Posted by: floridanature | June 9, 2009

Roadside Mastodons: The Geography of the Unexpected

I wonder about this Florida sometimes, about the difference between where things belong and where we sometimes find them.

Nature here, with rare and wonderful exception, isn’t the virgin wilderness that Ponce De Leon or the poor lost soul known as Cabeza de Vaca found 500 years ago. Nor is it what Marjory Stoneman Douglas or Archie Carr encountered earlier in the 20th century. It’s something else entirely—a place where we often have to take our wildness wherever we can get it. Sometimes, it’s neatly woven into a tapestry of a park or a preserve, close to being as much of a natural gestalt as it ever will.

Cabeza de Vaca

Cabeza de Vaca

But, increasingly, this natural Florida greets me right smack in the middle of urbanization. When it comes to me this way, the affect is both comforting and oddly jarring, like hearing a Bach requiem in the middle of a food court of a mall. wood-stork--mycteria-americana-2One of these hybrid visions emerged the other day when I was driving near Disney World, approaching one of those concrete cloverleafs that perpetually swirl about like streams perfectly confluxing—neither clover nor leaf nor stream. I thought of a book I am reading, “The Geography of Nowhere”, and how well it captures the delusion of efficiency and “prosperity”, and how it’s compromised and fragmented our landscape.

Still, I always search for something redemptive about this urban Florida terrain. I’ve gotten pretty good at looking beyond the theme world billboards and the giddy caricature-level roadside invitations to “Join Our Deckside Party Happy Hour ! ” (no matter that the deck is on a retention pond and the contrived Happy Hour ain’t all that happy.) It’s a behavior that pays off because I’ve seen a fascinating array of animals and plants that sometimes edge right up to the very rim of the road easements. And that is what I was doing, even as I approached a major concrete switchback on I-4 in central Florida. As I did, I saw upcoming on the right— at the edge of one of those geometrically-perfect rectangular ponds the engineers have built for us— two long-legged wading birds.

At first, I thought: cattle egret. But these guys were much too big for that. As I got closer, I thought: Great egret. But just as I did, I noticed something not so right about their heads. Finally, as I got right up next to them, at a speed of 65 mph in a domino-line of fellow motorists all busy streaming off to Someplace Else, I got a real good look at them.

mastodonThey weren’t egrets at all; neither were their mottled, black heads odd—at least not for this species. . These birds were actually wood storks—what native Floridians, for reasons that make wonderful visual sense, call “Iron Heads”. There were two of them, and one was fishing with its beak down in the water, cattails all around, while the other one was just standing there looking, seeming very noble and self-contained, almost like an Old World stork. She looked as if she had seen the world begin, all the time passing by in the millenniums since then. And here she still is, carrying the genetic code of distant memory, in a place where humans—let alone cloverleafs—exist at all, it’s as a tiny blip. A wild animal that lives, for now, in the geography of nowhere.

Perhaps the wood stork, and all the others I’ve seen near or above congested Florida roads—the wild turkeys, the sandhill cranes, the bald eagles, the swallowtail kites—are simply biding their time. They’ve surely endured a lot longer than us, weathering Ice Ages and coastal reconfigurations and stealthful aborigines with chert-tipped arrows and spears. And now here they still are, grazing stoically on a roadside that once was swamp or marsh as herds of exotic, hairless mammals inside their well-insulated steel and fiberglass shells madly stampede up and down their hard-packed trails.

Do they smile silently to themselves, marking the time until our cleverness grinds to a halt? Are they quietly waiting for the day when we so-called upper mammals gallop off into the sunset with the camel and the mastodon and the giant sloth, leaving them to their apple snails and gambusia and crayfish, back in a quiet swamp or marsh that this lush Florida climate revitalizes for them ? Are they envisioning a more advanced moment when the gods smile on them again, and they can reclaim what was once theirs—just as the Yucatan jungle reclaimed the civilization of the Maya ?

Maybe these roadside birds are more than relics of Florida’s lost wilderness.

Maybe, they’re reminders of something else, too. Maya%20Pyramid



  1. Interesting perspective and beautifully written. I’ve not seen nor heard of those iron heads. This is the second time I’ve heard of that book title you mentioned. I’ll have to look for it at the library in Tally. Thanks!

  2. Thanks ! The iron heads used to be found mainly down in the Glades; but loss and degradation of the natural systems there has sent them roaming out across the state.

    Geography of Nowhere is very much on target with its logic —and is also very well written.

    If you’re also interested in Cabeza de Vaca at all, you can find his own chronicle of being lost in Florida online.

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