Monday, April 25, 2016

From Miami-Dade back North Again - Relics and Micro-Wildernesses

As a passenger instead of a driver I cruised for two days last week in and out of the Everglades via two different entry points. Two old girls, utterly different in personality yet with a certain overlap in sentiment toward the world around us, almost, not quite, of successive generations, we had teamed up to split costs and share divergent skills. Our separate purposes in coming all the way from Duluth, Minnesota to Florida had merged; we were after April's birds to be found in Florida, and the novelties of the south Florida interior and shorelines including local cookery and the visual effect of hammocks, pine flats and wet prairies, some of which formed a bond in my mind's eye with stretches of Minnesota's north-central region. I could feel--and I hope it was mutual--our friendship strengthening, my own shortcomings as a big-city driver counter-balanced by my friend's serenity and acceptance of fast traffic along routes never known to either of us.

Before making for the Everglades we wandered on a tour of Villa Vizcaya, the preserved estate and winter home of James Deering, whose fortune derived from McCormick-International Harvester, pillar of the vast U.S. grain-growing industry. It seemed to me that if I had been in Mr. Deering's very same position and time period I might too have been enthralled by the artifacts of both the Caribbean and classical western European peoples. I might have purchased at least one of the same musical instruments--the harpsichord--and installed the native coral and fossil-bearing limestone pavements and commissioned a few of the same works of sculpture installed here by Mr. Deering, a bachelor captivated by visionary heritages other than his own and bent on showing off their harmonies. Here are favorite images I shot in that couple of hours on the Vizcaya grounds.

                                       Seabed fossils where a person steps

               Breakwater called 'the Barge' in front of Biscayne Bay, representing Caribbean mythic beings

A day later, having left Miami, stepping along the boardwalk making up the Anhinga Trail within the Everglades, I was impressed by the French and German being spoken by the families who followed or led the way between various observation points into the marsh. The trail felt a bit crowded, with maybe half the visitors Europeans come to tour this showpiece of the remaining American wild. Were they, I wondered, on average somewhat more curious as to all that might live here than many of the locals and semi-locals who most hoped to be able to show each other any alligators, since they have the charisma of people-eaters? In any case, the Everglades National Park is a heavily used attraction, a specimen of the old Florida, with a total 1,077,427 visitors last year, a bit down from the figure for 2014.

If I were walking this acre as a beginning birder, back around 1972, would it have been so bird-quiet as I  found it today, I also wondered. A strange winter just past, devoid of the normal dry conditions characterizing the Everglades from December through April, was, we heard, diminishing the presence of herons and other breeding birds due to high water. Climate change is upon us and in many recorded ways changing the Everglades. But voices of songbirds are fewer everywhere I go in these times than in the springtimes I remember from the 1970s, the 80s and later. The glee of a bird sighting is delayed, but--what was that great graceful raptor tipping side to side, flapping, coasting, on black pinions, white underwings, with long black scissor-blades for a tail? A kite--the Everglades kite--no, the swallow-tailed kite! we both saw it at successive moments, non-birder to the rear, birder up ahead with the benefit of binoculars. A first of species, life bird, for me! This can still happen.

                                The 'River of Grass,' per Marjory Stoneman Douglas, major advocate for creating 
                                 the Everglades National Park

                                 From the Long Pine Key Trail

                               Man-in-the-ground (Ipomoea microdactyla) at Long Pine Key

National park visitation in the U.S. goes up and up as this country booms in human numbers, its citizens and others increasingly living on top of each other and squeezed in traffic corridors wherever they go. They are looking for respite and, I think, continuity with the America that was. Though our land retains many vistas, rivers, lakes, bays and marshes yet again greening up with spring, this heightened usage of the parks bears a relation to the narrowing forests and skimpy remnants of meadow, built-over shores and widened lanes of highway, all of which connect with dwindled bird voices at the prime time of spring arrival, courtship and nesting. More and more of us in consequence head out eager to see fewer avian feats of soaring, swooping and foraging in flight. We can still see them, but we also face--in an attitude of desolation--or most often ignore, a future when our take-over has pushed most or all of those wild spectacles into a past good mainly for imagining. Meanwhile, most of the land conservation organizations and wildlife preservation societies refuse, out of various fears that they will be judged for unspeakable crassness (and thereby starved of funding,) to inform the public about ever-growing human numbers as the preeminent driver, most urgently worth addressing, of the manifold degradation in nature around us.

Where land is publicly held for safekeeping or privately kept, with something of a balance in place between herbivores and predators, the plant kingdom persists in its cycles, brandishing flowers and other wondrous structures semi-hidden in a slow-paced theater of reproduction and nutrient-gathering. The reddish morning-glory above, called man-in-the-ground, is a specialist of burned-over pine lands, the habitat where I found it, at Long Pine Key in the Everglades, about as far north as the species occurs. In its aloneness at the margin of the walking path I felt I had to veer back on my return course and shoot the photo. Back at home in the Canadian border region I've been spellbound in the sight of still odder assemblies of leaf and corolla, and painted them in mixed media with watercolor as my usual mainstay, in small format, 12 x 9" or less, to serve as card fronts and wall art. Turtlehead, a member of the figwort family, for example, on first recognition really suggests a reptilian head or even a fish on a floral stem. Butterwort has leaves that are appallingly yellow-green and greasy, as if buttered, their purpose to trap the feet of insects which the plant can then digest. And the northern pitcher plant, another insectivore, has the red veins of a medical specimen on an anatomy chart and the overseeing stem of a gooseneck lamp as if poised for examining what spreads out below. Small artworks doing homage to these natural treasures are shown below:

 Turtleheads (with red-bellied snake) is 11 x 8 1/2", available at             An original work in watercolor/pencil, wood-framed with birds-eye maple

 Butterwort and Lichens - Lake Superior at your Elbow available at
Original watercolor is 12 x 9" unframed. 
Pitcher Plant Lurks with Cup and Standard - framed and matted, about 14x11" - inquire at