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Just after sunrise on the last day of the year, gangs of squawking turkey vultures and clowning crows are already working for food in the Royal Palm Hammock parking lot and the adjacent picnic area. A couple of small alligators cruise slowly through the water in a marshy pond; nearby more gators float immobile in the grass at water's edge, along with herons, ibis, great egrets, and other wading birds, all silently hunting. The trees are replete with perched anhingas, whose curved wings hunch out around them like vampires' velvet capes.
The basin's quiet is pierced by the growls of two alligators sparring somewhere in the grass. Then another, softer sound can be heard: a repeated clicking -- katydids? -- and an occasional whirring that could be the humming of a swarm of wasps. But the noise emanates from the paved promenade abutting the pond, where about twenty people -- nearly all of them men -- are clustered. Most are dressed like British envoys to colonial Africa: crisp khaki pants and shirts, safari vests with net compartments and deep pockets. At their feet sit bulging bags stuffed with state-of-the-art gear. They are amateur photographers, and they have gathered here for Royal Palm's morning photo op. Any activity around the pond -- an alligator thrashing about as it catches a fish, the silent appearance of a great egret -- causes the click-and-whir to intensify, bazookalike telephoto lenses swiveling almost in unison.
Royal Palm Hammock is the most popular spot among visitors to Everglades National Park. Just a few miles from the Main Visitor Center and about an hour's drive from downtown Miami, the hammock is home to a reliably awesome variety of Everglades species. It also has bathrooms, a bookstore, and a soda machine. For these Sunday photographers, it's the place to bag the big game without actually venturing into the bush.
But with his ruffled gray hair and droopy mustache, faded work shirt and baggy jeans, Joel McEachern stands conspicuously apart from the snappy crew. He holds his banged-up Canon at his side, with a purple terry-cloth sweatband wrapped around the 300mm lens. "Photographers and alligators are kind of alike -- they both hang around ponds," he sniffs, eyeing the throng. He's already done taking pictures for the day, having arisen at 4:00 a.m. to drive to the park from his home in Miami Springs to catch the sun rising over the saw grass.
McEachern, age 46, has been photographing all over the Everglades for fourteen winters, but he doesn't take pictures at Royal Palm. It's like shooting fish in a barrel, he'll tell you. He has just come by on his way home this morning to have a look at the feeding birds -- and at his competition. Like many other photographers obsessed with the area's primordial beauty and diverse wildlife, McEachern considers himself both an artist and a naturalist, and he sees his work as a way of creating awareness of the beauty of the Everglades' precarious ecosystem and the need to preserve it. But he'd also like to make some money while he's at it.
Primarily self-taught -- he majored in psychology at FIU but says he soon realized he wasn't emotionally equipped to help others with their problems -- McEachern works only in color; he dismisses black and white as "too intellectual." He submits his pictures to photo competitions and to magazines like Wilderness, Sea Kayaker, and Tropical Trails. Some of his photos have been published, some featured in national exhibitions, but the big assignments have eluded him. So far the endeavor hasn't brought in a lot of cash. Though he makes his living these days writing press releases for artists and art-related companies, he hasn't proven very good at promoting himself. "I guess I haven't been paying that much attention to marketing," he says. "I've been too busy trying to photograph."
In the murky light before sunrise, Everglades National Park's main road is covered with fog. "The subtlety of the Everglades is so hard to capture," McEachern says, gesturing toward the shadowed landscape that stretches away endlessly from the two lanes of asphalt. "There are only so many lays to this land: It's either very open or very compressed, and then you're shooting into a hole. The exposure just drives you crazy. That's why so may people do species work here. They do the gators, they do the birds, they do the overhead shot from a plane. But to get the feeling of the place is really, really hard."
McEachern drives past Royal Palm and woody Rock Reef Pass, past stands of lonely pines. Then he reaches a spot where the pines converge with palms and cypress. Fog has settled over the area, and the clumps of trees are islands in a sea of clouds. "Places assume a kind of identity and character, and you become attached to them like people," he muses, looking for a good place to stop. "You have your favorite spots."
He eases his pickup onto the shoulder. Even at this early hour there's traffic; a van hauling a boat behind it clamors past, followed by several more cars. The air is chilly, the flat land achingly still as the glow of the sun begins to light the up the cumulus fortress that protects the horizon.