“People should adjust to, rather than change, nature.”
– John Wesley Powell
We came into the Everglades from the south; the transition from rough country to national park marked primarily by the absence of structures, fences and side roads. Where old shacks, farms and trailer houses were interspersed with the trees and grasslands, now there was only the vast expanse of grasses, interrupted occasionally by hummocks of trees and brush.
I had heard the term, sea of grass, but being there, seeing the vastness, could only make me think of the ocean. At first glance, it looked dry. looking closely, I saw standing water where the ground should have been. The road was the highest spot in view, but for the hummocks rising out of grasses like islands. No indication of human intrusion was visible except the road. The vista presented the very definition of wild.
I entered the hummock on a raised boardwalk and saw down into the grasses and the water below. Limestone and some mud broke the surface, and trails of water indicated hidden streams. As the canopy closed in I realized that there was no mound of soil defining the hummock. The trees rooted in nothing but water and created their own limited platform just above the surface. Shrubs existed just where the sunlight pierced the gloom, but trees and vines engaged in an eternal battle to capture the light. A national park sign explained the Strangler Fig that had nearly encapsulated a larger tree, coating it like a new layer of bark, and thrusting its branches up and above the captured tree.
Maybe it was the time of day (mid-day), or maybe the season (February), or maybe I just wasn’t there long enough, but I was struck by the absence of critter noises. A few LGBs flitted here and there, some crows cawed off in the distance, and the usually ubiquitous herons were few and far between. I saw one tiny lizard, but no insects (thankfully). It seemed strange.
I had just spent four days on a friend’s boat, docked at Fort Pierce on the Indian River at the Atlantic Coast. The public marina was a block from downtown, busy with boat and car traffic, fishermen and tourists. Sitting in the back of the boat, I watched various seabirds (pelicans, terns, cormorants, gulls) fishing nearby, sometime within feet of the boat. The Blue Heron and the White Heron paced the shallows along with numerous egrets. A small heron I couldn’t identify crouched on the mooring ropes between boats, watching for unwary fish. A Kingfisher issued his ratcheted challenge to us from across the way, and one morning I watched an Osprey eyeing the channel from a nearby light pole. Each day a spiral of buzzards, maybe 50 or more, rode thermals above town. Bird calls and splashes from diving birds punctuated the lapping of waves against the hull and the wind in the rigging.
A 100-foot wide channel behind the boat was the outfall of a stream that wended its way through town, mostly channelized, but mangrove-lined in the narrower sections above the marina. A concrete wall across the channel housed the Manatee Center with a viewing tower as a major attraction for tourists. The adjacent public boat ramp was closed half the year to minimize boat-manatee interactions.
From the back of the boat, we saw the dimples in the surface and then a dark shadow beneath where a manatee swam past. Briefly a snout or part of a head would break the surface, then disappear. From the tower or the adjacent bridge, we saw their massive shape and mottled skin just beneath the surface. Even walking along the edge of the bay formed by the Indian River, evidence of a manatee passing could be seen, while the dolphins frolicked in the current.
We visited the Keys after the Everglades, surprisingly urban, amidst impenetrable mangrove thickets. Birds abounded, calling and splashing noisily. Iguanas froze, pretending invisibility, then lumbered off into the brush. Small lizards were fleetingly visible then gone. It felt wild.
As impressive as the Everglades were, my personal “nature” experience on this trip was greatest in the urban areas. In the Keys, the urban presence was encroaching on the wildness, yet for every step forward, the wildness seemed to push back. Idle land was quickly subsumed in growth. Where the hurricanes had leveled buildings, nature crept inexorably back in.
Ft. Pierce had a different feel. The town accommodated nature’s presence, rather than fighting against it. It didn’t take much to see, hear or feel nature in town, and that feeling of struggle was absent. Ft. Pierce’s urban-ness was compatible with the wildness. They coexisted comfortably, naturally.
For my money, that seems to be the right approach. Keep the wilderness wild, and nurture a little wild where we live. Naturally.