Posted by: floridanature | September 8, 2010

“Knockabout Club” Journey to the Glades; Some Modern Symmetry

And so here we are in 1887, getting ready to join the boys of the “Knockabout Club” as they journey to Florida. It’s a tricky time to launch such an outing, since—after all—the interior of the peninsula was virtually unknown.

Geez, just a few years before that another writer came here in search of Lake Okeechobee in order to prove that it existed at all. Great tales were being created routinely about that giant lake—there were islands in the middle populated by wealthy Indians, awash in valuable pearls, and in some places, primates were swinging from the trees.

The interior of Florida in 1887 was terra incognita

But, after all, this was Florida, a place where folks had been making stuff up for a really long time. Jacques Le Moyne drew giant ears and big human-like hands on the alligators he saw here in the 1560’s and no one back in Europe even winced. Other visitors tugged at the truth, too, because it seemed unsporting not to. And, by the late 19th century, half the state was still covered in water. It was hard to really tell where the truth of dry land would begin and end.

But that just wasn’t an affliction of European or early Americans. Embellishment has always been a way of life here in Florida. How else can you explain the swamp-land purveyors of “Golden Gate Estates” down in Southwest Florida ?  And while we’ve been really good about making a lot of those pesky wetlands go away, the shills who would re-package natural Florida in 2010 to make it marketable are no different, really, than the ones who would peddle a nice chunk of submerged land to us in the 1950’s.

But, I digress. This is what you do on a rainy afternoon in Florida when indoor projects (i.e. writing) are already managed, and outdoor projects are too soggy to mess with.

You go to Florida in 1887 with the Knockabout Club boys via E.A. Ober’s wonderfully baroque “The Knockabout Club in the Everglades”. You do so by sailing down from Cape Cod, not a particularly efficient way to begin, especially if you’re prone to seasickness and the trip takes almost a month.  But, not to worry, mate: Soon, you see the light marking an inlet and make your way inside the “famous Mosquito Lagoon.” And then the real fun begins…

First, our intrepid travelers spot the water all aglow with “phosphorescent light”, revealing “thousands of fish darting here and yon, leaving torturous trails of fire like those Fourth of July serpents of our boyhood ”  Then, there’s a series of really manly things going on—a bear on the beach is shot, sea turtle eggs are dug up (the mama turtle thankfully escaped), a great feast ensues, and a panther attacks ! (At least, we know the bioluminescence still exists here; hunts for turtles, eggs, and bears are—for now—out of favor, and panthers no longer range throughout the state).

From Ft. Pierce, the band made it inland towards the “St. John’s” River, which then was Terra Incognita. And for all intents and purposes, this is where the “Everglades” began for them. Wonderful illustrations in the spirit of French artist Edouard Riou—who created the images for most of the Jules Verne novels —helped flavor and animate the baroque narrative.

And, in the pen and ink drawings, Florida becomes the darkest reaches of the Amazon or Africa. Images of our marshes and swamps are every bit as gloomy as any jungle from John Paul Stephen’s journey to Central American and the Yucatan. At their best, they embody a sort of neo-mediaevalism in which almost anything scary and unknown could happen, at any time. This was the sort of gothic landscape that begged for stories to entertain us, frighten us, leave us in awe. Is it no wonder Florida’s had such a tough time finding its way back to reality after all these years?

And were these gothic landscapes any different, really, than the scary-as-hell exaggerations that our political candidates have been relying on lately ? Fear plays big in mythology—and it sure does sell well on modern talk radio and in the viper dens of  the political extremists.  

If Mr. Ober and his buds relied on a bit of swamp jihad to  scare us, well, that’s child’s play next to the  yammering we’ve  been listening to over the last few months. That would be a  sort of “fantasy jihad” in which common sense and human  decency are  hijacked in the name of one Machiavellian strategy or another—all to honor “freedom” and the “American way.” Guess that would more properly be “Delusion Jijhad.” (Or, in a friend’s perfectly on-target phrase: “figgie maggie”—as in a Figment of the Imagination.) After all, it’s not democracy at stake as it is some corporation’s grossly over-loaded bank account.

The upper St. Johns WAS the Everglades

Well, spin has no special kinship with the 21st century, certainly. And even at the time that our boys were making their way up the wild and exotic “Everglades” of the St. Johns River, some affluent suits in fancy hotels were figuring out the best way to drain all that mess. As one proto-developer observed: “It (the wetlands) are without value—and a menace to health !”

Am figuring it was a good idea the Knockabout Boys didn’t know about this. Their purpose, after all, was singleminded: To have a grand adventure, to revel in the gut rush of new experiences in the Florida jungle, to test themselves. And to return with a grand story about it all—an event with a foreshadowing of Joseph Cambell’s “mythic journey” woven throughout.

Mr. Ober and his buds made their way in deep, even camping on one of the islands in Lake Okeechobee, sans pearls and baboons.   Ironically, they never actually traveled into the expanses of of sawgrass and mangroves that today are protected as the Everglades inside a national park. But, no problem: Half of Florida *was* the Glades then, and a voyage across the upper St. Johns and a stumble through a fretwork of green to Okeechobee was about as wild as it gets. (Trust me, in some ways, it still is…)

And, of course, there were literary critics, just as there are now. And one in New York wrote of the book: “Mr. Ober knows what he is about and is familiar with Florida. He writes well and brightly and readers can learn a great deal about Florida  —though the best we can wish him is to never and try to take a trip through the Everglades again.”

“It is alright enough for the Knockabout Club to be adventurous—but to hunt up Lake Okeechobeee and to work through the Everglades is a task only to be performed by very well paid engineers.” So much for nascent eco-tourism.

Today, we learn that Mr. Ober’s expedition was half real, half-made up. Nonetheless, the words and the pictures still appear before me right now on a very tangible page. To read this wonderful story, and to consider more completely every twist and shadow hidden in the art is to time travel back into a place where Florida symbolized the very real excitement of an adventure into nature. Those adventures are still available to us today, gothic images and all, if you bring your imagination along for the ride. We can still be scared, and that’s okay, because it’s part of the larger natural experience, one we too often try to tame.

We can figure out the aesthetics, the irony, the threats, and all that, because we’re human and that’s what we’re equipped to do. We just don’t need a man in a fancy suit with no sense of scale and decency to endlessly try to inflict his own insecurities on the rest of us.  The modern jungle isn’t as much vines and swamps as it is fear-driven political rhetoric—and fallacy-driven marketing.

Given my druthers, I’d take an island with wild Indians and baboons and alligators in Lake Okeechobee any day…

Posted by: floridanature | August 24, 2010

A ‘Borrowed’ Lyric: “The Social Life of Water”

A good friend just sent this poem to me. Water’s a big part of my life—it always has been since I was a little boy growing up on a peninsula surrounded by it. Now, I live on another peninsula surrounded by it, and in my best moments, have spent many great times swimming in it, paddling on it, and diving under it. It’s been a force in my life.

Bird Island in Lake Jesup at Dawn from my 'yak

Another friend does an heroic job in rendering images of springs in oils, paintings that transcend the static confinement that can sometimes afflict art.  In that case, her images of our freshwater springs take on a very real life—and it’s a life in which the perception of the moment and the refraction of light become every bit as real as the substance of  water itself.

"AQUIFERious" by Margaret Ross Tolbert, the art & science of springs

And, so it would make sense that water—in all its forms—might have even have an interactive “social” life, and that life would be known only to its own kind.

I differ only in degrees from the poet’s conclusion near the end: If we play our cards right, we humans can catch a little whisper of the conversation now and again. On our last visit to Green Springs, I know I sure did…


All water is a part of other water.

Cloud talks to lake; mist

speaks quietly to creek.

Lake says something back to cloud,

and cloud listens.

No water is lonely water.

All water is a part of other water.

River rushes to reunite with ocean;

Tree drinks rain and sweats out dew;  Surface images at Green Springs

Dew takes elevator into cloud;

Cloud marries puddle;


has long conversation with lake about fiord;

Fog sneaks up and murmurs insinuations to swamp;

Swamp makes needs known to marshland;      

Thunderstorm throws itself on estuary;

Waterspout laughs at joke of frog pond.

All water understands.

All water understands.

Reservoir gathers information

for database of watershed;

Brook translates lake to waterfall;

Tide wrinkles its green forehead and then breaks through.

All water understands.

But you, you stand on the shore

of blue Lake Kieve in the evening

and listen, grieving

as something stirs and turns within you.

Not knowing why you linger in the dark.

Not able even to guess

from what you are excluded.

"Rock Cub Springs", not so very far away

– Tony Hoagland

Posted by: floridanature | August 17, 2010

Where the Marsh Really Begins and Ends

The road from Tybee Island to the Georgia mainland once carried me for one summer and two winters, transporting me for ten miles through a board salt marsh stretching to the horizon like a flat,  midwestern wheat field. Spartina was the “wheat”,  a thin, reedy salt-loving  plant that tapers into a spikey tip, colored fresh green in the spring, darker by summer and then golden with the first frost. It is a vision that, during my brief time on the Georgia coast, comforted me, seamlessly aligning itself with my Florida soul.  

That field of marsh grass was interrupted only once,  but it was profound:  To the north, a thin, narrow mound of sabal palm and scrub oak shadow the roadway as it leaves the island, until finally, it trails off  like a giant mole burrow towards the city of Savannah in the distance. The ridge is fill dug from the marsh to underpin a rail line that once shuttled beachgoers between Savannah and Tybee, a single-destination spur with a fire-spitting, steam-blowing locomotive pulling a string of passenger cars from the staid mainland to the fresh exuberance of the ocean.

The rail lost its utility long ago, to be replaced by a more efficient  oyster-shell roadway for autos,  the forerunner to the firm pavement now under me.  Nearby,  the old train bed—bereft of rails—was homesteaded for decades by seeds of the trees,  creating a runic message of  foliage to remind  the terrain of a history it might otherwise forget.

The coast of Georgia sloughs inward here, leaving Tybee and its marsh near the narrow bottom of a giant topographical funnel. With a grand lunar momentum, the Atlantic pushes in as far as the flat land will let it each day, washing around the island, spilling over the tidal creeks, and sweeping across the spartina pastures for miles with its oceanic scent. As it does, it nourishes oysters, fish, sea birds, tiny organisms patiently chewing dead grass in the black mud.

By its existence, the salt marsh also shelters hundreds of rare diamondback terrapins, giving them silent refuge during most of the year, right up until when their siren’s call  of replenishment summons them from their stunted grassy jungle. Like the massive arrabadas  of the Caribbean coast, where sea turtles flop ashore all at once to nest, the terrapins in these Georgia lowlands move through the marsh to the biding of some internal clock. In doing so, they crawl slowly across  this asphalt cusp,  pulling back into their shell at the rumbling approach of a car or truck as if it might try to eat them, rather than simply mash them to smithereens.  

Southerners don’t have a great reputation for appreciating  animals—unless they want to  hunt them, or hunt with them. But this seems to be  yankee bias, and we all stop, swerve, slow down to keep from crushing the little terrapins whenever possible. I have twice seen stocky men in pickup trucks—one with a gun rack—come to a screeching halt  to rescue a slow-moving shell in distress.

Along the shoulder, an official yellow sign warns that on rare occasions a high tide may cover the roadway. When I first moved out to Tybee, I  waited for months for this to happen, and when the fall equinox and the full moon and a strong northeast wind arrived at nearly the same time, it finally did. As I returned home from Savannah that night on the lonely road, I watched anxiously as the pale moonlight reflected on the flooded fields of spartina, making these grassy pastures glow as if lit from deep inside instead of high above.  

On that night, the water rose up in front of me, covering the roadway completely, erasing the distinction between it and the deep, muddy marsh only feet away. With no black strip of asphalt to guide them, other motorists— understandably— pulled over to the side and turned back.

Yet,  I sloshed stubbornly on through, night tide lapping at my truck’s rocker panels,  relying on the gut knowledge the road would continue to be down there, somewhere. The revelation, if there was one, was simple:   I had crossed this marsh alone for months and its path connected to something vital in me.

As I continued alone towards my island, I left a gentle wake behind me in the flooded moonlit-water. I sloshed along slowly like some great cetacean, half in the ocean, half out, following a trail home no one else can see. It all gave me a primal comfort far greater than I can express.

Posted by: floridanature | July 15, 2010

In & Under the Dry Tropical Forest: A Hamaca Memory

When I wake up this morning, my right foot is swarming with ants and a segmented worm is curled up on my chest. They both seem harmless enough—the little ants are the party animals of the entomological world, seldom missing a chance to congregate anywhere en mass; while the segmented worm is a catatonic critter, the color of tarnished brass, and he has whorled himself into the shape of a disc the size of a silver dollar.

Taino pottery at bottom of cenote

I unzip the mosquito flap of my tent, crawl out into the new jungle morning, shake off the ants, place the worm down on an outcropping of limestone, and drain the last of my canteen over my head. Summer can be pleasant if you are on the coast in the Caribbean, but we are not and the rare breeze that wafts over the camp here at  Manantial de la Aleta usually feels like heat blowing out of an oven.

Today is our last day at the cenote, and we are low on both water and food. For breakfast this morning, I eat a granola bar; Nat. Geo. photographer Bill Curtsinger borrows my knife, peels a potato and—to the awe of a several grad students sitting nearby—eats it raw, all the while reveling me with tales of how valuable the potato is as a food source.

We are smack in the middle of the vast Parque Nacional del Este, a dry tropical forest that juts out into the Caribbean Sea on the southeast coast of the Dominican Republic. The foliage is stunted, not unlike what you would see in the Florida Keys. The understory of it is filled with the cycad known back in Florida as the coontie. For the Taino, its tuber-like roots were the main source for ground flour they used to make cassava.

One of the lead archaeologists, who is getting ready for a final dive into the cenote, walks over in his wetsuit.   We chat. He  figures the Tainos who lived around the cenote were the “well people” and the pottery that has been found with circles signifies this —a message of  the encircling power, in the round image of a well. Other pots with zig-zag lines around the edge are the pots of the “mountain people”, the angular incisions representing the peaks of Hispaniola.

They all came here, to La Aleta, to celebrate their ancestors, to keep their zemis apprised of their worship of them, to drink water and hang out. He could be right—who knows but the Tainos ? Certainly, they were an elegant, gentle people and I imagine they would surely be grateful that someone cares enough about the shards of their life to wish them into existence again.

Whatever La Aleta was, it has become the hottest repository of Taino artifacts in all the region, says Don Pedro Morales Troncoso, the Dominican patron of the Park. It is not the sacred cenote of Chichen Itza, because the Taino were not the Maya; they were a people who migrated to the Caribbean, island by island, up the Lesser Antilles, from South America a couple millennia ago.

Here, like the animals and plants of the islands on which they lived, they speciated from what they had once been, isolated from their brethren back on the mainland. In the islands, they became something else, a new civilization created by the distinct island bio-geography that shaped other life forms in the Caribbean. They invented burens to cook cassava bread over fire, hammocks to sleep and dream in, canoes to fish and travel by. We know because we are finding parts of all of these things—save the hammocks, which we have brought ourselves—in pieces inside the cenote.

Yesterday, another archaeologist pulled a three-foot long pistil from the sink, tapered handle and hammer-like mallet head to thump the root of the guyaba into the mash from which cassava was made. It was carved and shaped from the blows of stone tools, and as I looked closely at it, it seemed as if the craftsman just chipped the tool yesterday from the trunk of  a reddish tropical hardwood.

When I dived into the cenote, I went there as the others did—by strapping on a harness and being lowered into a seven story deep hole in the floor of the jungle. At the bottom of the hole was a great vat of water, and atop that clear water, a small Zodiac raft. Climbing in the raft to join other divers, I suited up with tanks and mask, and then, made the slow descent on a line that led to the 110 foot top of a earthen mound below. There, all was dark, the only light from the scant illumination we carried with us by hand. As I watched, other divers encircled the mound, reaching into it, archaeology by Braille.

Sometimes, they would pull out whole pots, so complete they looked as though they might have just been molded yesterday. At other times, wooden duhos—the sacred chair for a Cacique—was recovered, and then, even finely woven basketry. Gourds that would have rotted up in the tropical heat a thousand years ago, were pulled intact, incised with messages from the Taino who carved them. The darkness and lack of oxygen has been very good to preservation. I wondered how well it protected the deep and enduring sprits of the Taino. My time in that deep black hole was more than a dive; it was a journey, and it took me somewhere far beyond the present.

I have been here, as usual, to do the sort of odd work that I do to make a living. As a writer who dives and who is incessantly curious about all things of another age, I am here on behalf of a large documentary network, and a magazine. When I’m not poking about in the jungle, I use a set of compact photo-voltaic panels to recharge my laptop and digital camera and sat phone. By night, we all gather around a campfire and eat freeze dried swill and cassava, sometimes, drink good Dominican rhum, stretched out in hammocks.

We break camp today, and wait patiently for the Dominican’s army’s brown-green Huey chopper to come pick us up and take us back to Bayahibe—A shower! A coastal breeze! A bed without segmented worms! And I am both eager to go and a bit sad to leave. To have visited the depths of the sacred cenote, to have walked out on the ceremonial plazas under the pale moonlight, is as close as I can come to connecting with the energy that once fired the Tainos.

It is clear from our work here over the last week that hundreds—perhaps thousands—of Tainos regarded this as a sort of mystical energy center, a place to recharge their spiritual Duracels. Poking about in a dark cenote and sifting through dirt in the jungle are both great ways to find things no one’s ever seen before. What is uncovered is more than just a message about a culture that’s extinct on this island—it’s a lesson in history of caring.

The Taino were surely a kind-hearted people, but they were something more: They were a people who could not lie. When confronted with Spanish duplicity designed to trick and slaughter them, they openly wept. Not because of the impending assaults, but for the lies. When enslaved, they committed mass suicides in a swoon of despair.

In our modern, efficient Space Age culture, a lie is such a common thing it’s hardly even called out anymore.  But to the Taino, it was an eternal blunder, one that kept them from joining their ancestors in the cusp where the sky meets the water and the earth. Neil Young sings about searching for a heart of gold; the Tainos were the ones who found it.

Who really is the survivor in such battles, and does the victor always win?

Tomorrow, I’ll hike with the expedition from Bayahibe to Jose Maria cave, a repository for some of the best Taino rock art left in all of  Hispaniola. It was a cave only re-found in 1980, in a remote and untamed place still riddled with labyrinths, still brimming with mystery.

The thwack-thwack of the brown-green Dominican Army Huey resounds overhead in the forest canopy now, and I have to put this away so I can go climb aboard it. In doing so, I leave La Aleta, to go one last time looking for clues from a civilization that could not tell a lie, to go off once more searching for a heart of gold.


Epilogue: I wrote the above chronicle several years ago when I was in the D. R. to work on a couple of editorial projects about the Taino who once lived there. An archaeological expedition was underway, and since I was a writer who would dive most anywhere, I was asked to go along and chronicle it. As usual, I came away with more than I ever expected.

Later, I learned that some scientists theorize that the Taino continued to travel by large dugouts west through the Antilles   —until they made it all the way back to Florida. Linguists comparing the language of the Arawak-speaking Taino with that of the Timucua say there are startling similarities. It is not so startling, too, that both the Timucua and the Taino relied on the tuber of the cycad known as the coontie as a food staple.

Many words from the Taino language are, in fact, still with us: tobacco, hurricane, and of course, hamaca—a word that means “home”, a place that might also have been a thick stand of tropical woods, a place where a Taino/Timucua could also hang the woven sleeping bag they also called the “hamaca.”

And, as for hearts of gold, in my time I’ve met some exceptionally fine and generous people with some of the biggest hearts in all the world. So I guess I realized both a Neil Young dream, as well as a Taino one.  Finally, I’m always grateful whenever I can help help ease a metaphor stepped in grace through the folds of the centuries.

Posted by: floridanature | May 31, 2010

An Early Morning Paddle: Upstream with the Comforting Grain

Early Sunday is the best time to drive anywhere in Florida, and today it is made even more so because we are driving to the river. Into the great preserve we go, beyond the sandy mountain of scrub, and then down into the tunnel of hardwoods that transport us across the old bridge.

At our put-in just upstream of the bridge, there are a good half dozen men, in lawn chairs and so on, all with fishing poles, monofilament trailing off from the tip of each like a tiny, sure strand of a web looping down into the dark creek. It’s still early, but they’re knocking back the brewskis, and jawing. They have local accents, but seem to know almost nothing about where they are; I figure they’re more interested in getting buzzed than anything else. The rods and reels are simply props.

Steve’s shoulder is still in the recup stage, so he graciously decides to drive a couple more miles upstream by land and put in at Moccasin Spring. That way, if it gave out on him and he has to return early, I’d at least have the advantage of being able to paddle from here to there and then back on the river.

He rambles off on the old dirt road under the thick canopy of cypress and oak and hickory, and I unload my single kayak from the roof rack. I carry it down to the edge of the water between a couple of the fishermen and set it there, half in and half out, sideways so it would be easy to mount. I return to the car for my backpack and gatorade and paddle. Even though last night was the full moon and the bream have started to bed, none of the fishermen seemed to know this.

As I push off, one asks me why I wasn’t fishing. I figured they weren’t fishing either, at least not in a meaningful sort of way. But, instead of insulting a bunch of half-buzzed rednecks,  I said something else that was also true: I hadn’t been on this stretch of the river in a couple years and wanted to scout it out to see how far we could get upstream.

It’s gratifying to paddle out of range, beyond the aura of cigarette smoke and idle chatter from people who had no idea where they were in the natural world, and didn’t much seem to care. I haven’t used this smaller kayak in a several years, and loaded it this morning since its size was perfect for the tight swamp meanders. It tracks okay, too, and soon I settle into a even rhythm in which the white blades seem to rise and fall by themselves on either side of the cockpit, moving the hull forward under their own power. I have paddled enough in my life so that the act itself becomes effortless, almost like walking, and that uncaps a deeper energy, freeing it to ignite the senses.

It had been almost three years since I’ve paddled from here, upstream or down; Tropical Storm Fay had done a thorough job in drowning the shore  and toppling a lot of trees, bringing some down across the river. I also notice a luminous quality deeper in the swamp, a glowing of sunlight where once it was gloomy.

After a mile or so, I realize there’s little about this stretch that I recognize.  The woods had been thinned naturally, and the shafts of sunlight function like spots, highlighting patches of sawgrass and pickerel weed and ancient cypress stumps far back from the shore. The patches glowe like tableaus, as if purposely illuminated for a special morning matinee. Along the river edges, exotic hyacinths and native spadderdock and button bushes all vie for space. The bushes are hung with golf ball-sized blossoms, each white and spiky and fragrant.

The green of the shore is sometimes robust enough to spread into the middle of the river, leaving only a yard or so to push on through. Still, it is easy going, so far. There are as yet no logs beneath the water,  hidden wooden shoals you have to use your body and your arms to hunch over—or else find a strong branch to pull yourself and your boat across.

Soon, I spot Steve up ahead, just launching at the old campsite where the spring outflow from Moccasin meets the tea-dark waters of this Southern creek. I have camped here before, once when shooting a nature film in the late spring with a small  crew. Then, a nearby bull gator proclaiming his territory bellowed so loudly he made the thick night air seem to vibrate. Another time, I was here for New Years Eve, cool enough for a fire, and a comfy tent with a woman I once knew. These were good memories for me.

Fay and other storms had inundated the little spring so that its turquoise waters had been pushed down inside the rock of the aquifer, and the weight of the tannic swamp sat atop it. When the swamp retreated, the turquoise stayed hidden, and I still wonder when it might return.

Steve joins me in mid river, and we scuttle around a deadfall of a full leafy tree canopy, and pass a lone fellow in a camo canoe by himself, with several rods. He looks intent, and very comfortable being alone. I ask if he had caught anything and he says yea, a few nice ones. He had the canoe smack in the middle of where the spring run swashs into the creek, and am figuring he knew what the brewski boys back at the bridge didn’t:  Spring waters are alkaline and will temper the acid of the tannins, making it more alluring to fish.  But then again, maybe he just knew it was a good place to fish.

The Native Americans knew things like this very well, without ever having to understand intellectual presumptions about the PH of the water or the taxonomy of the animals. Places where creeks and springs and rivers confluxed were always bountiful, so good they could  be considered sacred places, a dimension where humans and other animals could share information that was vital to both. The fish used grunt-like sounds to communicate; the people used myth and story and song.

We leave the camo fisherman after a few more turns, and happily find easy access through cuts in the deadfall, almost like aisle-ways  through the low jungle of aquatic plants and downed wood. It’s unusual to encounter anyone here on this river, especially so when headed upstream. Several more miles and the river will split, trailing either to Lake Norris or into the transparent Seminole Springs Creek. There is a great dread of alligators and snakes on tight, winding, vine-hung tropical runs like this for many, and that alone goes a long way towards “managing” the resource.

I’ve slowed down my breathing by now, and my senses have opened in proportion to that, not unlike the way the pupil of an eye dilates or constricts    —not out of conscious purpose but in response to darkness or light. My peripheral vision always seems to conveniently expand as well. Without a single focus to blur perception,  I begin to see scads of apple snail eggs on the low bark of trees, and on the stems of water plants on both shores of the river. It is far more than I’ve ever seen here before.

Steve sees them too and we think on it some. He figures the opening of the canopy over the swamp has made it somehow more attractive to the snails since the sub-aquatic plants and algae of their diets has flourished in the new light. That sounds reasonable to me. And just as I wonder if the limpkin—the rare solitary wading bird that loves apple snails—might also have been tipped off, I see  just such a bird in the tall sawgrass ashore, almost as if I have imagined it to life. He is skittish, more so than most limpkins, and he stalks off into the green after flashing his fawn-like plumage to us.  

The narrow, open portals in the middle or at the edges of the deadfall and weeds are becoming tighter, so now I have to duck low to get under branches or pull them back to enter. Usually after a pass like that, a spider or two ends up on the hull of my kayak, sometimes, they ride pieces of leaves that stick to my hair. I pull one large twig with several leaves out of my head and see a stunningly beautiful yellow spider with tiny orange eyes. I gently place the twig atop some floating hyacinths, hoping she will find her way back to her home, or maybe create a new one.

Although the woods here are still thick by upland standards, they are thin for the swamp. It allows me to look hundreds of yards back into the landscape, lets me see flocks of juvenile white ibis flittering about, mottled with feathers of chocolate and white. Walking by itself on its stilt legs is is a small green heron. And then a ways farther, a pair of pileated woodpeckers zig and zag their way across the open water, leaving behind their distinctive sharp calls as they go. In midstream, I bump into a small log, now colonized with tiny mushrooms, each as delicate as miniature parasols.

Giant yellow-and-black tiger swallowtail butterflies begin to appear with regularity, flipping about in mid air over the water or atop the puffy white flower balls that are growing along the way, like brilliantly-colored folds of Japanese paper brought to life in a morning dream.

Steve wonders if the butterflies are attracted inextricably to these plants, the way that gulf fritillaries are drawn to the passion vine, and I figure that they may likely be. Once, I stop and carefully move my kayak to a bush where a swallowtail is feeding on a blossom. The underside of its wings are turned towards me, and even though this position doesn’t display its best colors, I am still in awe of the aesthetic weave of the fringe on its “tail”.

We pause once to maneuver a particularly tricky passage, and as we do, we disturb a barred owl. She hoots three separate times from somewhere back in the woods, and is then silent. We have lost most of the knowledge  the Timucua learned from nature, but a few myths remain. Owls, great protectors in the nether world, speak in these ancient stories. And, I wonder what it is that they really say.

Watermarks on the larger trees along the shore are high above where the water level is today, and it’s clear that the dry weather has not only taken the flowing river down, but has also drained most of the swamp around us as well. It is only the rare, deeper sloughs that still have water in them. Many of the trees are growing out of mud, intricate root systems as labyrinthic as any chemistry equation. The strongest ones seems to splay out from the base with great flair, gripping the soft mud for all they’re worth. It is what always goes on here, except without the veil of water to hide it.

“A swamp with the lid off”,” I say to Steve, and he smiles.

I paddle up next to a log to take a photo of a spat of apple snails eggs, and when I do, I notice most of them have already hatched. Unlike other smaller snails, the apple snail emerges as a fully formed mollusk, a miniature that fits snugly into the tiny shell.

(Later, on shore, we will see newly laid turtle eggs that have been robbed from their nest by a raccoon or armadillo, the yolk forever gone. I think of the capriciousness of it all, wondering how a spat of snail eggs or a clutch of turtle eggs is destined to fare, depending on nothing more or less than how the sunlight falls on a cypress knee, or the way in which a landscape tilts for the slightest of moments, little miracles the intellect will never understand.)

I look again into the open swamp and see the carcass-like stumps of ancient bald cypress, logged here a hundred years ago. Once, we pass a large trunk, one that likely sunk before it was bled of its sap, and is now forever ashore, the intricate, raised grain of the durable wood on display, as if it were carved for the very best of museums. There is something about this particular wood that seems alive and comforting to me, human-like almost in its color and in its spirit.

And I realize now it draws on my earliest memories I have of my father, his strong arms and hands browned from the sun, at once resolute and infinitely kind, as if ready to defend me from the worst harm a little boy could ever imagine from the world.

We see no gators, not even a swirl or foamy bubble trail, but we have heard their low, throaty growls from back in the spadderdock, just a primal sort of hello to let us know they are here. I think of all the so-called comforts of civilization we surround ourselves with back in our artificial world. And I think there is no real comfort like seeing the smooth and weathered wood of a tree, fiber as strong as the hands of your father, a memory so deeply embedded that, even today in such a place, it allows me a great and lasting peace.

I tell Steve that this is such a different river I would not recognize it if I didn’t know where we were. And he quotes Hericlitus, repeating one of my favorite quotes: You can never step twice into the same river”….”Or,” Steve adds, “paddle it twice, either ”

And of course that is true, as true as any life parable about a river can be, as true as: “Everything flows” And so it does, and we go with it today, eventually feeling a light, welcome sprinkle from a single dark cloud, just enough to refresh us as we move upstream. We push our little boats through the water with deliberate strokes that seem to make the tannins swirl like great vats of syrup now, almost as if we are moving in slow motion.

I realize it is not the water that has slowed; it is my own perceptions, downshifted so they can absorb more, one grateful frame at a time.

And it is this way that we go for another couple hours, pushing against the current, dodging the low trees, once using all of my strength to pull myself and my boat over a sunken log by gripping a branch just above it.  I say a little prayer now, one that’s thankful for this day, and for having the strength to maneuver my way through it, and for a good friend, who appreciates the same.

Most of all, I am grateful for the way the green walls fall away, and the tiny avenue of black water opens up before me, effortlessly, and leads me onto the crest of instinct now.

It is a crest I ride with great pleasure, moving with the rarefied hope of a child towards a sort of wholeness of place. Flowing now with the calls of the gators and the owls, the white eggs of the snails and of the turtles, the comforting paternal grain of the richly textured wood. Moving always into the promise of the every-lasting light…

Posted by: floridanature | January 20, 2010

Welcome to Our Tropical Winterland

And so for me, the deep Arctic Florida freeze of January came down to this:

Anoles—those little lizards that dart about in the foliage understory—didn’t fare well. The hardest hit seemed to be the non-native Cuban anoles, the little brutes that have quietly slipped into Florida over the last few years and have been eating their way through our native population of anoles. Am figuring they’re morphing into the reptile version of former VP Dick Cheney—although that metaphor may be redundant for those who already figured Cheney was a large reptile inside a very expensive suit.  (Maybe, it’s less troublesome to think of the Cuban anoles in a fictional way, more like the sci-fi Blob, an adhesive force that moves across the landscape like a giant ball of Silly Putty and only Steve McQueen can stop it. And he does so by? Freezing it.)   

Maybe the Cuban lizards are annoyed our natives have the capacity to turn green, and they can’t, so they get Draconian about it all. Guess you could blame it on Castro—god knows we’ve tried to blame as much as we can on him. But, before El Jefe, Cuba had been even more dogmatic—largely thanks to our own U.S. government which propped up a moral flat-line dictator by the name of Fulgencio Batista. But, as per modern China, he was “our” totalitarian, and thus, immune from the laws of morality—or even from the context of history. Geez, we sure can fool ourselves when we want to.

Meanwhile, down in South Florida, some guy actually video taped an iguana falling out of a tree. Iguanas didn’t sneak in on some container ship,  like their diminutive Cuban brethren. Instead, they were sold as “pets”. At some brief point of clarity, the respective owner of that particular pet grew bored with watching what is essentially a hunk-o-meat with scales lay around most of the day and do nothing except eat. And so, it was banished to the Great Outdoors of Florida—which is already brimming with orphaned exotics from the tropics, both animals and plants. (Once a bit north of Ft. Pierce, we were filming some B-roll for a nature film and spotted an iguana in a black mangrove tree, and he didn’t seemed too spooked by having a camera crew huddled around him.)

Not Dick Cheney

In honor of all of this Arctic air biz, one out-of-state newspaper recently ran the headline: “Snowing In Florida : Freezing Iguanas Falling Out of Trees”. Which sort of suggested that lizards were raining from the sky like giant banana-shaped slabs o’ frozen meat, a Wild Kingdom with a modern Florida surreal twist.

I’ve also noticed that the other Cuban herp immigrant, the Cuban Tree Frog, has been missing from our local landscape lately. These guys have the same sort of appetite for their own kin, and are putting a nice dent in the native Florida tree frog population (especially the Greens).  And larger mamas—they grow to five inches—have even been seen eating Southern Toads. I’m figuring anything that would eat a large toad surely has an enormous capacity for almost anything. Emerson, likely shivering in a New England winter, once described Florida and Cuba as the “happiest of latitudes”—but this was long before globalization started moving all the ecological chess pieces around.

In fact, all the exotics that have been quietly sneaking away from indoor cages and glass tanks  to the hammocks and islands and marshes of Florida’s remaining native landscape over the last 20 or 30 years seem to have done quite well. The most recent catch during the freeze was that of a giant green anaconda, living in a drainage pipe down in Osceola County (not far from Disney), and feasting on ducks and geese in a nearby pond. This one may be the most dangerous snake of all, given its ability to grow really big and eat really big animals. Worse, it may start breeding with other exotic reptiles to create a “super snake” that knows absolutely no bounds. The freeze sort of stunned it, at least long enough so it could be captured.

Cuban tree frog

Add to this the arrival of other exotics—the meat-eating Tegu lizard that looks like an Iguana on steroids. (I saw one lumber across a dirt trail through the rainforest once in Guyana. He moved with a certain aplomb, like he was the Bad Leroy Brown of reptiles, and our Land Rover wasn’t much concern to him at all.) And of course, the Monitor Lizard, which like the Tegu, is also living outdoors somewhere in southwest Florida.

Have been sort of expecting an exotic Slam Down—or whatever those extreme pro Rasslin’ matches inside chain-link cages are called. We already known that pythons are doing very well in the Glades, and have even seen them rassling with our own native alligators.  So am figuring that matching up a native species with an exotic ought to be good for a Pay TV event. Add a green anaconda and a carnivorus Tegu to that mix and you got yourself a dandy tag-team match.

Water-wise, rivers like the St. Johns dip down into the 40’s during these events, and as a guy who was once scuba diving into water almost that cold, I can tell you it’s a numbing experience. A Florida spring with its year-round 72F waters upwelling from our limestone aquifer seems toasty in comparison. And that’s why the warm-bloodied manatees make a beeline for any place that’s warmer than the river—including natural springs, as well as the artificially-heated thermal effluent from utility plants.

Over the last few years, manatees have been joined by another strange exotic in the springs, the Amazonian suckermouth catfish. There are actually two species of this fish thriving here in Florida, both of which were released via the aquarium trade. In fish tanks they grow to a few inches and eat algae, and that’s that. But out in nature, they grow up to a foot or more in length, breed copiously, dig little tunnels in the side of river banks, and clog up the springs with their Amazon-iness. Worst, they now appear to have acclimated so they no longer *have* to be in the more tropical springs, and have expanded their range to where no Amazonian catfish has gone before.

When in the Amazon upstream of Iquitos once, I actually saw one of these fish laying atop a water hyacinth (another Florida exotic), out soaking up the sun on a particularly pleasant day. Later, we sat around in the evening on our old river boat and ate the catfish, which had been shucked from its tough shell. The meat was white and good, and while it didn’t taste like chicken, it certainly could hold its own with our own native Florida catfish, cuisine-wise.

Maybe the fish has a marketing problem, and if more folks knew how tasty it was, we’d see fewer of them around. Am figuring Red Lobster can pick up the slack on this one, maybe calling it “Lobster Fish” or “Tropical Wonderland Filet”, like they’ve done with the deepwater fish that biologists call “Slime Head”, renaming it “Monk Fish” as if consuming it might allow some peaceful culinary supplication.

Coven of Amazonian catfish plotting their next move at Blue Spring

The other big thing that happened in Central Florida when it got down to close to 25 F one night was that the bird baths in my back yard froze solid. Not just at the surface as they’ve done in years past, but all the way to the bottom, four inches or so worth of solid ice. One of the birdbaths actually cracked from that experience, and when I told one of my northern friends of this, he laughed since he learned years ago to empty all the birdbaths when a serious freeze was headed his way.

green anaconda

Well, my little cracked birdbath wasn’t that big of a deal since it was easy to fix. But the event was a sort of microcosm for what’s  happening on a larger scale to our Florida earth. Some northerners call this phenomenum a “FrostQuake”.  One of the ways to try to keep crops and plants from freezing is to put a light layer of water (which quickly turns to ice) atop them. But all that groundwater pumping can drain the upper portion of our Aquifer, allowing sinkholes to dimple the landscape. At last count, we had ten new sinks open up just during January 2010.

While groundwater pumping from an already over-stressed Aquifer will cause this, frost also adds another stressor to the equation: The top o’ the ground freezes by night and thaws by day. The affect is not unlike that expand-contract thing that causes birdbaths to crack. When the ice forms, the ground sort of expands, as the water does in the bird bath. But when it melts, it then constricts back to normal— and settles a bit. (It does so usually much faster than it takes to freeze and expand.)

Cover for Bad, Bad Leroy Brown

With each successive freeze comes the squeeze-settle push on the terrain, and soon, all this sand and soft limestone that are just under the surface—-that is, the top of our Aquifer— begin to react as well. And then one sunny morning, the earth thaws one last time, and viola!—instant sink.

I stopped typing there for a moment to let all of this “sink” in, and realized I have created the sort of Classic Comic Book that is Extreme Wintertime in Florida: South American Tegus and Anacondas rassling Gators and Bears, giant flat-tailed marine mammals stacking up in springs like cordwood, tiny lizards and frogs battling to the death—and if this isn’t surreal enough, the actual ground under us is busy falling away in great chunks, as if it’s made of a giant confection and all the sugar-craving kids who ever dreamed of being Charlie in the Chocolate Factory are gnawing their way through.

Not too much else to say about the freeze. Except this: February is historically our coldest month, even here in the “happiest of latitudes”. All that’s gone on could just be a scrimmage for a grander championship game—or a rehearsal for a theater play. And, as we know from reading Carl Hiaasen  —or on a darker note, William Kennedy’s “Ironweed”— there’s hardly anything you can imagine that hasn’t already happened in real life…

Posted by: floridanature | December 22, 2009

Searching for Mr. Watson: An Exercise in Florida History & Redemption

Just minutes after I leave my home in northeastern Florida to drive down to the Everglades to search for Mr. Watson, I zip past a wood stork. It is standing at the side of the entrance ramp to the busy Interstate, looking at once noble and woefully misplaced—like a lonely chess piece on a Parcheesi board.

The Glades with its vast subtropical wilderness is a good five hours away at the other end of the state. But the stork is here anyway. It is knee-deep in a drainage ditch—cars whizzing by on their way to Disney World without a notion of whatever can it be—and it is doing what wading birds like it have done in Florida before anything like a human or a theme park arrived.  It is sweeping its curved beak through the cloudy water, hoping to connect with something alive there.

My friend Terry, an old college pal who will paddle the other end of the canoe, misses the bird altogether, not because he is obtuse, but because he lives on the opposite rim of the country and his senses are already saturated with local exotica. It will take a mighty dose of melodrama to jar him.

“Wood Stork,” I say, pointing with one hand and driving us onto Interstate Four with the other.

“Is that a rare bird,” asks Terry earnestly, and I tell him that it is. I say I am both heartened to see it, but disturbed it has ranged so far outside its natural home. Not so long ago, this bird with the head that seems fire-charred—this “iron head”— was so integral to the Glades it was considered a barometer of its health. But, the Everglades are on the brink, have been for a while now. The Wood Stork is trying to roll with this change, ranging far outside its historic territory.

Terry is from three decades worth of my past, a fraternity brother and ex-jock, a reformed party animal like myself seeking redemption in the solitude of distant natural places.  Individually, we have  struggled to unravel the jumble of civilized threads to get at the nugget of ourselves buried inside. From its discovery, we have come to learn this nature offered solace, living Whitmanesque lessons  in the values of singularity and tolerance.

And so Terry hikes east of Los Angeles, back into places like Death Valley and Borrego Springs and camps there.  I live in Florida and kayak on any wild body of water I can find —the St. Francis Dead River, the Blackwater Creek, the Mosquito Lagoon.

Smallwood Store, Not Far From Where Watson's Life Ended

Now we are headed together to the Glades, to canoe deep into its distant western boundary in a hunt for the “Watson Place,” a  pre-Columbian Calusa midden mound. It is a 40-acre composite of shell and stunted tropical foliage, a thread between us and the time-wronged desperado who once lived here.

Like the Glades and the wood stork, we too are on the brink, aging jocks ranging beyond what is safe and known. In this way, we sweep through the experiences that still lay out before us, hoping to connect with something alive and vital. All we are sure of is we have come to appreciate wilderness for the way it lays itself down on the soul.

Unlike other men who seek solace in this way, we don’t carry traditional props; we are not hunters or dapper L.L. Bean campers. I carry a set of old binoculars  to watch for avi-fauna, but the truth is, beyond raptors and tropical wading birds, I’m lost unless a species appears clear and unobstructed in the scope. As for our gear, it is jerry-rigged and stuffed into duffels and garbage bags and pvc buckets. Instead of giant foil pouches of official freeze-dried camp food, I have brought Noodles-in-a-Cup and tins of tuna and chicken. We have granola bars that look and taste like Oreos compressed into little rectangles.  I imagine Jack Kerouac, when he went up on Desolation Peak out West, might have packed like this.

But I do place a lot of significance on a compass and the correct nautical map to lead me in and out of untamed places like this.  Each tiny paper squiggle, each logarithmic degree corresponds to something tangible—an oxbow or bar or tiny islet. Once ground-truthed, these coordinates can sometimes nudge the senses, linking near-meaningless geographic names to remarkable places on the landscape. Ahead in the Glades, my map promises Pavilion and Buzzard Keys, Chokoloskee and Rabbit Key Passes, Lostman’s and Chatham Rivers.  

I have tucked both compass and map inside a waterproof Seal-Lock Baggy I will carry on my lap when we finally reach our canoe. Also in the baggy is a paperback copy of Peter Matthieesen’s novel “Killing Mr. Watson.”

As I drive south on I-95, this idea amuses me, as if the immediacy of the adventure will require me to be ready at any time to understand direction, latitude, and literary metaphor. But this book and its sequel is the thread that has re-linked Terry and myself after all these years, something real our adult selves respond to that goes far beyond the re-telling of old locker room jokes and keg party stories.

Map of Western Glades--the Largest Tract of Wilderness in Florida

Like me, Terry had read the triology of  Matthieesen novels on Watson’s life and demise. Like me, he felt a kinship with Watson—a complex soul who existed far outside the monotone of local myth. Matthieesen may have “reimagined” Ed Watson’s life. But in doing so, he admits the retelling probably “contains much more of the truth of Mister Watson than the lurid and popularity accepted ‘facts'”

In the triology, Matthieesen uses the real life and death of renegade-cane grower Ed Watson to re-create a wild place and a maverick culture special to southwest Florida.  But if his books are about a vanished time, they are also about the social evolution of perception, about how the realities of a richly-embroidered moment —or a mystifying personality—can be spun down into simpleminded slogans. Time has treated both the Glades and the strong, passionate man who was E.J. Watson this way, turning the magnificent Everglades into a swamp and the complex E.J. into “Bloody Watson.”

But searching for Mr. Watson is not a walk in the woods. The Glades is a sprawling subtropical territory larger than the state of Delaware;  ranger stations and interpretive boardwalks dot the outer edges, but inside, sawgrass stretches to the east, and mud-rooted mangroves to the west, leaving little dry land in between.  It is, as Matthiessen has observed, a “labyrinthal wilderness,” and its sheer lack of accessibility  has been the secret to keeping it so. A clutch of red mangroves

Or, as Lostman  character Speck Daniel puts it: “what the hell kind of tourist  would beat his way three to four miles back up a mangrove river to take a picture  of some raggedy ol’ lonesome place…”

Down we go on the notorious I-95 into Miami, the car-jacking, drug-shuttling, neon-rocker paneled, middle-finger-in-the-air conduit, finally turning west near the Latino bustle of Calle Ocho.  From here, we drive through block after block of urban landscape that barely a half century ago used to be freshwater marl prairie, bristling with great fields of sawgrass. Today it is colonized by expresso shops and Santeria botanicas, 7-11’s and Texacos hugging every available square inch.

“Man,” says Terry, shaking his head. “Talk about sensory overload.”  I run this gauntlet for an hour until we are safely west of the city, headed out across the northern boundary of the Glades. Open space and dwarfed cypress and sawgrass command the geography now, with great white cumulus billowing overhead, fed by the wet, feral terrain. There may be two more contrary realities this close to each other somewhere else in the world, but I’m not aware of them.

Migratory White Pelicans Feeding on a Mud Flat

We are safely atop the Tamiami Trail now—a word squeeze of ‘Tampa-to-Miami’.  It is the road that first splayed the Glades in two when it was built, water-spitting draglines and dredges crunching their way through the limerock in the 1920’s.

Water-driven, the Glades is at the mercy of the kindness of strangers upstream. And this Trail we are driving serves as a massive dam across it.  The lazy but deliberate sheet flow of water that once swept down across southern Florida from just below Orlando is now squeezed under us through a series of mechanical gates,  giant Erector-set like devices built for flood control. Man plays God with the upland rainfall and water now, and as gods go, he has proved to be a baleful, selfish sort, a minor Old Testament deity with more ambition than wisdom.

Soon, we arrive at SR 29, the narrow southerly road that trails past “Panther Crossing” signs and dead-ends six miles south in Everglades City, the fishing village now being transformed into a RV tourist mecca on the far western tip of the park. The freshwater sweeping down from the easterly sawgrass meadows meets the coastal mangrove buffer a few miles inland from here. Everglades City is our jumping off point for our quest.

Clinging to shards of a hardscrabble pioneer culture still tended by a handful of stone crabbers and mullet fishermen,  this little town on the edge of the park now teeters precariously towards a fun-house-mirror version of “ecotourism” Anything alive, it seems, is fair game: Airboat rides and canned “Safaris” and “Jungle Boat Tours” (Gators Guaranteed!) are everywhere, as are boutique-like souvenir shops painted peach and green, with incongruous names like “Jungle Erv’s.” The nature rhythm—of place and people— has been squeezed and massaged and marketed in a heavy-handed attempt to catch up to the trendiness that has homogenized much of Florida’s coast.

As I watch a gaggle of tourists board an air-conditioned park service pontoon boat for a guided excursion onto Chokoloskee Bay, my only thought is how white and spanking clean everyone is. The outlaw plume hunters and gator poachers, turtlers and contraband smugglers—the bona fide heirs to the Watson legend and time—have died, trickled away, tried to grow up. Lostman’s , set in the past,  foretells this gentrification: “…beaten flat, [it] would disappear beneath the tar and concrete, the tourist courts and house trailers, the noisy cars of vacationers with their red faces, sun hats, candy-colored clothes..”

We are eager to get to the former Watson homesite as soon as we can. But it is now late in the day.  Faced with spending a night here  or paying North American Canoe Outfitters to ferry us and our canoe back to the old Watson mound by motorboat, we choose the later, planning to use the time saved to more thoroughly explore the creeks and sloughs of the backcountry on our five day paddle back.


A slight young man named Justin wearing rubber white fisherman’s boots has brought us to the threshold of the Watson site in his go-fast fiberglass outboard, expertly twisting and turning the wheel behind the center console to deliver us through the look-alike puzzle of mangrove islands and tidal rivers.

Justin’s new girl friend has come along for the ride, and on our hour-long trip here, I overhear her asking him who this Watson was. Either Justin had not read the Matthieesen books, or he didn’t feel like re-creating the complexities of them. He gives her the shorthand folk version, the one locals have been giving to tourists for years. “He was a guy who lived back up here and grew cane…and when it came time to pay his hired help, he would kill them instead.”

The “Watson Place” is one of several dozen primitive campsites in this odd park; most are dock-like “chickees” built where there is simply no dry land to be found. But a few, like this one, are high mounds of shell and bone constructed first by the Calusas and later, colonized by farmers, fishermen and assorted renegades. It arises from the dark tannin of the Chatham River like a high natural bluff, fringed at one edge with a thick cover of snake plants—a hardy, spiky ornamental that settlers cultivated in their yards in Florida a century and more ago. It is an odd relief, back here in this mud-driven monoculture of red and black mangrove, an exotic harbinger of other surprises yet to come.

Kettle at Edge of Chatham River Where Watson Made His Cane Syrup

It is 4:30 p.m. and the early Spring sun is dipping down towards the top of the tall black mangroves just across the Chatham River and Justin is anxious to get  back to the marina at Everglades City before dark. We quickly unload our canoe and supplies on a narrow wooden dock. The ferocious salt water marsh mosquitoes—“Swamp Angels” to the settlers—seem to be marshaling their forces for sundown; their humming from back in the tangle of truncated tropical jungle at the edge of the clearing produces a low grade static. It is early April, at the wane of an El Nino Winter in which a few mildly colder months have barely kept a lid on the hatch of blood-sucking insects.  We are as concerned about getting our mosquito-flapped tents set up as Justin is to get home to his warm bed.

As Terry and I sort through our pile of gear, Jason cranks the motor  up, eases his boat away from the dock, and disappears in a meringue-like froth around the corner of Chatham Bend. I think of Ed Watson’s old gasoline launch, the “Brave,” and how he puttered slowly down the Chatham to Chokoloskee Island in it one last time on Oct. 24, 1910, the distinctive pop-pop-pop  of the ancient motor announcing his arrival to a gathering mob of islanders.

Finally alone now, we establish priorities: First, we douse ourselves with repellent, then we hurry to set up camp in the scant half-acre or so of open, weedy land. At the clearing’s edge, an entangled jungle has colonized the rest of the 40-acre mound, slender trunks and boughs of native gumbo limbo and machineel gridded together like spider webs, along with lime and guava and avocado left from the Watson era, all as feral now as a herd of wild hogs.

After I work up a light sweat assembling my tent, I stop and look around, letting the reality of being atop the former Watson homestead settle in. The quiet back here is complete, so full it seems to have measurable weight.

Red & Black Mangroves & Buttonwood Dominate the W. Glades

At the edge of the Chatham River, several large red mangroves, bow-like roots arching into the oyster shell mud, frame the water. The sun dips down below them to the west, and Terry asks, “you think ol’ Ed trimmed back those mangroves to give him a good view of the sunset?” and I figure he probably did.

This Watson Place is the largest shell mound for miles in any direction. The Calusas shucked oysters and clams here, discarded bones from bear and panther, manatee and deer for at least 2,000 years. Spiritually complex and savvy to nature, they understood its power—especially the water-thrashing energy of tropical hurricanes—and did all they could to literally rise above it.

Ted Smallwood & Charlie Tigertail

In his time, Ed Watson painstakingly hauled timber in by boat to build a substantial two-story frame farm house here, flanking it with flowering red royal poinciana trees. It was said to be the finest of its type inside the great uncivilized wash between Ft. Myers and Key West. Since Watson’s death, the home was used by hunters and fishermen and squatters. Hurricane Donna damaged the house in 1960, and the park service—looking for any excuse to clear old private structures from public land—razed it soon afterwards,

I ask Terry if he’s ready to look for Ed’s homesite in the jungle, and he says he is.  It is a Friday night now, a weekend evening in the middle of the Everglades, darkness coming fast. A large, unseen gator bellows out a mating call from the edge of the Chatham—or perhaps it is a territorial warning.  I can’t imagine being in a place more removed from the superfluous collegiate atmosphere under which Terry and I met. He must think the same of me, for we both exist far outside the social convention that first bound us.

Off we go on a narrow trail back into the wall of stunted tropical foliage, ducking under low branches. Terry has on long pants and a t-shirt sporting an ET-like extraterrestrial, a large Bowie-type knife strapped to his belt. I am in jeans and t-shirt, wearing a baseball cap that reads “Jung.” Under the thick canopy back here, the sun barely penetrates—by day, it is sepia-tinted; in the early evening, it is downright gloomy. At the edge of the trail lies a skull and skeleton, a small mammal of some sort, about the size of a raccoon,  like the wild-eyed coons I have been seeing clattering about on the bow roots, dark stripes bleached almost white by salt and sun.


We are in the midst of the insect static now, and despite our repellent, the swamp angels blanket us—hanging on for dear life, waiting for the chemical to wear off.  Settlers, like Watson, virtually lived in the black smoke of smudge pots, which they kept burning day and night; when they had window screens, they rubbed crankcase oil on them to keep the insects from smothering the grid.

Just off the trail, I see what looks like knee-high concrete boundary markers, scattered haphazardly. I look closer and realize they are the original foundations Watson once built his fine house upon, raising it up a couple feet for ventilation. They are made of a tabby, crushed limerock and shells of the sort the Calusas left behind. From the elegant trunks of the gumbo limbo trees,  tissue-thin patches of red-amber bark curl like the skin of a sunburnt tourist, pineapple-like bromeliads tucked away in the crooks.

Just when the buzzing seems enough to drive us mad, I notice a mysterious structure peeking out from the thick jungle just ahead. It is made of the same tabby material as the foundations, except it is  rectangular, as large as a room-sized funeral vault.  The park service has built a wooden cap atop it to keep people and animals from falling in. “It’s Ed’s Cistern,” I say, “where he gathered rainwater.”  Weathered by a century of tropical heat and rain, the tabby walls look more like the sides of an ancient Spanish mission. A gumbo limbo, far bigger than any of the others, grows from a corner of the cistern, happy for the fresh water still inside. Nearby, Ed and his family slept and dreamed, and I wonder, what of?

Artist's Rendering of a Tropical Jungle, Gothic & Mysterious Like the Glades

The swamp angels, perhaps a mutant breed, are starting to bite now, and we move as fast as we can back to our camp. I fire up my gas lattern, and as I do, an easy breeze picks up from the Chatham, enough to hold the insects at bay. We concoct a dinner swill over a one-burner stove, and as we eat, the scarlet sky turns gray, then full black. Fireflies, a rarity in Chemlawned Florida nowadays, dart the edge of the jungle with their green-blue light.

I look overhead to see Venus hanging itself just under the sliver of new moon; minutes later, the sky is as full of stars and constellations as any I have ever seen. I turn down the lattern  and Terry and I sit in silence,  watching meteors streak through the darkness like distant flares, as if underscoring our own sense of awe. From the Chatham, mullet leap and splash, joyous ghosts water-skipping in the night.

It is too warm for a sleeping bag so when I crawl into my tent, I lay on top the bag, using it for a mattress. Above, the bright stars burn a soft glow through the thin  fabric.  From the river, I hear a deep human-like exhalation, the sound of a bottlenose dolphin surfacing to blow.  From back up the trail, a chuck-will’s-widow calls its own name over and over, waiting for an answer that doesn’t come.  Everywhere, unseen critters rustle and gurgle in the isolation of the Everglades darkness. Instead of distressing me, it  has a remarkably calming effect, as if the mound itself is exuding the timeless exhalations of all who have come here before me, the Calusas, the renegades, Ed Watson. And now, into the collective dreams of the mound I also go.

The new morning is fresh, dew on the tent and the wild grass in the clearing. After a quick breakfast, we walk the edge of the jungle, find what must have been a farm plow in the weeds, metal wheels dark red with rust. Back in a few yards, we discover the frame of an old truck, rubber and wood long gone. Terry takes my photograph sitting on it. Out near the shell-encrusted shore of the river, we see the 150-gallon iron kettle where Watson rendered down his cane, still mounted inside a waist-high concrete and brick pedestal. Instead of cane syrup, the kettle holds stagnant rainwater, green now with algae, tadpoles swirling back and forth just under the surface. I run my hand on the concrete rimming the kettle, realize someone once took the trouble to round and smooth the edges, a remarkable act of civilization in such a place.

Watson, as Matthieesen wisely guessed, was ambitious, a person who cared about how the world was ordered around him. He was, after all, the only white man to live on this mound more than a year or two—farming it for nearly two decades before he was killed in 1910.  I reach down to the ground, pick up a piece of metal,  maybe a ladle, iron corroded beyond recognition. Watson’s presence here is nearly palpable:  I think of him laying down this tool 90 years ago on the edge of the smooth concrete rim,  going down to Chokoloskee to take care of business, just for the afternoon.

Clay Pot Shards Left From the Calusas Who Lived on Middens Back Here


We have spent three days here now, using the Watson mound as a base to explore local waters, segueing up into tight canopied creeks, including one that wasn’t even on our map. Once back there, we paddled for almost a mile, until the tide ebbed finally out from under us, reshaping our path into an impassable slough of foliage and roots. Stoic, we rested, drank tepid water and ate granola bars, listened to the coon oysters spit, watched the mangrove crabs nervously scuttle over the mud like black mice. Terry, gracious, named the creek Belleville. From there, I saw my first swallowtail kite of the season, newly arrived from Brazil, joining the frigates soaring overhead like unteethered origami  In three days, we encountered only five other boats, and all were fishermen hunkered down, coming or going to or from Florida Bay.

Each night on the mound, the Chuck-will’s-widow sang his sweet sad song, a four-note serenade of all he has ever seen and can’t fully say, and the stars fell, inexorably marking mortal time. One evening, I slept next to the water and Venus rose under a crescent moon, laying down a trail of pale light that connected me to it, a planet too distant to imagine, yet able to touch me in these everglades.

Watson's Rusting Farming Hardware at Chatham Bend

Now, with our canoe loaded to the gunnels, we are pushing away from the mound one last time for our two-day paddle back to Chokoloskee and Everglades City. Terry began to sketch and paint several years ago, waiting for each image to “push” its way out, allowing his unseen self to become less so on paper, healing old wounds. I try to do much of the same with words, a mechanism to remind me of what I have experienced. And now, in our coming back together after all this time, we grasp onto the tangible around us, discuss it with great joy, and then let it sink back into ourselves, waiting to see what it will finally reveal.

Upstream we go on this fine river, one eye on the tree line and the sky above, the other on the map and compass. Mangroves surround us on all sides and from a distance, they seem like a diminutive northern forest. Up close, though, the land under them is ephemeral, water and detritus-fueled mud, rich nursery grounds for the same critters—redfish, trout, snook, tarpon—the fishermen hunt. Neither fully land or water, this place has long placed a hold on the imagination of visitors, spooking them with its mystique.

The early Spanish conquistadors, at once superstitious and brutal, first charted this territory as La Laguna de la Espirtus Santus, The Lagoon of the Sacred Spirit.  As we bear down today against a building wind and outgoing tide, I think of this place in that way, a terrain with a pulse and a heart,  able to breathe. Right now, its breath is sun-warmed mangrove leaves and sea purslane, a dusky perfume of salt and chlorophyll and sap.

Up the Chatham we go, following the more narrow branch that meanders to the west, once almost running aground on a shoal that mysteriously appears in the middle of the river where eight- and nine- feet of water should be. Instead of working our way north through Last Huston and Huston Bays, we sneak around the lee sides of mangrove islands, crouching as close to shore as we can get to avoid the wind-driven thrash of the waves that will pile up in two-foot high whitecaps. Sometimes the water is so clear we can see blue crabs scuttling across the seagrass bottom, needle fish flashing iridescent  at the surface. Other times, it is soil-brown, a moving organic soup.

Gator Swimming on the Chatham RIver

As I paddle, I pay careful attention to direction, to the spin of a little sliver of metal locked inside glass, gauging how the world of mangrove and marl unfolds around us, curious how it matches up to my nautical chart.

Suddenly, the air is filled with scads of sulfur-wing butterflies, the color of pale planet light, fresh from a new Spring hatch.  We paddle through them for a mile until finally, they vanish as quickly as they appeared, a rainshower of butterflies. Up to the southerly forks of Huston Bay we go, and then down again into an unnamed branch leading to the Huston River. It empties us into House Hammock Bay, named for an old clan that once homesteaded here, collecting buttonwood mangrove for charcoal like Watson did, fishing and hunting.

House Hammock is barely two and three feet deep, and as I dip and draw my paddle it touches mud as often as not. Ospreys are nesting everywhere, young chicks just large enough to raise up and squawk now from their huge beds of twigs. Mother birds fly over us, small mullet in their talons, headed for home. In the distance gators, bodies as black and corrugated as large truck tires, thrash in the water and mud to flee this odd apparition, a log with two moving heads.

Ahead, we will spend a night on the wooden dock chickee at Sunday Bay, and then surf rolling breakers back out of its broad lagoon. As we do, we will ride a easterly wind beyond Barnes and Crooked creeks, into the lee of the shoal-filled Cross Bays where we run aground, using our paddles as poles to finally push away. From there, we skim the conflux of Hurddles Creek and the Turner River, an intersection deep enough to hold giant half-ton manatees, up from Florida Bay to frolic like giant children, fluke-like tails out of the water, bodies rolling and churning the water in some outsized mammalian ecstasy, safe at last from motorboat props.  We sit at a distance and watch in quiet obeisance, then push on towards Chokoloskee under a bright tropical sun.

Once, just after a flock of white ibis fly low across the mangrove tops, I blunder somewhere off the map, getting lost as thoroughly as I have ever been. When I tell Terry of the mistake, I joke that we must be in such a state before we can ever truly be found, and he smiles and says gently, I know what you mean, bro.

Sunset Atop Mangroves during out last night in the Glades

Safely back on track, we finally enter Chokoloskee Bay, windswept and sparkling in the sun, the end-game in sight now.   I wonder what secrets are still hiding from us.  But in the end, I decide it doesn’t much matter, this lagoon of the sacred spirit and its ghosts will be here, whether I want them to be or not.

But then, there is this: I think one last time of Ed Watson and how Matthieesen treated him more generously than life ever did.  And I wish the same for the Glades itself. I wish it in my heart for Terry, for me, for us all us.

Posted by: floridanature | December 9, 2009

Emotional Ecotones: From a Window Sill to the Amazon

The “Edge Effect” in the world of ecology describes the place where different plant communities  meet. When they do, the variety of animals and plants there increase dramatically since this “Edge” functions like a community junction—or an intersection. This particular juncture of richness is also called an “Ecotone”.

Florida is blessed with a multitude of these Ecotones since the diversity of the subtropics meets that of the warm temperate climate here. We also have emotional Ecotones in our own lives, places where the past abuts up against the present, maybe the future. For deeply nostalgic guys like myself, the past is particularly rich, and like a wild river it flows, carrying its energy with it. Sitting here and typing these words is a present-tense activity. Yet, the words sometimes celebrate the images and experiences of the past.

As for this personal history, I can chronicle a lot of it by simply looking around the room. The two window sills in front of me are packed with the icons of memory, creating an Ecotone of sensibilities whenever they’re considered.

There’s the small hand-carved dugout canoe with its perfectly downsized little paddle. The dugout’s about ten inches long and made from some sort of tropical hardwood. It imitates the larger dugouts that natives who live in and near tropical rainforests still use today. I came across this one in a small village on the Chagres River in Panama, far upland from the Canal. Villagers still use the dugouts on the upper Chagres—for transportation, setting their fishing nets, gathering native plants for medicine,  food, building materials, and drug-induced pathways to the spiritual Shadow Land.

A photo I took on the Rio Chagres in Central America

I’ve also seen dugout paddlers in Nicaragua, Columbia, Guyana, the interior of Brazil, and in Peru upstream from Iquitos—the later on the rivers that would conflux to create the Amazon. In an adjacent Florida Room, I have a life-sized paddle. It’s a work of art, really, as it’s carved out of a single piece of lightweight tropical wood.  Its handle splays out when it reaches the blade, making it nearly heart shaped. The wide, thin blade tapers down to a point. The working part of the paddle is effective at moving water; the point of the blade allows the boater to stick his/her paddle upright in the mud when back on shore. No matter how you cut it, it’s functional art.

I bought the paddle at a village on the Rio Samaria of Peru for three dollars.  It wasn’t a tourist souvenir, since the remote village of fishermen and hunters and gatherers had no such gewgaws. When I first asked the owner in my woefully broken Spanish if he would sell it, he said yes. His native language was of a particular “indian” origin, and he seemed as unsure of his Spanish as I did of mine.  I finally figured he was telling me  to take his dugout out on the river to practice with the paddle to make sure it worked for me, figuring that—of course—I would have my own dugout on my own tropical river back home.

Like the paddles, each dugout was also a work of art, crafted  individually from logs harvested from  the rainforest. I’m figuring the  process was not unlike that depicted by the Dutch engraver deBry  who,  in 1590,  portrayed Timucua creating a dugout along the St. Johns  River ( via LeMoyne, White, et. al.)  The log was first cut, and then the top of it  was carefully burned to make it easier to chop and then carve out the wood inside. The bottom of the hull had no ridge or keel to  stabilize it, and certainly had nothing resembling a rudder. The bottom was simply round, and when I first pushed the  borrowed dugout into the deep, dark waters of the Samaria, I almost capsized. It didn’t take me long to figure how to paddle so as not to risk flipping over: I hunched down as much as I could on my knees to lower my center of gravity, and realigned my Norteamericano paddle strokes to allow for the fact I was essentially sitting inside a log.

There were huge caiman thriving in this river, aggressive reptiles that make our own Florida gators look docile.  I also noticed that four red-bellied piranha the dugout’s owner had caught earlier were lying in the bottom of the hull next to my knees. (Piranha are good eating, albeit with a jerky-like toughness to them.) Capsizing in such a place would probably not be a particularly good thing.

A piranah, smiling

I finally got beyond the village to a place where the river narrowed, to where I was surrounded by walls of thick green tropical foliage with a fretwork of llianas on each side. It started to rain because, after all, this is the rainforest  and the wet season was just beginning. I noticed several cracks in floor of the dugout had been partially sealed by flattening out sardine cans and tacking them atop the cracks. Between the heavy rains and the leaks from the cracks, I was soon sitting in several inches of water. Two of the piranha begin to flop about, rejuvenated with the water.

Around the next bend, I came on another dugout, this one with two fishermen in it. They were both standing up —which was pretty spectacular all by itself, given the unstable nature of the craft. And, they were pulling in a large net full of odd looking Amazonian fish I had never seen before. Clearly, they had learned how to hold their bodies when standing and throwing nets, and in doing so, had developed an athletic skill and balance special to this place on earth. Had they been living in the tundra of the distant north, they would have likely learned to hunt caribou and fish through holes in the ice. But they lived here in Amazonia, and this place had shaped them inextricably—had speciated them, really, just as nature will do to all of us if we fully allow ourselves to live inside of  it.

Natives fishing from a dugout late in the day on the Rio Samaria (Photographer Layne Kennedy took this one a couple of days later.)

The two men were on the opposite shore, and like good fishermen everywhere, they were working the shallows where fish come to feed and to hide. One waved stoically to me and I waved back, doing my best to not make any sudden moves in doing so. I realized I could have been on the St. Johns River 500 years ago and seen the same thing. The  gift of that was both startling and revelatory. As I paddled on, the fishermen were gradually absorbed by the whiteness of the rain, sharp edges of reality giving way to a soft blur, almost as if they lived inside a photographic vignette.

DeBry's etching of Dugout building by Timucua

Soon the rain obscured everything, and I was alone again, just me and the the dark river below. It was as close to the shore as I could get now, and a pygmy kingfisher—a ringer for our own belted kingfishers back home—flit about in the thick foliage understory just a few feet away, barely more than a couple inches in length. Then, just when I figure all was reasonably under control, shards of fruit begin to rain down on me. When I looked up, I saw a white-faced monkey sitting in a high bough of a cieba tree, peeling what seemed to be a mango with its hands.

The mango peels joined the now revitalized piranha which were in a good six inches of water. The powerful little fish—although they had no interest in me— snapped at the fruit shards. I had no real idea of where I was, only that I was absorbed in the wildness and grandeur of this tropical river, and that there was something profoundly vital and alive about it all. My clunky old riverboat had brought me to another world; my solitary journey in the dugout delivered me somewhere else entirely, a place my over-loaded senses could hardly bear. No wonder those who live so close to the earth need myth to explain what their sensibilities cannot.

By now, the dugout was actually more stable than ever due to the ballast of the water inside. Still, I thought it a good idea to not let it lower the gunnels any more as they were now just a few inches above the river. I emptied my water bottle and used it as a bailer, removing enough of the ballast to keep me safe, but not so much that it might lose its value as a counterweight.

And then, a hundred yards or so away, the pink dorsal of a boto, the rare freshwater dolphin,  surfaced and begin to move towards me. I had come to this place especially to see this animal. But I had hoped to do so from the safety of the battered old Fritzcaraldo-era riverboat I was living on for a few weeks.  Now, I was in solution with it, and this unexpected intimacy went straight to my gut. I was no longer the impartial and intellectual gringo observer who could pick and choose what he wanted to record. A large primitive animal larger than my dugout was moving steadily toward me, and fancy western ideas couldn’t do much about that.

Without even thinking, I carefully sink the blade of my paddle into the water and hold it there, vaguely hoping the dolphin would sense it, and swim below it, under my dugout. When the dorsal was just a couple yards away, it sank under the surface, leaving only a trail of bubbles. The boto was under me, and the enormous displacement of water actually pushed my dugout up nearly a foot, where I teetered unsteadily for the longest three seconds of my life.  (I remembered a manatee doing the same thing back home in Florida, out on the Mosquito Lagoon, and I was somehow comforted by this.) I looked to the other side of the dugout and saw the boto’s dorsal again emerge from the water, watched as it moved steadily away, back into its own time. He could have dumped me in a second, had he wanted to do so.


The natives here tell stories that mythologize the boto, giving it supernatural powers, even allowing it to morph into a human, when all the conditions are right for that. That mythology had helped draw me here. But now, that I was fully in its grasp, the essential power of the Amazon and its myths took on an entirely new meaning, easily dwarfing any gringo pretense I had brought along. It struck me that true “discovery” was more than being surprised by little secrets in the landscape. The full gestalt included fear and deep respect as well,  stuff us Norteamericanos try so hard to excise from our experiences in nature.

I’m figured the Timucua once knew the full emotional and spiritual sway of all that surrounded them — just as the Amazonian natives fishing from their dugouts do today. It’s this wholeness of nature that so often alludes us back home because it requires us to evoke  the complex puzzle of myth and wilderness again, one careful piece at a time. Objects created to sanctify myth can be imbued with a power far beyond our limited “civilized” range—even if the creators of those icons are long gone from our earth.

Amazonian dugout paddle on wall of my Florida Room

Funny, but I was pondering the objects on my windowsill to illustrate the metaphor of Ecotones, of places where the past intersects with the present and the future. And in the evocation of memory, I’ve blundered onto a moment as alive and compelling as the Now. Maybe that’s part of the mystery of emotionally driven ecotones—you don’t always  know the boundaries of where they begin and end.

I can see the dugout paddle with the heart-shaped blade I brought back from Peru mounted on the wall, not far from where I am sitting.  I’m going to lift it from its mount, and grasp it again, just as I did when I paddled on the Rio Samaria.  I want to see what other stories it might also remember.

Posted by: floridanature | November 23, 2009

On Discovering New Springs: The Comfort of Relic Lyrics

The long black strip known as SR 46 is an asphalt blur as it rolls across two northeast Florida counties, only dipping conspicuously when it approaches the river valley. I have entertained myself by reading bumper stickers on the vehicles that appear and disappear in front of me. From a battered pick-up: “Barrel Racer, Cowboy Chaser”. And from a large American sedan: “Beer: Helping White Men Dance Since 1942”.

I thankfully exit the volley of traffic at the entrance to the Seminole State Forest, driving in past the self-pay kiosk and pick up Steve, who is ready to unlock the combo on the cattle gate across the dirt road, as soon as I give him the number. I have most recently finished writing a new book, and Steve has finished teaching a grad course on Bartram. It has been months since we have hiked together, and when Steve walks to the lock, he claps his hands, as if in gracious applause of an impending performance.

Trail through the Scrub

We drive in beyond the open gate, no hunting season for a couple weeks, but some trees still hung with the bright plastic flagging near-sighted hunters use to find their way in and out of the thick subtropical forest. The road takes us through the uplands—dry scrub and even sandhills, a stunted forest of saw palmetto and myrtle and oak, just tall enough so the rare scrub jays can flit low, calling to each other in their ancient songs.

The terrain drops gradually near the Blackwater, taller oak and even cypress back along the shore, and then up again to the valley slope on the other side of the creek. We park near Shark’s Tooth Spring, and shouldering our packs, walk a narrow trail up into the sandy scrub. The slope rises dramatically, and muscles on the back of my calves I hardly ever use on the Florida flatlands begin to come awake.

Ahead, we see a pair of scrub jays, the blue on their backs far more vivid than other jays, not unlike the color of deeper springs I have seen before. A third joins them, and instead of fleeing, they prance about in the low trees, spooking a few other birds, including a yellow-bellied thrasher and a catbird. They always seem gregarious and friendly, but I realize that’s my own human-mammal precept. The low altitude of the stunted forest here keeps them from flying to higher branches—but, more to the point, they evolved without the sort of predators that might make them want to.

The dry scrub, sand as white and fine as that of a Gulf beach, projects a very unique look, not unlike a rolling desert with a patina of green. The diversity of plants and animals is far less than in the swamp down at the base of the slope. But what’s here is special, sometimes even endemic, like the jays.

"Rock Cub" Spring

The northern edge of the Lake Wales Ridge trails through this forest, allowing us a look at one of the most endangered natural systems in our country. Author John McPhee, who has taught me so much about the joys of detailed observation, was one of the first non-Floridians to celebrate the values of the scrub in his book “Oranges”. Thirty and forty years earlier, author M. K. Rawlings described the feeling of this scrub in several novels. (In her incarnation, it was harsh and unforgiving to settlers who homesteaded it, more a man-against-uncaring-force-of-nature reality than an ecological lesson.)

We are walking across what is mapped as “Sulphur Island”, an ancient shoal from a distant prehistoric sea, a relic of a couple of square miles that first pushed up from the blue and then, with other islands, coalesced into The Ridge. A study once characterized Sulphur Island as “sandhill karst” hiding the uplifted limestone of the Floridan Aquifer below.

Our upward jaunt is just a warm-up, a prelude to our plans to follow the sloping terrain downward, all the way to the bottom of the hardwood swamp below. There, with the wetlands nearly dry from drought, we hope to trace the more defined creeks, maybe find some new springs that otherwise would be drowned by the swamp. It is the “sandhill karst” that makes this so: While some water seeping out of the springs has been in the limestone for decades—longer, even—the porous scrubland is excellent recharge that allows new rains to quickly revitalize the springs of the swamp.

A couple more miles takes Steve and I across the last of the white sand, and down a steep slope to the edge of the soggy landscape. There is a spring here we have visited for several years, one not on a trail, but which can be found by carefully watching the landmarks—all of which change over time:  A tall gray snag; a berm of white sand; a blue blaze on a pine raked by the strong claw of a black bear until it bleeds golden sap. Isobars, the lines on the topo map that marks the rise and fall in the land, squeeze up tightly here. Which means the next 30-40 feet are at an angle remarkable for this part of Florida—an angle steep enough to send you in a good foot-first tumble if you try to rush it, as I once did.

Berry-rich Bear scat

The perspective from the top is always one I cherish, though: Standing right at the edge of the steep drop, I look out across the flat swamp below, watch as the shafts of sunlight dance on the fine silica in the run of the spring, prisms of silver and white inside the wondrous jungle of green—geology as alive as the organic walls that surround it.

At the bottom, we circle the large natural limestone boulder that—to me—has always looked like a small bear dipping his head to drink of the clear water that swirls around his paws. In honor of this, we call it variously “Stone Cub” or “Rock Cub” spring. The state of Florida, which only recently charted this spring, reached deep into its prosaic imagination, and named it “Boulder”.

From Rock Cub, we move through the swamp bottom, scrambling up to an old trail that’s tiered mid-slope to give us an easier go. We joke, as usual, about Steve’s reliance on maps and gadgetry, and my paleolithic insistence on paying attention to the way the landscape unfolds around us for clues. Either way, we’ve really only have been lost a couple of times really good, and never for more than a few hours.

We talk about what we see and have seen, the scrub jays, the flow of the little spring, the new pile of bluish nuts that is fresh bear scat, the way we are so fortunate to have such a place like this, ever so close to bumper-to-bumper traffic and deadening sprawl. We speak of naturalist Bartram, as we usually do, and wonder—as one of Steve’s students recently asked—why he never mentions the very-prevalent sweet gum tree, and only once lists it in an inventory of plants.

Steve’s new grad course is “The Song of Creation from Walt Whitman to Ernesto Cardenal”, and will rely on the energy of Whitman’s own keystone epic to help explain how others have woven their own stories into a mystic celebration of self, of nature, of transcendence of geography and time.  I have only started reading Cardenal, a Nicaraguan priest who once studied under Thomas Merton—an activist not content to simply write lyrics when his own country was being trundled by powerful bullies. Whitman, the true democratic poet of nature and spirit,  once wrote: “I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable”.  A century later, Cardenal and others said the same, men and women with enough true courage to jostle the stasis of  their time. And, what is the point of deep feeling if you can’t take it beyond the elitism of poetry, music, art ?

Walt Whitman, 1854

All this resonates so deeply with me, especially now that we’re inside a prehistoric terrain, a moist bottomland that—having resisted burns—reasserts itself to us, to anyone who cares to fully absorb it. Steve, not content to rely on his academic credentials or his classroom “performances”, knows the value of “feeling” the wildness of a place, and is not afraid to express it.

I sympathize with it all because I too am not a bit tamed— nor always translatable. And I take great joy in that because the landscape now surrounding me is likewise situated: To fully know the worth of the complex scrub, the karst, the swamp is to appreciate what can not always be translated—but which certainly can be deeply felt. It is the senses that do that.

And onward we go, next locating another spring, one marked by the upland plateau of an open field rimmed by piney woods. This one is not on a trail, either. It is one that—because of the elegant sweetgum trunk that arches out from one edge—we once named “Sweetgum.” (The state, as rich in imagination as a shelf of auto parts at Wal-Mart, then charted it as “Mud.”)

"Sweetgum Spring"

From Sweetgum, we move carefully along the northern shore, stepping on fallen branches and stumps to keep from sinking into the green and soggy morass that was, until just recently, covered with water. I’m heartened to see so many of the rare Needle Palms growing in great clutches, to see the many ways mosses and lichens colonize the snags and the trunks.

There is a creek running through here that transports the outflows from several small springs, and it is called Sulphur Run. (In turn, it confluxes with the Blackwater, and then later the Wekiva and the St. Johns.) Reports have hinted that Sulphur Run—which can, during high water, be formidable—simply flows out of a swamp. Given the karst limestone that holds sway over this landscape, though, I have always believed it arose from a spring, or series of springs.

Needle Palm

And so, we stumble along in this mostly dark swamp, down here for almost three hours now. When light does penetrate, it filters through the canopy,  flashing on the quartz and fossil shards in the spring runs. If the upland scrub—bright and airy—is a natural atrium, then this is the monastery, cool and sacred, cypress knees a choir that seems ready to burst into a Gregorian chant at any moment.

Suddenly, the creek we follow unexpectedly changes course and flows upstream instead of down! Somehow, a branch has sluiced away, and that means the two-pronged juncture of its leaving  may lead to a new spring.

We agree to split up and each follow one of the prongs of the run, and to meet back here in five minutes. And off we go, the soft organic animal that is the swamp swallowing up any sound of movement before we are barely  a hundred feet apart.

Sabal Palm Trunk Springs

And then finally, when I am back in so far that I have lost track of which direction will lead me home with any certainty, I see it. It is small but deep, and water is magically rising up to it, surging from under a toppled sabal palm trunk. It is a spring, one not yet mapped. I shout out to Steve with excitment, but am not sure if he hears me or not.  There is yet another flowing rill nearby, and I’m compelled to follow it. I do, and within minutes, I find a second new spring—this one rising up from a dark hole in the floor of the swamp, augmented with a nearby seep flavored with the pungent scent of white, sulfur-rendering bacteria.

Steve and I soon regroup, and we more closely examine the new “vents”. Steve takes a GPS reading, and we then name each: “Sabal Trunk Spring”, and —for the very last upstream spring with the sulfur smell—“Sulphur Run Head Spring.”  They are modest vats of transparent water upwelling from the rock and humus, creating runs alive with gambusia and killifish, flowing ever onward, towards an eventual rendezvous with the sea itself. It is the same sea that once accrued the limestone, porous rock that enfolds the hydrology piping each cryptic vein of water to the surface, guiding it from the darkness to the light.


It is understandable that others have figured the swamp itself was the headwaters of this run. Its inundation—except for just now—has hidden its secrets very well, indeed.

And I smile broadly at the primeval greenscape of vines and palms and ferns around me, smile in great appreciation and Thanksgiving— for the companionship of a true friend, for the tacit desire to go beyond the safe and ordinary, for the gift of never having sought comfort in being tamed or translatable, simply because we are told to be so.

And finally, I wish a silent but ineffably earnest Thanksgiving for all—especially those deep hearted souls who are always out there, seeking the next clear spring hidden away in the emotional landscape of myth— never worrying how well the search translates, just sure that in some way, it always will.

I have been scuba diving for years now, and the mysteries of the sea that have come to most captivate me are not the large sharks or the sea turtles or even the giant rays that glide through the water like prehistoric birds. Instead, it is the tiny coral polyp and the great castles of limerock it builds for itself.  

It is for this reason I often go into the ocean at twilight, just as the polyp—looking like a tiny anemone—emerges from its scup in the star and brain and elkhorn coral to feed. It does so by capturing plankton, specks of plants and animals that ride oceanic currents.

Once a year, by late summer, these same corals will also bulge with great promise in the full blackness of the night. That promise is realized as an annual spawn in which eggs—or packets of eggs and sperm—push up from each polyp until they pulse at the surface.

And then, when nature plays a secret chord, the eggs and packets burst at once from the reef, as if fired by a volley of tiny militia. The sea around me will be filled with new life, and these tiny miracles and all they portend will float away with the current until the precise moment when the egg transforms to animal and forever sinks to the bottom, where a new reef will be born.

Corals have been building reefs like this for nearly 400 million years. But, as usual, us land mammals are just now catching on. It wasn’t until the early 18th century that a French scientist discovered  coral wasn’t a plant at all—nor was it a rock, as some believed. Indeed, it was a very complex animal that  was so delicate it could be distressed by a change of a few degrees, or by a few milligrams of toxins.

It is great irony that just as we are now learning about our corals,  we are also in jeopardy of losing them: Reefs in the Florida Keys and offshore Southeast Florida have been declining in health over the last 20 to 30 years because of human impacts–from nutrient loading to ship groundings to overfishing.

There is, of course, some good news in that we’re also learning to repopulate ailing reefs with grafts of live coral. And with a new awareness of how upland pollutants find their way downstream to the shallow reefs, we are trying to improve the water quality that sustains the coral animals.

This knowledge is critical since the reefs here underpin an economy that—according to a Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission study—results in $4.3 billion a year in tourism and fisheries. Other benefits, such as creating an underwater limerock berm that keeps our islands from washing away, are difficult to compute, but are no less real.

As for context, it helps to know our reefs occupy less than one half of one percent of our oceans here on this “Blue Planet.” Yet, they nurture the great majority of animals which must spend time there feeding, breeding, resting and hiding.

In Florida,  coral reefs and the currents that affect them have been woven into written maritme history from the very first: Explorer Juan Ponce DeLeon paid close attention since they affected navigation—and could also provide food. DeLeon also “discovered” a strong current that surged out of the Gulf of Mexico and, after confluxing with other powerful oceanic drifts, became the “Gulf Stream.” This Stream could be used to carry galleons and corsairs up the Florida coast, and sent them back to the Old World. As a diver, I sometimes rode this current myself on “drift dives” off W. Palm Beach, twitching my fins in its three knot current to steer, not needing to do much else.

The icon of Key West literary history, Ernest Hemingway, once wrote of taking his boat out into ”the great blue river” to fish for marlin and swordfish. “Papa” may not have seen a coral reef in its annual nocturnal spawn, but I’m guessing he understood the sways of the currents and tides very well. He surely saw the way both the terrestrial keys—as well as the reefs—were sliced into “spur and grove” formations because the upstream currents had surged through them for so long. The knowledge of that was unmistakable, etched deeply into the dry limerock and offshore corals.

And now, there are those politicians and oil industry shills who would allow near-shore oil drilling in the Gulf and the Florida Straits. They argue new sources of domestic crude will make Florida more prosperous, and of course, keep us “nationally secure.” This is a terrifically bogus argument since it doesn’t even begin to tell the full story. All the modern technology in the world won’t keep destructive storms from plummeting rigs or tankers. Nor will it resolve routine mishaps that will spill crude into the water. The potential for disaster is great—with a reality that can economically devastate  Florida. In this scenario, we would become less stable, and our vital natural maritime system would crumble.  “National security”—which in the Big Oil-Lewis Carroll Delusion that squanders more finite fossil fuel—would be rendered less, because our domestic economy would be trashed.

The great blue river of a current will wash—as it always has—across the Florida Keys, and northward, along the southern Florida coast. It will be strong and sure, and no slick political rhetoric will dilute its energy. Whatever enters this current will be transported by it—including crude oil. Our complex reef system, already under great stress, will suffer yet a new insult, one it’s unlikely to survive.

To argue an economic case *for* drilling requires a full telling of the larger truth. It’s a truth that explorers and scientists and writers have known for centuries: What is upstream always flows down.

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