Requiem for a Swamp Rat

Everglades veteran Jesse Kennon loves to spend his days amid the saw grass and gators. But thanks to the government, he now qualifies as an endangered species.

Also sharing the back yard is another concrete gator pit, smaller and not for public display. Inside the pit, contained by a chainlink lid, more than a dozen juvenile alligators squirm as Kennon approaches. “I get the baby gators from one of my gators out back who's laying eggs. She has a nest built there which should be hatching any day now. And then what I do is I take 'em and I put them in the pits. What I'd like to do is try to put in three or four more gators pits out here. That way I'll have all the different sizes of gators.”

Kennon keeps his baby gators for four years or so, then sells them to a farmer who raises them for their hide and meat. Some of that meat may return, served up on a plate at the Coopertown canteen. The restaurant specialties are alligator tail and frog legs.

He gestures to a second, smaller pit, now empty. “That there pit's for rasslin'. I've got a ten-foot gator. I feed him chicken and beef. Sometimes I rassle him here or I put on exhibitions for a friend of mine in Miami Springs. I'm getting to do that less and less. As I get older, gators are starting to get faster and stronger.” He holds up his right hand, upon which a hand-carved gold alligator winds around his ring finger. “I figure I'm 58 years old and I still have 'em all intact. How many more years can I push it?”

It's a question that resonates on more than one level. Seven years ago Kennon learned that his property is marked for purchase and inclusion in an expansion of Everglades National Park. Only a few months ago, he was informed that the acquisition is likely to occur within the year. This turn of events has left Kennon furious. But it has done nothing to dampen his appreciation for the Glades themselves. Just the opposite. With his remaining days numbered, Kennon has gotten into the habit of taking his personal airboat out into the swamp. He doesn't have a destination in mind or a job to do. He just sits in the watery grass listening to the bullfrogs croak and watching the herons glide around the trees.

Tonight is one of those nights. Kennon closes up his shop, grabs a handful of marshmallows, and heads for his small airboat, its sleek black hull decorated with a faded painting of a green alligator, jaws open for an attack. He pushes the boat into the canal, then swings his legs up and inside. Climbing into a seat perched three yards above the waterline, he flips a switch. The engine screams to life as the propeller blade disappears in a whirl. Kennon aims the craft down an alley of lily pads and steps on the gas.

The Everglades open up before him, the setting sun illuminating a prairie of green and tan grasses, flat horizon broken periodically by islands of trees. Overhead the sky is just fading from powder blue to violet, complemented by cloudy orange stripes. After a winding ten-minute ride through tall grass, Kennon cuts the engine, wiping away a handful of small spiders that crawl over his jeans and boots.

“They're grass spiders,” he says. “They don't bite you or nothing. They're in the tall grass area like that, the saw grass. You can tell the different grasses by looking. You'll see the needle grass is like a little round grass, okay? And saw grass is three-sided.” Kennon hops down from his perch, leans over the boat, and pulls on a blade of saw grass, snapping it off.

“The reason it's called saw grass is because it's like a real fine miniature saw. That's what 70 percent of the grass in the Everglades is. See how it is? You can run your fingers this way with the grain and you won't feel it. But you come back the other way you'll find the edges will dig in just like a saw tooth. The saw grass actually gets to where it grows ten, twelve foot tall and runs for miles in the area. Most of the grass that you see will be your thresh grass, your needle grass, and your saw grass; those are your three basic grasses out here in this area.

“I think the back end of the boat is almost touching, so where we're at now we're probably running in only about ten inches of water out here. It's up and down. Some of the area we just came through, the water was down to about two inches. We're actually about twelve inches below what is normal water for this time of year if we got a full rainy season.

“We're out here seven days a week and we can tell the difference when the water table's up, when it's not up, you know, what plants are blooming and what's not. I imagine if you check, you'll probably find out that we're way below normal on rainfall. We've had rain but it's all been scattered showers -- we haven't been getting any overall rain, just little squalls that come through here and there. Like today it looked like it was going to pound down rain all day. We never got a drop out here all day long. I'm sure someplace did but, you know, all it did was slow down the evaporation. Didn't do nothing else.”

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