The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father – Chief Seattle
As I entered Everglades National Park from the east, my mind wandered to Peter Matthiessen’s brilliant book, Shadow Country. Set in the late 1800’s on a fringe of the everglades during a period of frontier exploration, Matthiessen describes an other-worldly place of primal brutality. A land of water and sky inhabited by exotic creatures, desperate explorers and those who have come to the end of land seeking refuge from ghosts only they knew were chasing them. As I drove into a broad sun trying to imagine such a place, the great river of grass welcomed me into her arms and I felt strangely at home.
Hurricane Irma took a toll on the Florida Keys. A drive that many consider one of the most beautiful in the country, has become a mile after mile testament to suffering. Spoils of destruction brought into the open along the road’s edge. Boats, RV’s, pieces of homes, pieces of lives, mingle with mighty palms and underbrush. All waiting to be lifted into steel jaws and taken to a final resting place. The drive through the Keys is still beautiful. But you can’t help but be moved by the sadness resting in the sun.
Irma also paid a violent visit to the everglades. Two of the three visitors centers and campgrounds are closed. Many of the hiking trails and interior roads are underwater or covered in debris. Great pathways sliced through banyans and pines. Lush thickets cleared, leaving only root systems grounded in sand. To the north, the Kissimmee River runs into an overflowing Lake Okeechobee, traveling south into the Shark River Slough, flooding freshwater prairies. This is a land of water and the fingerprints of Irma smear the landscape.
When Everglades National Park was dedicated in 1947, it wasn’t to protect its scenic beauty. As a clear victory to conservationists, it was intended to preserve one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. A land charged with the delicate balance of nine distinct habitats and an ecosystem so interwoven into each species that the slightest change in one causes an outward ripple. However, like so many of our greatest natural treasures, this dynamic system, so impenetrable, yet so open and accessible, lies at the mercy of mankind. Just as this park is dedicated to preserving nature’s precarious balance, so should we be ever vigilant in helping her do so.
Since Everglades and Biscayne National Parks are only twenty six miles apart, Long Pine Key in the everglades was to be my home for several days while I explored each. By the time I left the visitor’s center and set up camp, light was fading. I settled in for the night and quickly fell asleep. Around 1:00 AM, something brushed up against my tent. I lay still and waited for a noise that would tell me what type of animal was on the other side of a thin slice of nylon. Something brushed up against the tent again – above my head. I slowly eased off my cot, trying to be as quiet as possible. More movement as I reached for the hatchet I had used to pound tent stakes a few hours earlier. Standing in the middle of the tent, hatchet raised, heart pounding – another slight brush of the tent. This one about chest high. My mind is jumping through a list of animals tall enough to brush my tent at that height. Deer, bear, panther, human. Humans being the scariest. I turned on my headlamp and shouted, who’s there? Nothing. No movement. After a moment, slow movement away from the tent. I still can’t tell what it is, but I’m certain it’s not human. After about 15 minutes of standing in the middle of the tent, hatchet raised, I ventured outside and looked around. Nothing. It wasn’t damp, so there were no footprints in the thick bladed grass. I lowered the hatchet, walked back into the tent and moved my cot to the middle. I brought my chair next to the cot and placed the hatchet within arm’s length. I fell asleep with my hand resting on the blade.
A walk along the boardwalk of Anhinga Trail is a microcosm of the park. A proud red-barked gumbo limbo tree stands sunburned at the edge of the trail. Moving toward the boardwalk, long grasses of Taylor Slough sway gracefully beneath the water. Dwarf cypress trees hold soil-less bromeliads in their branches, as bright green ferns lean into the smooth spotted breach of a black mangrove. In the distance, pinelands and hardwood hammocks give height to the flat prairie and marsh. Water lilies bursting in yellow, rest on clear bright blue water, while turtles swim silently beneath. A peregrine falcon drifts on the wind. Somewhere in the mangroves an alligator’s slow guttural moan can be heard, as it slides through the tangled roots. Above it all, an ever-changing sky of white batten clouds resting on a canvas of blue.
Coastal Prairie Trail leads you west out of the Irma damaged and closed Flamingo Visitor Center and initially hugs the coastline of Florida Bay. As I approached the trail I ran into a park ranger who said the trail was closed. “Most of it is covered with debris from Irma. Some of it is still underwater. It’s also a breeding ground for mosquitoes.” So I can’t access the trail from here? “Well, I can’t tell you not to access the trail. I would just tell you that most of it is not really a hike you want to take.” Thanks for the head’s up. I appreciate it. When do you think Flamingo will be back up and running? “Hard to tell” he says with a slight chuckle. “The funds have been appropriated. Or so we’ve been told. Of course the funds are always appropriated.” And here he makes air quotes with his fingers. “We’ll just have to wait an see.” Times are tough for a new budget. “Yep.” And again he chuckles, shakes his head and walks off. I turn and head to the debris littered trail.
At my age you would think I would be able to know common sense when it rudely slaps me in the forehead. Perhaps it’s more than a slap that is needed. Climbing over debris to get down a pathway partially underwater didn’t do the trick. One billion mosquitoes that suddenly found me attractive and decided to show their love by eating my skin didn’t deter me. Nope. It took a Florida cottonmouth sliding by my leg and off into the brush as I opened my mouth the scream like a 12 year old schoolboy – only to find out that my lungs wouldn’t let air escape. In that moment I kind of wished the ranger had told me the trail was closed and smacked me in the forehead. But I know I would have gone anyway.
Each National Park I visit leaves its mark on me. Most overwhelm you with beauty, while others speak to you in subtle undertones. Everglades is a sly seducer. She unveils the threat of violence, then blankets you with a serene Mediterranean blue sky. One visual discovery quickly opposes the next causing your senses to cautiously react. There a stillness while water moves under and through everything – a subtle grace to her diversity of life. Soundless birds float above the rising chorus of hymns from an earthbound choir. Everything is at odds, yet in complete harmony. Perhaps it was just the constant movement of water that drew me in. Knowing that life flowed under everything I walked upon and touched. Maybe it was just that simple – I don’t know. I do know that something profoundly spiritual happened in the everglades. A small piece of me changed and I will never be the same.