Everglades, 1976

Everglades, 1976

During my junior year in college I spent part of December and January of 1976 in South Florida on an independent study of sub-tropical ecology with my close friend, David Scott. We made our way south from South Carolina to the Everglades.

My friend and teacher Ab Abercrombie agreed to be our sponsor for the class. He told us what he knew of the Everglades, let us borrow the old Grumman canoe, and sent us on our way. It is in the Everglades where I saw many endangered species the first time–the bald eagle, the reddish egret, the indigo snake, the Everglades kite.

The Everglades National Park is over a million acres–but most of the visitors stay on the few miles of paved roads and trails, camp in numbered spots in the campgrounds, sleep in their Winnebagos. For us, our first month in the ‘Glades was an outlaw trip. I’m a little embarrassed by it now, but we felt that as long as we weren’t aware of laws, we were beyond them. We felt that the regulations the Park Service had established were for the millions of tourists who visited the Everglades and didn’t apply to us.

We camped where we wanted, caught endangered snakes with our bare hands, photographed them, and released them unharmed the next day. We spent our days hip-deep in water and mud off the trail, visiting off-limits islands in Ab’s then not-so-old Grumman canoe. Though Ab did not encourage our lawlessness (he wasn’t even aware of it at the time), he was like the threshold guardian in the fairy tales, pointing the way down the trails. He told us to go and find wildlife in the Everglades, and so we did.

We spent six weeks in the park that winter, and it was there I encountered one of my holy places: Buzzard’s Roost. We were listening to an interpretive naturalist’s program one day, and the speaker had called Buzzard’s Roost a “paradise.” I don’t think she imagined that there would be anyone in the tourist group who would actually hike through the sawgrass to see the place, a full mile off the edge of the trail.

The next day we walked out the asphalt Anhinga Trail, past the railing separating curious tourists from the slough full of preening Anhingas and basking alligators. Just beyond this, one of the most visited trails in any national park, we parted the button bush and disappeared behind it. There a trail headed off behind a fence. At that spot we departed the well-worn trail. We walked a mile through the sawgrass on an old air boat track beaten down by the park rangers on patrol and the park researchers checking sites. The everglades water was cool. Our long pants and tennis shoes quickly soaked through to our knees. It smelled of rotting vegetation. Ahead, we could see where the cypress trees formed a pyramid with large old trees in the middle and stunted ones around the edges of the circle of cypress. We knew this was Buzzard’s Roost.

We heard cricket and leopard frogs in the sawgrass ahead of us. As we stopped once to listen, a ribbon snake at our feet was swallowing a frog. We took pictures and then noticed when we picked the snake up that it had been gorging on frogs! Its body was lumpy with them! When we let the snake go, it moved quickly through the sawgrass in spite of its huge meal.

After a mile the air boat trail veers off to the east, and so we followed an alligator trail the rest of the distance–about another mile–to the cypress head. The trail, really only an indention in the grass, led from a small willow head to Buzzard’s Roost, and there were alligator tail drags and defecation all along the way.

Where we entered the dome there was a fringe of coco plum trees about fifteen feet high mixed in with stunted cypress, and the ground was matted with dead brown cypress needles. Inside the dome it was pure cypress and huge ferns. The old cypresses had fallen and were covered with ferns. There was a primordial feel to the place as the sun slanted through the shading branches. It was easy walking once we were inside, the cypress needles spongy under our shoes. We headed for the middle where we could see water shimmering in the light gap. Egrets waded in the shallow water, and as we approached, two gators slid into the water. They were huge, over ten feet. We stood at the hole for awhile, not saying anything. Finally one of the shy monsters surfaced, but quickly disappeared again under the dark water of the alligator hole.

Walking around the central alligator hole David found a stink pot turtle in the cypress needles and a little further on, a green anole on a dead cypress. The way David caught the anole was pure David Scott: the lizard headed up the thin cypress, and David shook the truck vigorously, and the surprised lizard tumbled down from its fifteen-foot purchase into David’s waiting hands.

A place like Buzzard’s Roost would stun someone from Wyoming, every inch of earth covered with a green hell of trees and grass that never stops growing and spreading, only slows down a little with the seasons. Such a southern place, I’ve come to believe, is like the talk of Southerners, a snarl of connections and mannered greetings, a social history of words in every introduction, a verbal bramble in every square inch of space. The south Florida wilderness offers a growing season of over 360 days. This single fact alone seems to separate the landscape from almost every single area of the country. That and the water.

I remember Buzzard’s Roost now (it’s been twenty years since I’ve been back there) as a shimmering place, a lingering, hidden, exposed, slow-flowing, duck weed-clogged stretch of water and trees. Three of the beasts that most sane people fear in the Everglades are there: rattlesnake, cottonmouth, alligator. They lie hidden, sunning in flattened pockets of sawgrass.They move slowly from shade to shade. They catch and eat anything with calories.

At Buzzard’s Roost what started out as a simple interim class became something much more complex. It was the beginning of what would become for us a sacred act, a yearly pilgrimage to South Florida, something very unacademic.

Ab joined us the next year, suffering our lawlessness; we canoed to Florida Bay’s mangrove islands to look for nesting osprey, camped under Australian pines, stared up at the wide South Florida sky, walked the Shark River trail, caught water snakes and baby alligators while the rangers weren’t looking, then released them back into the canals.

We were beyond the rules and regulations that the world was living by, and we knew somehow how important this outlaw stance was for us. It was what would release us; the country needed wild and endangered species, but we needed wild and endangered experiences.

For David and me these times were the tail end of childhood; we would graduate from college the next year and have to face creating a living somehow, still not sure if we wanted “the Real World” (as our friends called everything beyond college) to pass us by. Looking back, those days in the Everglades were the formative acts that taught me that the experience I needed to grow up was out there on the edge of the known, beyond what could be regulated or improved.

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