God's Country

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

Jackson tells me there are more indigenous species in this section of the Everglades than anywhere else in the continental United States. (Plenty of endangered ones, too.) The variety of plant life alone is overwhelming. We see a water plant with little yellow flowers. "That's called a bladderwort," Jackson says. "It's kinda neat." The plant has a trap door with "hairs" that, when touched, trip the opening. "The air rushes out and that sucks the water, and whatever's in it, into the bladder," Jackson explains. Another plant freezes Jackson in his tracks. Looks like a weed to me. "This is a rare terrestrial orchid. I'm not sure what it's called, there's so many types of orchids. Each one of those pods on that thing has about 20,000 extremely small seeds in it." That seems like a lot of seeds, and I wonder why the plant is so rare. "To reproduce," the biologist explains, "it has to have sex with a fly." The plants have patterns that resemble flies, the insects attempt to mate or fight with what they think are other flies -- and pollen gets transferred in the process. "There're even some orchids that try to get spiders to mate with them," Jackson adds. We also see a rare arboreal specimen called a ghost orchid. Bromeliads -- air plants, moss, and other flora that use trees for support -- are as common here as scalpers at a big ball game.

To me this trip has been a success so far; the osprey and the hawks Tom and I spotted during our drive over, and the turtle and the wood stork we've seen out here since arriving were impressive enough for me. Jackson seems pleased by the rare bugs and plants he's located. We came across two sets of tracks in the mud, one probably a big raccoon, the other something bigger, so optimism runs high for even more sightings. And we haven't even arrived at the camp.

Once we do, I realize Jackson was being kind in his use of the word "cabin." It's a large, um, building, with four sets of prison cell-style bunks, a big table, a front porch (with swing bench), and a refrigerator. Before I have a chance to ask why there's a fridge so far from electricity, Jackson tells me to put all our food there A to keep the rats and mice from it. "But everything's wrapped," I mention. Jackson laughs. Some of these rodents, Jackson says with a smirk, are so big they can open bean cans with their teeth.

A pier runs out the back to a large pond covered with water hyacinth and water lettuce. Jackson slices chorizo sausage with his Swiss army knife as we watch the sunset from the end of the wood walkway. "This used to be a fine lake," he says. The generous guy who owns this slice of private property within the protected Fakahatchee Strand -- he lets friends use the cabin so long as they keep its location a secret -- wanted to be able to get a boat in. "So he cut a canal through," Jackson says, pointing across the lake. "That let the weeds in...." Just another human slip-up. At least he didn't dig an enormous canal system to rearrange the water flow of the entire Glades.

Jackson sticks a chunk of sausage between wheat bread slices and takes a bite, chases it with a sip of warm Schlitz Bull. He tells me, unnecessarily, to not dangle my legs off the end of the pier. I've already seen the gator path pressed in the hyacinth. Jackson drops his knife, which plunges into the water and disappears into the muck (we never did find it, even when we raked the pond bottom). He goes inside, hunts up a serrated kitchen knife, returns, and accidentally drops that knife in the water. We laugh.

I thought coming out here with a scientist -- a guy who studied crocodiles in Haiti and the Dominican Republic -- would prove informative. It has. I've learned at least two important things: 1) Always remember, if you get too wasted, don't try to eat chorizo in the heart of paradise, and 2) enjoy paradise while you can.

After dark we build a fire. My mudcaked shoes have been abandoned, my socks are soaked, and it's getting damn cold. As he's stacking wood, Jackson steps in a mound of fire ants. Three times. We laugh again.

The mosquitoes are thicker than we thought they'd be, thicker than they have any right to be in winter. I've slathered myself with some Avon Skin So Soft we found in the cabin, so I'm not getting bitten. The moon is full and heavy and brilliant. The stars are as bright as stars can be. The only things human for miles are the airplanes that fly over us once in a while. Jackson is talking about this place he knows where we might be able to find some otters. And then the night is ripped open by the loudest, most resonant scream imaginable. It is the sort of noise that makes the human spine tingle, hair stand, eyes bulge. It's an owl howl. "That's why people think this place is haunted," Jackson says.

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