God's Country

Live alligators. Dead snakes. Howling owls. About the only thing the Everglades doesn't have is a bright future.

The superficial view from the paved pathways humanity cut through the jungle provides some visual stimulation. Never before this winter had I seen so much bird activity in the Glades. You'd think this would foster some optimism, but Joe Podgor later told me such sightings are deceptive. "What you're seeing there are clusters," he explained. "It's not a growth explosion. Birds gather at spots in colonies. And for every one you see, add ten. That's how it would have been in the Thirties, according to a 1978 study. So for each one you see, maybe add twelve or thirteen to get an idea of how many should be there. That's why saving the Glades is an emergency." Just driving around with Lenny I marvelled at the relative abundance of anhingas (also known as water turkeys or snake birds), ibis, herons, egrets, hawks. Vultures try to keep up with the roadkill A that's one bird that never wants for food. On my latest trips I saw a few osprey, an endangered wood stork, and a member of the secretive, rarely seen bittern family. Even so, I wish it were still the Thirties.

But there's more beyond the asphalt, beyond the birds and gators and roadkills. The problem Lenny and I faced was finding a suitable spot to pull over. It's not feasible to park on the shoulder and then try to fight through the thick vegetation along the edge of the road. It'd take a machete to get into the jungle that way, and as soon as you did you'd find yourself in water. Puddles, ponds, moats, streams -- most of the ground itself is topped by a foot or two of water. That's why they call 'em wetlands.

Right then we were just trying to feel some of it before it's gone. Finally we saw a break in the wall of vegetation, a gravelly little road. We turned there -- right into a construction project, an ugly splotch where various heavy-equipment vehicles were parked. Lenny and I didn't dwell on the irony. Cruising south we noticed the levee that runs parallel to 27. From there we could explore plenty without even getting our feet wet. We spotted another dirt road. Lenny took a right. Up on the levee, silhouetted by the setting sun, were three men with large weapons. Looked like shotguns. "The hell," Lenny spat. "We can see this in the city."

Men with guns out here today likely means fewer birds to see (alive) tomorrow. But guns are not the biggest killers lurking in the swamp. All those poisons -- mercury has been shown to have killed at least one panther -- go unseen, and then there are the Mercurys and Fords and Chevys and Volkswagens for which the asphalt paths were cut through the jungle in the first place. On the trips I made to the Glades with Lenny and others for this story, seeing a panther would likely have entailed seeing a panther roadkilled. That would be something -- something horrible. If it's true there are three dozen of the big cats left, it's equally true that three dozen won't lead to 72 of them, it'll lead to eighteen. And then zero. That's the math of environmental desecration. You've already read too much about it, how the panthers need great expanses of land, the difficulties of their breeding....

When Daryl and I were teenagers and we'd go out the Trail to bowfish and catch snakes and just be there, we'd see all kinds of stuff, though never a panther. One time we happened to be sitting on the bank of the canal that runs along the Trail when a family of otters appeared in the water before us like some magical chorus line. But more entertaining.

We just sat there and watched as the otters floated around on their backs, dived deep into the murky water, and generally made fools of themselves for our amusement. Not to anthropomorphize, but I mean that literally: The fuzzy brown aquatic mammals made it quite obvious by their behavior that they enjoyed having an audience. Most of the times we stopped at that location, the otters would be there, awaiting their cue.

If I could only see something like that again, maybe they would change their minds and not build Blockbusterland, not build any more Chapel Trails, not destroy my back-yard paradise. Not just me, actually. If everyone could feel the surge of adrenaline, the thrill of discovery, the utter joy of encountering life -- otters, bobcats, panthers, bugs -- then maybe the bastards wouldn't be able to get away with raping the Glades. We'd stop them. I'd rather see one live otter in the swamp than 100 hockey games. I don't understand why there can't be room for both. I can't understand why others don't feel the same. I can't believe any God would design a world this way.

Heavy philosophy aside, Lenny and I agreed that we found adventuring around city-slicker style in the swamp to be refreshing and invigorating. We didn't see any rattlesnakes or bobcats or anything outrageous like that, but we'd still be willing to buy a bumper sticker reading A BAD DAY IN THE SWAMP IS BETTER THAN A GOOD DAY IN THE CITY. And we will make more trips in the future. For now, I needed a more serious effort, a trip deep into the Glades with an expert, so I could really prove there's something out there worth saving.

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