God's Country

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

To me it was one of the coolest things I'd seen in 30 years of visiting the Everglades, but Lenny is from Queens. He didn't even want to stop the Honda for a closer look. I tried to be understanding of my urbanite pal -- we had been cruising around the Glades for hours, darkness had fallen, and twenty minutes earlier he had come within a foot of stepping on a medium-size alligator....

"Lenny, turn this damn car around right now!"
We were cruising east on the Tamiami Trail, still about 40 or 50 miles from the nearest strip mall, having just left the Oasis Visitor Center in the Big Cypress Preserve; there we had munched picnic-style on crab salad and French bread as the sun set over the vast verdancy. The Oasis, which offers information and a couple of portable toilets for road-weary Trailers, also boasts a large, grassy yard with picnic tables, which is where we sat and ate dinner. About 50 yards away was an elongated and active pond, where two large egrets and one great blue heron danced along the bank, fishing for their dinner, all gawky concentration and gorgeous plumage. Lenny strolled over toward the tall birds. Reaching the bank, he froze, called my name, and began walking backward. I jumped up to see what caused this unusual (even for Lenny) behavior -- shiny black gator lounging on the bank.

Soon after leaving the Oasis we were riding east in the dark. We came up on it too fast to stop. It looked like a water snake, I'd guess a green water snake because that's one of the few species to reach such a large size, about four or five feet long and several inches in girth. The snake was coiled in the center of the lane, and Lenny's Honda passed over it without so much as a squish. "You just went right over a big snake, Len," I mentioned, devoting my attention to the pavement in hopes of seeing more life. Any sighting is encouragement.

Immediately, perhaps 25 yards farther on, I spotted another gargantuan water snake. Stretched out rather than coiled, the snake was clearly more than four feet long. That's two! But Lenny refused to even slow down. I spotted a third, another lunker green water snake. And then another -- four of the biggest snakes you'll see out there, all within about a 100-yard span, all absorbing the sun's warmth held by the asphalt on this chilly December night. That's when I made Lenny turn around and go back for a look.

I wanted to see, I wanted Lenny to see, I want everyone to see what these sons of bitches are destroying, these developers and polluters and poachers and everyone else who treats the closest paradise to me like a sewer. I visit the Glades as often as possible, which isn't all that often any more, but I do so for my own amusement and edification, the thrill I get from experiencing natural life. This time, though, I had a clear mission: Go out there and report back what I saw. What's there now. What won't be there tomorrow. By visiting the River of Grass with a relative neophyte (Lenny), I might get an idea of how outsiders view it, and remind myself again of its value.

As far as the snakes go, I admit I'm into them. I think someone from Queens, anyone from the city, should find it fairly exciting to see a large, live snake in its natural habitat, but then again, people are funny about one of nature's most amazing designs, a type of animal so perfect for its environment it's almost enough to make you believe in a God.

It wasn't some PBS documentary, but the Everglades up close and in person that first let me indulge my fascination for the legless reptiles. Many years ago, I would often travel out the Trail with my friend Daryl Smith, who, unlike me, was old enough to drive. A typical summer afternoon consisted of Daryl and me scrounging up a few dollars for gas money, filling a plastic jug with water in case the car overheated, grabbing a couple of homemade snake sticks (a mop handle with a no-sharp-edges hook attached), and then bolting due west.

Sometimes we'd take a bagload of snakes we'd collected to the old Serpentarium in South Dade as a donation. One time we tussled with a five-foot Florida king snake tangled in a root hole three feet from the hurtling Trail traffic. (The snake won, escaping into a crevice. We would've had to hurt him to get him, and we had too much respect for king snakes, a species prized among collectors, to do that.) Back then you could park your car on the Rinker access road, not too far out at all, and, after sunset, watch foxes in the clearing as they hunted up frogs and lizards.

Twenty years ago Daryl and I found the Glades near Shark Valley and Big Cypress on the Trail to be so populated with snakes we tended to take the common types for granted, even committing stupid, cruel-kid acts against the harmless animals, or at least certain species we considered inferior. One time there was a particular water snake we wanted to catch in the worst way, which is exactly how we caught it. It was out in the middle of a pond, impossible to snag. So Daryl picked up a large rock and chucked it at the water, beaning the hapless reptile and knocking it unconscious. We carried one snake stick we'd fashioned from a ten-foot wooden curtain rod, long enough to reach out and drag in the bewildered beast.

Another time we were shooting garfish with bows and arrows at a rest stop. (Gar make for easy targets, and whenever we felt guilty about killing them without good reason, we'd recall it wasn't too many years before that there existed a one-cent bounty on gar.) On this occasion a carload of tourists pulled up at the rest stop. Once they realized the two teenagers armed with heavy-duty bows were more interested in whatever was in the water than in them, the tourists moseyed over and expressed curiosity. A water snake swam by at that moment. "Cottonmouth moccasin," Daryl nonchalantly lied to the pink-skinned visitors. Daryl's treble-tip hunting arrow penetrated the snake about two inches below the head. The tourists gasped.

I like to think I learned something over the years. Today I would never do anything that might harm a living animal A not even a water snake A in the River of Grass. Too much has been done to harm them already. A fishing bow is nothing compared to a bulldozer. And I'm nothing compared to H. Wayne Huizenga. He has Panthers -- as in the hockey team -- but I don't. The chances of someone like me eyeballing a Florida panther -- the mammal -- are about as good as the Florida Marlins winning the World Series -- for the next twenty years in a row. While going undefeated. And Charlie Hough pitching a no-hitter in all 162 games.

There's far too much at stake now for any dicking around, for hockey arenas and baseball stadiums and all this other crap we keep hearing about the Glades and urban encroachment and pollution. There are too many experiences yet to be had in the wilderness -- most of my friends have children now -- for anyone to do anything that might cause any damage whatsoever to any part of the Glades. You can banter the facts about wetlands, how they provide so much life and protect against floods and all that. You can try to follow the stupid-ass economic battle over the restoration project; the fight began in 1988, when the federal government filed suit against Florida, demanding that the state do something about sugar growers dumping pollution into the swamp -- and the dispute still continues today in court. You can boycott Blockbuster till you're blue in the brain. You can -- and most likely do -- ignore the whole damn mess.

But I take to heart something I read in a book called The Complete Guide to Life in Florida: "The life expectancy of [Everglades National Park, just one important part of the Everglades and one that is protected by law] in 1990 was estimated at only 5-10 years." It is now 1994.

I told someone that I wanted to show people what it is we're losing, destroying. "Wayne's World? Where he's building there's nothing but melaleucas," retorted one colleague. I was beginning to get an idea of how most people probably feel about the area west of Miramar -- wasteland suitable for paving over.

We can live without the melaleucas, which my brothers and I called paper trees when we were kids. They are useless, evil, destructive trees to be sure, a nonindigenous species imported from Australia that serves no purpose and is nearly impossible to eradicate. Then again, I'll take any tree over a theme park.

The Miami Herald and Broward County's Sun-Sentinel have detailed exactly what Blockbuster has in store for us. The billion-dollar, ten-year project will gobble up some 2500 acres west of Miramar on both sides of the county line. To top it off, Huizenga has also proposed legislation that would allow him to run the park as his own governmental fiefdom. Twice as much land around the proposed site is owned by companies that, the Herald reports, will likely develop there as well. The Blockbuster Sports and Entertainment Complex could spearhead the development of an entire city.

That's what will be there in coming years. Joe Podgor, the executive director of Friends of the Everglades, lives not far from the proposed Blockbuster site. He contends that the area is very much alive -- and worth preserving. Podgor rattles off a list of studies and master plans that have shown the area to be ecologically important. "Wildlife is beside the point," he argues. "If you think that's enough of a reason to protect this area, wait'll you see how important the water is. We're talking about money and drinking water."

The problem is that South Florida does not have enough clean drinking water for its people. Period. And South Florida, especially Broward County, is experiencing population growth. So even more water will be required. When the water from the Wayne's World location will be needed the most, there'll be a theme park there instead; to make matters worse, Podgor says, taxpayers might be turning over a half-billion dollars to Blockbuster in payments to build the stadiums, and in new utility services and roads. Blockbuster lobbyist Ron Book declines to speculate on such costs, but he's open-minded enough to say he has "no objections" to local governments building and owning the sports venues. Dade County has already spent $3.9 million to buy portions of the land from the state for Huizenga's use.

Podgor is hardly alone in his concerns. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has raised questions about the Huizenga site in a two-page missive written last November by field supervisor David L. Ferrell to the Florida Attorney General; the letter acknowledges that the Wayne's World tract is riddled with melaleuca, but says the area qualifies as an important sawgrass wetlands. The zone also includes a fertile hardwood hammock, marshes, a wading bird habitat, and a wood stork rookery. Wood storks, magnificent birds of considerable size and colorful beauty, are endangered. Ferrell warned the state about the "direct loss of the values and functions of on-site wetlands, primarily with respect to wildlife habitat."

All these issues are important, but I just wanted to spy a bobcat or rabbit or raccoon or a king snake.

When Lenny from Queens and I headed out on our primer trip, we talked about what we most wanted to see. I set my sights fairly high. I find owls interesting, awesome even, and you rarely encounter them, even in the deepest, darkest parts of the Glades. It's silly to even think about catching a glimpse of a panther. I told Lenny I'd settle for a bobcat. Of course I wanted to find snakes, particularly the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, one species whose maximum size exceeds the green water snake A by two or three feet. With the exception of a few moccasins and pygmy rattlers, I've never caught a venomous snake, hardly even seen them. All of my selections were long shots. "I don't know," Lenny said. "I'd like to see a hawk. And a raccoon would be good." A few minutes later we spotted a big, mottled hawk that flew over us as we drove into the Miramar area in the heart of Huizenga country. "Cool," Lenny said.

Yes, it was. It reminded me of when I was very young, maybe six or seven, and my father would take me out the Trail for some early-morning fishing. We saw the predatory birds everywhere -- my dad always told me they were "chicken hawks." God, how I remember those dawns in the swamp with my father, all that life, my overwhelming wonderment.

When we wound up near the county line, on both the Turnpike and I-75, Dade and Broward side, all around where Blockbuster Entertainment Park will be, Lenny and I saw the clash of rural beauty and urban encroachment clearly. And the damn theme park isn't even built yet. Heading north on 75, we turned our heads away from the first roadkill -- a fat domestic cat. There were no houses nearby and I wondered silently how the feline got there to die. Bearing west, we saw houses within 100 yards of grazing horses. We ran into a string of fresh developments with names like Spring Valley and Chapel Trail, the landscape trees still braced by support planks. The housing tracts sprouting like warts are suburban; soon, I'm sure, full urbanism will be reached. These are, Lenny informs me, "planned communities." Whose plan is this?

We circled back south, taking U.S. 27, attempting to escape an area where the houses grew closer and closer together. We knew that was no way to go.

There's so much wild land out here, plenty of it, yet not enough. Maybe we just can't see the ecology for the trees. Lenny and I can certainly view FOR SALE signs, stuck in the thick vegetation, as ominous as storm clouds on the horizon. Undeveloped land open to anyone with the money, and zoning clearance, to ruin it.

Only chunks, about twenty percent, of what we call the Everglades -- which once encompassed the southern half of the state -- are "protected" by legislation. Laws prohibit anyone from hunting or harming the flora and fauna within places such as Everglades National Park. The success or failure of enforcement is impossible to gauge, of course, and no law can prevent a car from inadvertently running over a rabbit or snake. And the water, the poisoned lifeblood of the Glades, flows through regardless of laws, bringing its mercury and phosphorus and other pollutants with it. Today the Glades are considered to be all the land inland from coastal development, north from Florida Bay to the Everglades Agricultural Area near Lake Okeechobee. The way things are going, in a few years the Glades will have shriveled to nothing more than Everglades National Park, Big Cypress, the Fakahatchee Strand, and other protected preserves. The rest will be gone, and by then even those places will probably be toxically ruined anyway. Or perhaps they'll be paved over for theme parks.

Bloody 27 might be South Florida's most rural highway, and soon Lenny and I spotted another hawk. "And check out those kingfishers on the power lines," I added. Every so many yards, up on the wires, solitary kingfishers perched, really cool birds with blue and white feathering and dark crests. But for us to see a bobcat or owl or rattlesnake -- or, who knows, a panther -- we needed to get off ol' Bloody and onto an access road or dirt trail. "Lenny, you just can't see it, feel it," I told him, "unless you get out and walk around in it."

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.

In my computer phone file Tom Jackson is listed as "Nature Man." He recently completed his master's work at UM's renowned Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, where he specialized in crocodile ecology. He also spent time researching sea turtles here and in Texas, expanding his already expansive expertises. An energetic marijuana-legalization activist, reggae-music DJ at WVUM, a man who shares his one-bedroom Key Biscayne apartment with two monkey-tailed skinks, nine exotic snakes, and a bird, Jackson has an informed opinion about everything -- from which is the worst beer to buy (he hates Budweiser because, he insists, Bud gives money to the DEA to keep reefer illegal) to how the feral cat problem must be dealt with.

It's an ugly sight. Near the bingo hall at Krome Avenue and the Trail -- yes, there's a gambling parlor in the swamp -- is a boat ramp, where Lenny and I had stopped on our trip. I used to stop there regularly, up until a couple of years ago. That's when I was there one night and, among all the empty trailers hitched to the empty cars, I saw a number of abandoned domestic cats. I guess humans dumped them there in hopes that when the boaters returned, they'd take in the animals. But I'm probably giving humans far too much credit.

Cats dumped out here will struggle to survive in an unnatural habitat, becoming feral, picking up sundry diseases and parasites, and preying on other animals. People may empathize with cats, yet, Jackson notes, "Well, I'm sorry, but these fuzzy, furry animals are unfortunately responsible for the decimation and extermination of animals worldwide. The feral cats should be killed." Ultimately the cats themselves suffer their way to ugly deaths. Maybe that's where they went, because this time Lenny and I saw no signs of any life. We were too close to civilization. And I wanted to get away from it.

If anyone could, Tom Jackson could show me the ideal, real Everglades. "There's this 100-year-old cabin in the Fakahatchee Strand," Jackson told me when I phoned him. "We were there the other night. When we woke up the next morning, we found panther tracks outside. We didn't see the panther, but he was there."

Let's go.
Jackson tells me ahead of time to "wear shoes that tie on and long pants. And you'll want a sleeping bag or something so you don't have to sleep in the rat doody." He says nothing about mosquito repellent (it's winter) or a cellular phone or, God forbid, a gun. When he picks me up for the trip, he's wearing shorts and sandals.

During the two-hour midday trek across the Trail to the Fakahatchee Strand near Everglades City, we feel a vibrancy in the air. At one point I spot a two-foot gator basking on the far bank of the canal, then, within a mile, I notice dozens -- literally dozens -- of gators, all sizes, in similar positions and in clear view. Some people are lucky enough to be out here on a weekday fishing. But Tom feels sorry for them. "Catching fish laden with mercury," he mutters.

I ask Jackson what he'd most like to find on this trip. He says he's already seen a panther, the same one, he later learned, that died from mercury poisoning. I tell him I'd like to see an owl, a bobcat, a rattlesnake. Those things are so soul-stirring, and, yes, I'm willing to do anything short of dying to cross paths with a panther. Nature Man doesn't want to play along, isn't excited about the chase. "I want to see anything I haven't seen before."

Jackson parks the truck near a sign that explains the status of the Florida panther. A young couple stops and reads the sign from their car. Jackson exchanges pleasantries and mentions to the couple that they are reading about ghosts. We load our backs like donkeys, laden with our packs of human necessities -- sleeping bags and warm clothes, some canned food and a few six-packs, toilet paper. Nature Man changes from sandals to hiking boots, we grab our snake sticks. And then we walk. And walk. And walk some more.

The path we take serves as a road, but few vehicles are designed to traverse this grassy swath cut through dense vegetation -- it's broken by deep puddles and mudholes, many as wide as the path itself. The water soaking my jeans up to the thighs is cold and murky. When I try to negotiate a three-inch-wide rise with nasty black mud on one side and thorn bushes on the other, my foot slips into the muck, nearly sucking the high-top right off.

Along a dry stretch of the path I fetch Jackson, who's several paces ahead of me. "Tom, check it out, a turtle, right in the path." Jackson comes back for a look. The turtle is digging. "Don't disturb her," he says, eyeballing the animal. Jackson rattles off some technical scientific stuff about turtle eggs and we move on.

Each time Jackson expresses excitement I get the feeling he's spotted something awesome, like a panther or bobcat or maybe a black bear. "Look at these," the scientist says, turning up a leaf. "These are called tortoise beetles. Isn't that a cool shade of metallic blue? And if you look underneath, see, yellow legs." Yes, I see. Even a bird's food, a tiny insect, can evoke some fascination.

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.

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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