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Dreaming big to save the redbay
On nature
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Every time I go to the woods, I expect amazement; a crashing black bear, a glimpse of a panther; and last week’s kayak trip on Cathead Creek was no exception.
At the canoe outpost in Darien, guide Danny Grisette has wall-papered topography maps floor-to-ceiling. When I arrived, he traced the route we’d take through the canals of a historic rice field into Buffalo Swamp, drained by Cathead Creek, a tributary of the Altamaha River.
As we paddled through banks of wild rice and red-stemmed amaranth hanging with seeds, I marveled at how gorgeous fall is in Georgia. The maples are deep as burgundy wine, tupelos flash and fling their red sequins. Sweet gums are pasted with gold stars.
I was ecstatic. The skies were clear and the air iridescent. The sun was canted and calm. The day was mind-blowingly, awesomely, incredibly beautiful — the way fall is down here.
We saw woodpeckers. We heard deer and wild hogs. Best of all, we got to see a rattlesnake about as big as a telephone pole (OK, not quite) swimming across the creek. Swimming! Just as happy as you please.
But I saw something else. Among the cypress and maple, tupelo and gum, I saw redbay dying.
Entire trees, large and small, were dead — extinction in progress.
Redbay is an evergreen with wide, aromatic leaves that is taken for granted in Southern forests. You don’t pay much attention until you notice how many are dead.
The dieoff is caused by the redbay ambrosia beetle, which was first discovered near Savannah in 2002 and apparently is imported from Asia on wood packaging. The beetle carries a fungus, laurel wilt, which it introduces to the trees and farms. Actually the fungus, not the beetle, kills the tree.
The beetle is marching through Georgia and beyond, and nothing has stopped it. It has spread to South Carolina and Florida, and won’t stop there. It’ll work its way through the redbay’s range, down the coastal plain of the South.
We can blame the fire ant on Alabama, but this one’s on us.
Right now, go out and find a redbay and hug it, because unless we find some way to stop the ambrosia beetle, we are watching a dieoff of the same magnitude as the chestnut tree extinction.
Don’t transport firewood. If a redbay dies in your yard, do not give away the wood. Urge counties susceptible to laurel wilt to enact restrictions on the movement of firewood. Keep the beetle and its fungus confined.
I can’t imagine the South without redbays.

A naturalist, Ray is watching kestrels and hawks return to their wintering grounds. She writes from Appling County.
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