God's Country

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

Nature Man takes a machete and hacks a palm frond from its tree. He chops the tips off the leaves. Then he uses this to fan the flames of our campfire. As he works, Jackson talks about the mercury and phosphorus and the other toxins coursing through the vast Everglades. I answer with an offhand comment about those Big Sugar bastards and those other pesticide-happy farmers and everyone else using poisons to enhance their profits. "But we don't even know," Jackson says, "if that's where it's coming from. No one knows."

Later I would read in the newspaper about the ninth annual Everglades Coalition Conference, a gathering of the high and mighty -- from ecologists to politicians -- to discuss the water flow and other swamp problems. Here all these assorted humans (who probably know much more about the Glades than I ever will) tried to figure out how to fix what the yahoos that came before them screwed up. The canal system dug to rearrange the water flow is one such great idea that's nearly killed the River of Grass, and I wonder if in trying to fix it some idiot will decide to dig more canals. God needs our help like Jesus needed a hole in the hand.

But there are no newspapers out here, no television sets or VCRs, no hockey games. Bats fly over the lake, darting in a way that makes them easily distinguishable from any bird. There is a rustle in the bushes, the gurgle of the water all around, the buzz of bugs, the universe of stars and that fat full moon. "This is real nice," I say, my conversational vocabulary worn down by the day's activities.

"Yeah. Why don't we sleep out here?" Before I can answer, Jackson is back at it with his machete, chopping several large fronds and placing them on the ground on either side of the fire. He lugs his sleeping gear out and plops it atop one of the frond mattresses. How civilized. I sit and stare into the darkness A "What was that? You hear that?" Every crinkle of leaves resounds. If I weren't so eager to see a panther or bobcat or rattlesnake, I'd be terrified.

All Jackson hears is the roar of mosquitoes. "Sounds like a dragstrip." It's too loud to sleep outside. The owl's howl pierces the night. Something scurries in the brush.

When we move inside the cabin, Jackson offers the first warning of the entire trip. "If a bear comes to the door," he says, "you go out that window and I'll go out that one. Then run like hell." To this day I don't know if he was joking.

The next morning we cleaned up the campsite, scoped around, walked and walked. The hoots were hard to come by on our ride back to civilization, the laughter left behind with the turtle eggs and orchids and lost knives. It is mid-morning and only a few minutes into the return trip when I spot the first roadkill A a big water snake. In a short stretch, maybe a half-mile, I see 30 to 40 dead snakes on the Trail, including a Florida king snake. "We shoulda been right here last night, we could've seen all these when they were alive," I say, making a mental note to return to this spot at night. Way up ahead I see an unusual cloud formation. As we get closer, we realize it is smoke. A merciless fire is raging on Loop Road, a few hundred yards from the Trail. This upsets Jackson; he curses the fire and shakes his head, notes that there have been no thunderstorms, so lightning couldn't have caused this destructive blaze. A human hand, no doubt. Tom and I feel the same about this: God damn it.

Halfway back we eye another roadkill. Jackson stops the pickup truck and slams into reverse. We pull over next to it. An adult otter. It's a heartbreaking thing to see, and it smells awful, though even in death it is a magnificent animal. It doesn't look a damn thing like a melaleuca, and the corpse mocks the joy I would've felt if a car hadn't beaten me to an encounter with the creature.

One dead otter on one trip -- even compared to the family of otters I used to see out there twenty years ago -- doesn't mean much in the big picture. Joe Podgor told me later, however, that wildlife sightings reflect the "outward signs of the health of the whole thing." Just imagine, he suggested, what goes on underneath all that water. "It's not just what you see," he said. "There are whole communities of life under the water. This Wayne's World is a bad, dangerous, damaging idea."

Just about everything humans have done in the swamp has proved to be bad and dangerous and damaging. I could care less if you people have to pay out millions of dollars you shouldn't have to. I could care less whether you people have enough clean drinking water.

And you could probably care less if I ever get to see a Florida panther. Maybe I could rent a videotape depicting wildlife in the Everglades, watch it on a television set. And I guess Wayne Huizenga is the only God we need around here.

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