11 feet tall

Sometimes a first impression is hard to shake.

That’s what I think every time I drive up 11 Mile Road.

By the 7th mile you’re in old stands of slash pine, followed by weaving in and out of giant cathedral-styled cypress domes … but most of the first half is a drive through perhaps the most peculiar landscape the Big Cypress Swamp has to offer:

Dwarf Cypress Prairie.

When I first arrived to south Florida 11 years ago, it was a scene my mind could not make sense of, partly because I didn’t expect it (I had a preconception that “swamps” would be all tall trees surrounded by water) and partly because it reminded me so vividly of scenes I knew so well from the highland bogs of West Virginia and rim walks along Basin and Range country of the American Southwest: Stunted Alpine Forests.

The alpine forests of course are dwarfed by blistering wind, and perhaps too by the craggy soil and chill-shortened growing season.

Winds are warm and growing season long in sunny south Florida.

That makes the stunting agent of choice for the dwarf cypress its soil, or in this case – lack of soil. We call it marl. It’s rich in calcium carbonate and poor in nutrients, usually thin and often wet.

Or in other words, perfect growing terrain for our slow-growing stunted dwarfs.

I know that now, but still –– first impressions take on a life of their own.

Eleven years later, driving up the road with the same number of miles, I can’t shake the sensation that at any moment, beyond the next twist of road, that a scenic vista will unveil a vast valley thousands of feet below.

I have to keep reminding myself that I am only 11 ft above sea level.

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