Posted by: floridanature | July 14, 2008

Why the Best Places Are at the End of the Worse Roads

The forest below fell away into darkness, and we went down into it.

The fire break trail we hiked to get here had taken us along the edge of a broad, flat pasture occupied by a white wooden farmhouse with a tin roof, a few Palomino horses and a madly barking dog. The horses were fine looking and the dog was paranoid.

The trail of wild bahia and packed white sand was rimmed by a low field of saw palmettos and a narrow margin of small slash pines. Shiny blueberry bushes, a runt of a plant with tiny leaves, grew in the understory like well-tended bonsai. The pasture, fenced with hog wire, was just behind the pines.

It had rained last night and the imprints of animal tracks were crisp, as if a teacher had made them with a stamp for a class. The prints were mostly deer, but there was also the distinct mark of a large Florida black bear. Pad marks of its paws were so defined you could see the wrinkles in them. One of the pines had been bowed over and deeply scratched by a young male bear announcing itself. The tree had bled sap and now, amber-colored droplets of resin were frozen in mid-drip. The blueberry fruits, hard and reddish, would be ripe soon.

The trail vanished where the pasture ended; in its corner was a hunter’s deer stand. It was a durable plastic hutch propped up on metal pipes, looking like a guard tower at the edge of a penitentiary. It seemed a ridiculous human-made conceit sitting out here next to the thick subtropical forest until I looked into the dark slits. During seasonal hunts, rife barrels would be looking back out.

Unaccountably, I sensed a certain dread, maybe the fear of an animal between the time he hears a report of a rifle and feels the deep penetration of a bullet in his flank or neck or, if he’s lucky, his head. Better to go quick than to drag your wounded pelt through the woods for miles. Maybe it was my own fear, perhaps in thinking the desire to kill a deer was just a sublimated urge to shoot me, Steve, or some other shaggy, bearded granola stumbling about at the edge of the woods. It struck me that I was becoming as paranoid as the farm dog.

I thought of the bright well-tended pasture above and the dim tangle of vegetation below, thought of how it illustrated the contrasts of our landscape here in Florida. To most, the open field would be a great relief, a symbol of progress and inviolability, proof that human dominance over the rest of nature was unquestionably virtuous. That’s the way Florida had been seen for the last five hundred years by its colonists. Trees were measured in board feet, rivers and lakes in the way they could water livestock or be drained off to allow soggy land to be settled

A few have seen it otherwise, like the 18th century naturalist William Bartram who spent a lot of time in Florida mucking about in this same watershed, a bit to the east of here. Bartram saw God’s creation realized in nature, from the plants to the wildlife, and insisted that humans had no more standing in this cosmos than an Ixia or a Pitcher Plant. He reveled in the hidden and the cryptic, saw wisdom and instruction in wild places.

As for me, the pasture and all it represented was monotony, a place robbed of its hidden discovery—one giant loaf of white bread with precision-cut slices, full of tiny holes of air. And so I was glad when the path ended and we left the high plateau for the darker woods. I saw a narrow animal trail through the thick palmettos, and hoped it would lead us at least part of the way to the swamp below. I took it and Steve followed

The higher land had likely been a seabottom terrace in one of Florida’s distant incarnations, and — when the sea finishes rising in another few centuries — may yet be again. As we went, it occurred to me the slope we were following could have led a neolithic fish down into a deeper abyss.

On an oceanographic expedition once, I rode in a submersible to 3,000 feet, watching as the sealife became more primitive as we went deeper. On the bottom, we saw the proto-ancestors of modern fish, glowing and blinking bioluminescence in the perpetual darkness, weird spatulate heads and tentacles not yet bred out by the efficiency of the lighted world above. I thought of the Florida swamp that way, as a sort of Devonian epoch where ferns and mosses ruled the earth, and humans were intruders from a time not yet invented. This Devonian had trees, of course, but many were bald cypress that jutted up out of the humus, broaches of soft feather-like needles at the end of tall sticks. It was easy to think of them as giant ferns.

The animal trail ended soon enough and we had to push through a fretwork of serrated palm fronds and the spindly branches of myrtles and scrub oak. With the tangled brush and the steep descent of the slope, we had abandoned any hope of stealth and were bumbling through the woods like wounded animals. Briars of blackberry and the large thorns of the Smilax vine pulled at me, and webs of tiny crab spiders stuck to my head when I wasn’t quick enough to duck under them.

From somewhere in the swamp below, a woodpecker’s beak hit a hollow trunk again and again. I think of how an ivory-billed was last seen in Florida in the 1920’s in the upper basin of this larger watershed. It was living in the swampy bottomland of old growth hardwoods, illusive even then. Slow growing trees like cypress sustained it, especially when they matured. But hardwoods like this were also favored by the loggers, who had been very thorough in their work

I can’t imagine that place being any wilder than the one we were were entering today. The woodpecker thumping today sounded like the pileated—a look-alike cousin of the ivory-billed, and a bird adaptive enough to still exist.

We moved through the woods without talking, and when I wasn’t staggering into branches, I was snapping deadfall under my feet. I took comfort in knowing the ruckus would scare any self-respecting viper within hundreds of feet. I remember once walking soundlessly along the soft spongy bottom of a dry swamp, and almost stepping on a giant moccasin curled up on the exposed root ball of a sabal palm. Its body was as large as my forearm and its eyes were alert and agile, little windows that glowed with the light of a pre-human past. I carefully stepped around it, and it carefully allowed me to do so.

Today, with our lack of stealth, I imagined myself snake-proof. The snake least likely to flee from us was the pygmy rattler, an exquisite little reptile with an intricate crosshatch pattern on its body. It was fearless but small and its body held little venom. Every time I have seen a pygmy, a woman hiking with me has spotted it first. To me, they were all striking, vivacious women of various ages, and I vaguely wondered if female aesthetics had anything to do with the wakefulness of snakes. Were they invisible to me, or was I invisible to them?

Gators are usually back in here too. Like snakes, they are the other great dread that helps keep the wilderness of Florida free from hoards of recreational hikers, all tricked out in their sporty L.L. Bean apparel. Since the swamp was now nearly dry, the gators that usually hunt it would have moved closer to the creek edge where it would be easier to snatch fish, turtles, wading birds and smaller gators. Even if one was still around, our commotion would likely disturb it. Only once have I ever had a gator charge towards me, and then it was only trying to get away and I happened to be between it and deeper water.

I thought of the half-mad conquistadors busting along in their armor here 500 years ago, clanking like giant tincans in their fruitless search for gold and glory in the Florida swamps, sweating and cursing and nearly always lost. I figured it was a miracle they saw any animals at all.

Of course, there was simply more of everything then—wildlife, water, wetlands. Panthers were here; so were great flocks of Carolina parakeets. But how fully did they see it all ? If nature is only an inconvenience to a quest, there’s scant room for communion. If the quest is to exploit a resource, the best way to do that is to dig and drain, slice and hack. Maybe it gets mapped or drawn, but only for that utility.

Steve, more prepared than I, as usual, had on long khaki pants The pants were Velcroed just above the knees to make them short if he wanted, but of course, he wouldn’t want to today. I wore shorts because my legs moved better under them, no restraint on the knees. But the downside was obvious: Already the briars and low branches had left scratches across my exposed skin and my calves were trailing lines of bright red blood.

We knew there was a creek somewhere down here. There was also at least two springs, maybe more, and we were hoping to find at least one of them. The springs were so remote that neither were marked on the quad map. That idea was enormously appealing to me, and perhaps more than anything, the notion of it motivated me to go on walks like this.

In a real way, I could still imagine that pure wilderness existed here in Florida. And if I found it, its wisdom would tell me things that I could not otherwise know.

Steve is crossing the creek now, balancing on a downed log to do so, and I follow.

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