A nightmare tree grows in the hammock jungle along Route One of Fat Deer Key. Poisonwood. Its touch will boil the skin; its toxin, when burned, will sear the lungs; its berries, if ingested, will sour the gut.
At mile 56 the Poisonwood grows alongside its antidote, the Gumbo Limbo. Folk medicine has it the remedy should be sipped as tea. Gumbo Limbo’s nicknamed here tourist tree: its peeling red bark reminds locals of sunburned visitors.
For a time today we hiked among these opposing forces. I had the Gumbo Limbo for the Poisonwood. Gumbo’s monstrous appearance—deep, iridescent red amid the gentle green of the trail’s dominant thatch palm—seemed the very incarnation of evil. The Gumbo Limbo grew in clusters, trunks twisting and sinister as they climbed among the subtle, grey Poisonwood. Who wouldn’t think the former evil?
Stranger still along the coral-lined trail: tokens and small treasures lay about at odd intervals. Silver tokens here, blue-and-white marbles there, a tin marked ‘Fun Fun Fun’ in the crook of one tree, a twenty and some baubles in the opening of another. At one point we found an Easter egg, this Monday before Good Friday.
Who had visited this forest and induced young hikers to put their hands near the stinging sap of the Poisonwood? Who had built the devilish cairns of coral? Who had nailed this alien to a tree and put a marble in its arms?
Our hike beside the Gulf of Mexico lasted no more than an hour. We were greeted by a giant spider. The recent trespass of sinners through this garden of good and evil haunted us.
My imagination ran wild: I was an early Guarani creating mythology of the forest around me. We left the treasures to themselves. We avoided the Poisonwood. We are not sipping tea of Gumbo Limbo.