By Brian Kahn
TORREYA STATE PARK, FLORIDA—Religious scholars have long debated where Noah constructed his floating zoo made of “gopher wood” (Genesis 6:14) and what tree the ark’s gopher wood even came from. Some residents in the Florida Panhandle have an unlikely answer. The place in question is, well, there, and the tree in question is torreya taxifolia. Known locally as gopher wood (or, less Biblically, as stinking cedar for the astringent smell it releases when needles and stems are rolled between the fingers), local legend has it that the tree with its supple yellow wood was used to build the ark that Noah rode out 40 days of floods on, with the menagerie landing, eventually, on Mount Ararat in Turkey.
Now, thousands of years later, the tree faces a new era of ecological violence.
“If we don’t do anything, the trees will go extinct.”
Torreyas have been trapped by geography for millennia, only living in a few ravines that cut across the Apalachicola River Basin. That’s left them vulnerable to the outside disturbances that have come crashing into the Florida Panhandle and now threaten their very survival. Globalization delivered a fungus the tree had no defense against that has been slowly strangling torreyas to death for decades. Then last October, Hurricane Michael rapidly spun up into a Category 4 storm, plowing through Panama City and into the Panhandle. Its path was like a catastrophically precise ecological bomb with the strongest winds passing right over the Apalachicola Basin. The storm toppled canopy trees that either crushed the shaggy torreyas or exposed them to harsh sunlight, which can kill them. The already critically endangered tree is now on life support with just a few hundred individuals left in the wild.
Conservationists are in a race to save the trees that remain. Local volunteers and scientists from the Atlanta Botanical Garden are using a mix of mapping, genome sequencing, and conservation techniques to find trees hearty enough to survive in a world that’s become less hospitable since Biblical times. If successful, their efforts could yield a model for how to protect forests around the world from increasingly formidable threats of climate change and invasive pests.