself can witness and stay sane.
For now, at least, Bucko and I can drive away to more rural areas to get the nature fixes we need. On a recent trip through south Georgia I happily admired all the groves of pecan trees that lined many of the roads we travelled. In one grove I even saw an especially large pecan tree with its trunk covered in decorative ribbons. I’ve seen such decorated trees along roads in Southeast Asia, where the spirit of certain trees are honored and respected by local residents. And here in Georgia I can only think that this also was people showing admiration and respect for such a grandiose tree, respect it deserves.
Chopping down such revered trees comes with danger in Southeast Asia. The tree spirits that are displaced become angry and seek revenge on the perpetrators in all sorts of mystical manners, which many people there believe in. Well, here we don’t have such a culture about respecting trees, but if there is such a thing as karma, some people moving here may find out for themselves.
Please respect the nature that remains on Amelia Island, while little bits of it still survive. I believe that nature is the soul of our island, and now it is becoming soul-less. There seems no end in sight to the destruction and erosion of nature on the island. And, sadly, it’s getting time for me to move on.
Pat Foster-Turley, PhD is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]