“If a baby rattler gets inside your house, just sweep it out with a broom,” Alan, the head of Pine Island Interpretation tells me. I am neighbors with the deadly coral snake, who likes to sunbathe under blue skies. If I’m bitten, no trip to the hospital will help. I’ll be a goner. For this month, I’ll also be sharing my backyard with several species of lizard and butterfly, and more mosquitoes than anyone would want. When I talked to Alan, over the phone, and told him June was the first month I had available to come to Everglades National Park to do some research as a writer/artist-in-residence, he said, “Are you sure you want to come in June?”
“Why? Is it that bad?” I replied.
Later, after I’d already arrived, right after he’d told me about the rattlers and the coral snake, he said, “You’re brave to come in June,” handing me a bag of naturalist books and a hooded bug jacket, complete with face mask.
I’ve come here to spend time in a land where my family lived for a year – Miami, Florida, and the National Park that spreads out to the west of it. I decided I needed to visit places I mention in the amorphous two hundred page manuscript that has piled high on my desk over the last year. I decided before I could write more, I needed to know what it was like to walk on the hard limestone crust covered with grass that Floridians call a lawn. I needed to understand a deep love for air conditioning. I decided I need to revisit nearby Fairchild Gardens, Parrot Jungle, eat tart key lime pie, and fall in love with a heartbreakingly beautiful ecosystem that might be damaged beyond repair.
The third day, I am half expecting to find a baby rattler or perhaps a coral snake, but instead, I hear a quick tapping on the wall of the bathroom. I look up. Eight legs. A leaf-green spider as big as my hand. I go into the living room and come back armed with a stiff folder and a large piece of Tupperware, which don’t seem like likely tools, but they’re the best I can find. Although I am fast, this spider is faster. Here, there, and all over the bathroom in a few seconds flat. I put down the envelope and Tupperware, resigned to try again later. I take a shower, aware that the spider might be thirsty. I towel off. The spider has not moved. Later on that night, after another stiff envelope and Tupperware incident, I resolve that I will probably never catch the spider. It’s too large to smush, even if I could catch it. It seems more mammalian than arachnid. If I smush it, there will be blood and tissue, guts, like a mouse. Not at all like a spider.
Outside, the humidity fills my mouth like a wet rag. Outside, I sweat as a matter of course. The lightweight, long-sleeved shirt and pants I wear like a uniform don’t shield me from the bugs after the fabric, soaked with sweat, sticks to my skin, despite my whole-body spray of deep woods OFF.
On my trips into the park, I venture out of my house with the attitude of an explorer. In my backpack, I bring field guides, water, and binoculars. Down the causeway, I ride my bike, looking for herons, marsh rabbits, alligators, fish, snakes, anything else that reminds me where I am.
My neighbor, a poet and park volunteer, tells me she likes to visit Anhinga Trail regularly, daily if possible, to see what’s changed. I’ve taken to her routine and notice there’s always something different – a splashing marsh rabbit, a collection of birds I haven’t seen before, butterfly orchids, newly in bloom. This day, I notice just off the trail, a mess of reeds has been shaped into a mound. On top, a large alligator egg lies exposed. I peer into the reeds, hoping to catch a glimpse of the mother, but the nest appears to have been abandoned. Perhaps against my better judgment, I peer more closely into the cattails that line the path. No gator. No mother.
The next day, when I ride my bike over to the Pine Island interpretation office to check mail and report the abandoned nest, the rangers are already on it. “A teen pregnancy situation,” Alan says. “She didn’t pick a good spot to build her nest, and the raccoons got to it. Still, there are some eggs that might be ok.”
One of the other rangers chimes in that I should have seen the bellowing mother chasing Alan down the trail. “She chased you?” I ask.
He nods. “She was not happy.” Since I met Alan, he’s had one arm in a cast that he keeps outstretched at a 90 degree angle to his body. Motorcycle accident. Alan running with his cast-encased arm outstretched only adds humor to the scene I imagine.
In Alan’s office, I sit in a chair next to the door, and ask him to explain the water to me. “I know there’s not enough,” I say, but that’s all I know.
He points to a scientific-looking map on the wall and starts talking about levees and canals and a delicate balance. Delicate is a word often used to describe the Everglades ecosystem. Everything operates in relation to its environment – the food chain, the water table, the mercury level in the fish. Still, when the Valujet plane crashed into the Shark River Slough in 1998, one of the rescue workers, hot, sunburned, eaten by bugs, and cut up from the sawgrass is quoted as saying, “there is nothing delicate about the Everglades.”
After the impromptu lecture, I don’t feel like I know any more about water. The people here – the rangers, the naturalists, and anyone who cares – talks in a desperate way about water. The way people who live in the desert talk about water. But here, it looks like there is plenty. The issue seems to be about balance. When there’s not enough freshwater, saltwater intrusion threatens the freshwater aquifers. If water is released from the elaborate system of dykes, levees, and canals at the wrong time, alligator nests can flood. The water that flows south to the Everglades from Lake Okeechobee – as it always has — can become rich with nitrates from farm runoff, making way for cat tails and the wrong kind of algae. And of course, there are the fish full of mercury. Ten years ago, one of the few remaining Florida panthers was found dead, poisoned by mercury. He’d eaten a raccoon that had eaten too many fish, the mercury concentrating in the top of the food chain. But from what I can tell, that’s not related to the water problem. It’s like the issue of invasive species – important, but just one of many looming reasons the Everglades is in trouble. Later in my month, when I give a reading to a boat full of chemistry PhD students, they’ll tell me I’ve oversimplified, that I don’t – that maybe I can’t – understand the Everglade’s water issues.
When, a day later, I return to the Anhinga Trail, orange netting prevents tourists from approaching the nest. A sign reads “Wildlife nesting habitat. Do not disturb.” The nest looks the same. I wonder if any of the baby gators will hatch. The water level is rising, and no gators are out sunbathing. It’s the beginning of the wet season. I’ve been told that as the water level rises, the wildlife disappear, dispersing into the slough. I scan the surface of the lake and double check with binoculars to see if a stick disturbing the surface of the water might be a gator. The green heron babies grow larger, and they are less cautious, walking out on the branch of the pond apple, perhaps thinking about their first flight.
While I work, while I read, and increasingly, while I sleep, the spider is in residence. Sometimes in the bathroom. Sometimes, to my surprise, in other parts of the house. When one of the rangers also in charge of building and grounds comes by to check on me, I show her the spider, then high on a wall in the bathroom. “Is it dangerous?” I ask.
She nods her head no. “A daddy long leg,” she says.
“A daddy long leg!” I say. It looks nothing like the daddy long legs I knew growing up in Pennsylvania. This spider could eat ten of those daddy long legs for a snack.
“Maybe a subtropical one?” I suggest, but she doesn’t seem interested, and instead wants to know if I have enough pans in the kitchen and if my bike lock is sufficient. To her, perhaps spiders – even large ones – are just something to live with in South Florida.
One day, I borrow a park truck to drive down to Flamingo, another end of the park. While moseying through the visitor center, reading the plaques and the history, I meet a group of tourists: two men and a pre-adolescent boy. They are all wearing long sleeved shirts, hats, and pants. “Have you seen a ranger around here?” they ask me. It’s the slow season, and the rangers, I’ve noticed, occasionally attend to things other than the vacant information desk. “I saw one earlier,” I say. “I’m sure she’ll be back.”
“We’re getting ready to head out camping,” the man with the long, white beard says. He has a map in his hands that marks different canoe trails through the surrounding islands and canals.
“I wanted to do that,” I say, “but everyone told me it was the wrong season. Too many mosquitoes.” I remember the sign at the entrance to the park, like the fire signs out west, post the mosquito hazard on a daily basis: from annoying to crazy.
“We know it’s going to be bad, like a weed cutter in your ear. The rangers told us not to go, but we’re from Minnesota,” the man with the white beard says. Then the three of them show me the rubber bands they’ve used to secure their wrist and ankle cuffs. The boy looks less than enthusiastic.
I read more field guides. I read Man in the Everglades, about the history of trappers, hunters, and outlaws who subsisted off the land before it became a national park. I read about how the plume trade almost demolished the wading bird population. When I come across a mosquito tip sheet, I realize I already know them: open and shut doors quickly, move briskly except when there’s a wind. Stay in open, bright areas, off grass, away from shade, where mosquitoes often hide. Wear a hat, socks, long sleeves, sunscreen, bug spray.
Week two or three, the spider moves into my bedroom. At first, I am anxious, and then, perhaps after too much reading and time alone, I am reassured by its friendly animal presence and consider accepting it as my roommate. (Do I have a choice?) For the first time, when I finish reading and before I turn off the light, I look up to green bulb surrounded by eight tiny sticks in the far corner of my room and say, “goodnight.”
I find a canoe partner. Allyson the ranger and I haul a canoe out of an open air porch where the flies, mosquitoes and ants are so thick both Allyson and I put up the hoods and face covers on our bug jackets. We lift the canoe, carrying it to a sloping bank, where we set it on the water.
We paddle out to the first mudflat, and Allyson points out the birds. “Willet, black stilt, white heron, blue heron, white egret, tricolor heron, reddish egret.” I look through my binoculars at the birds, all different colors, doing various activities, some looking, some probing at the mud with their beaks, some flapping their wings. We watch, paddle a little farther, and amuse ourselves with the redfish and mullet jumping in front of us. It’s hot, and I’m sweating through my light-colored long pants and long-sleeved shirt, even though I’ve adapted to the weather some: at least now, I expect to sweat. And I don’t have the delusion that there’s any way to avoid it.
We steer left around the bend to “snakebite”, an area of the Florida Bay where Allyson says there is usually good bird watching.
Allyson looks farther away through her binoculars. “Are those?” she says. “I think those are flamingoes.” Wild flamingoes are a rare find down at the Flamingo ranger station. No one knows why, but they don’t nest in the bay any more. We paddle until we are fairly close to the flamingoes. “Twenty three,” she says. I don’t even try to count. I just trust her.
Then the flamingoes turn around and begin walking towards us. We are in awe. They stop twenty feet from us, making their strange ha ha noises and extending their long necks as they look around. They look almost like aliens I think, tall and thin and intelligent-seeming. And in this other-worldly place, that makes sense. I take a picture, but it is the last one. The camera noisily begins to rewind the film, and I hide the camera under a fleece in my bag to try to muffle the sound. The birds don’t seem to notice. They are beautiful, elegant, gangly. They look nothing like the flamingoes I saw just a few weeks ago at Parrot Jungle. A plane goes by, and then Allyson and I realize that we can even hear the highway from here.
We watch the birds for a while longer. Then Allyson takes a picture, and her camera also noisily starts rewinding the film. We laugh a little, but the birds are unfazed. We gaze out to the horizon where the water and the land are the same color.
“Well, I hate to say it, but we probably ought to get going,” Allyson says.
“Aww,” I say, but just then, almost like they heard us, the flamingoes turn around and begin to walk away from us, towards the other end of the mud flat.
“It’s like they heard us,” Allyson says.
Paddling back, we can see the tide advancing towards us. A horseshoe crab scuttles across the bay floor. Then we pass by a blue crab just floating around in the water. “Can they swim?” I ask. “I thought they were always on the bottom.”
A month in the park has left me with more questions than answers. Sure, I have a better sense of the setting for my book, but there are so many plants and animals to learn about down here that even a ranger doesn’t know all the answers. Two nurse sharks swim back and forth in front of us. When we paddle close, they make a splash as they scram out of the way. The reddish egret is still poised on the farthest mudflat, the same one we saw her on when we paddled by. Most of the other birds have left, following the tide and the food as it comes in. As we reach the bend where snakebite cove ends, we catch a glimpse of the eyes and snout of a gator before it disappears under water. Allyson tells me a story about the key in front of us, named goat key. There was a man who kept goats on it. It was difficult for him to come back and forth to shore to get fresh water for them, so he decided to wean the goats onto salt water. Of course, the goats died. I am realizing many of the stories about original settlers are similar to stories of the Old West. There are bandits and outlaws, nontraditional thinkers, poor people, Indians, bootleggers, and criminals, all looking for a better life and a way to live off the land. Peter Mathiessen wrote a novel based on the rumored killer Edgar J. Watson, an outlaw and pioneer who lived for years in the nearby Ten Thousand Islands.
Perhaps not that much has changed. Perhaps the Everglades, now subject to a contrived flow of water from the North, courtesy of engineers, are still the wild area Glen Simmons describes in his book. Gladesmen is an account of people—almost wholly men–who lived in and off of the Florida frontier before the formation of the National Park. These were men who knew their way by heart through a mangrove forest, hunted wading birds and gators because there were plenty, and were often isolated from other humans for weeks and months at a time. A local still living near the glades, Simmons has written on the title page of my book, next to his signature, “Truer than the Bible.”
I have been in the habit of riding my bike in the late afternoon or evening, after the heat has died down. Even then there are a lot of bugs, but I can handle them, especially when I know my destination: Anhinga Trail. Each day, there are discoveries: the newly empty nest, absent of baby green herons. Finally, they’ve flown. The silky pink blooms of the pond lilies. After a prescribed burn: a single black alligator amid singed sawgrass. A marsh rabbit diving into the water. A lone hawk perched on a snag. The orange and purple rays of sun setting in the background. I know when I stop to show my soon-to-expire artist pass at the gate, the man behind the glass will make waving motions from his air conditioned cubicle to signal I have bugs on my face. I’m not surprised. I shrug. I am used to them.
Gladeswoman originally appeared in The Wanderlust Review.