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Tuesday
Oct112011

Slow Movers

Driving in Everglades National Park is a whole lotta this.I came to the southern tip of Florida hauling the shambling caravan of all my former homes and day jobs with me.  Past writing residences have taken place in familiar territories, vistas and atmospheres:  Colorado.  The Midwest.  Places with snow.  But I had yet to make the acquaintance of the Everglades; I was a blank journal page in this respect.  It was tempting to merely to sink myself into its very otherworldliness, locked away in an (admittedly low-altitude) turret of cypress and palm.

I was in search of the broad Where you at, Everglades?scope of the Everglades, this river of grass about which I’d read so much.  There were solution holes and alligator ponds and brackish canals with great egrets fanning their wings over boat slips and the splash of the Gulf of Mexico against the smug and sodden bases of mangrove trees, but I simply could not mentally grasp the watery prairie in which I was now living.  I stood on tiptoe in observation towers and walked for hours on trails laden with flat and pockmarked palm branches, but the enormity of wide and flowing land the remained elusive.

Man has done much to change the Everglades, but even as it slowly seethes in the wake of the damage, it insists upon acceptance on its own weakened terms—but even a weakened Everglades cradles algae in the moonscape of its bedrock and houses birds with NBA-caliber wingspan. The Everglades was here before, and in a far mightier state.

I discovered this while driving to an abandoned Nike missile site not far from the Royal Palm VisCute for nowitor Center.  In its heyday it wasn’t just weaponry hanging out in underground silos or a handful of engineers in white coats and perpetual frowns.  It was full and proper military base—tents and barracks and rec area. 

And the road there past the park entrance came to an apparent dead stop at a caution sign; I slapped the steering wheel—once again, my stellar navigational skills had landed me somewhere requiring a three- point turn.  But as I drew closer, I saw the right angle… the continuation of the road, the blacktop leading where I needed to go. 

When I got out of the car, covered in thin cotton and triumph, I expected cracked asphalt and the cold historic silence of metal signs and a Hi! I'll be your metaphor today.sense of gratitude that the place simply wasn’t needed anymore; my childhood was marked by fearing multiplication tables rather than nuclear warheads out whizzing out of Cuba.  And those things were there, complete with blast-proof earthworks tangled over with growth new for this region. 

But what I also saw, there in this tropical outpost of the Cold War, were delicate orange butterflies in search of brunch.  They rippled through stubby labyrinths of tiny white daises, posing on strands of sawgrass with wings in full spread:  “You are welcome for the pre-packaged metaphor.” 

Fed by Lake Okeechobee to the north and hemmed by salt water to the south, the Everglades does not have this luxury; although nearly dying of thirst, its influence overflows to the land far above and far below its traditional boundaries.  But the missile site, only decommissioned for about thirty years, is teeming with insect buzz and the slightly more quiet process of photosynthesis.  Once again, the Everglades don’t care none.  It will go where it will—damaged, perhaps, but slogging onward.

I have been from the top of Pike’s Peak to the bottom floor of the Monte Carlo Casino, and nearly all of humanity has a common impulse in places such as these:  Everybody, whether part of a landscape since conception or just passing through, reacts strongly to a sense of here.  For many of us, as Western society continues to fracture along political and demographic lines, a sense of physical proximity and shared experience is the only connection we have. 

TAKE MAH PITCHUREThe thread of what unites us grows dangerously thin in many ways—so when an experience as common as a traffic jam or fantastic as a UFO sighting takes place, we take comfort in venting to and connecting with those who have shared that vector of time and space, if only for a moment.  That’s why even the meanest little roadside gas station boasts a souvenir postcard rack; that’s why every entertainer worth his lost shaker of salt knows to reference local bars, street names and sports teams over a hometown microphone. 

But until the end of my residency, I still had not come to terms with the vastness of my temporary home.  The meaning of the Everglades, a glade stretching on forever, was found somewhere between the slap of a fish barely surfacing, the tight yellow fist of the splatterdock lily, the trio of dolphins somersaulting as a marine kickline before the bow of my borrowed boat, the gator draping himself across my hiking path, laconic and unseen and, of course, not caring, until I was practically on top of him.  I wasn’t tall enough, fast enough, or brave enough to see what I could not understand.  

But in one of my final days here I raced the setting sun from the southernmost reach of Key West back to my artist quarters.  By accident, because I had tarried eight minutes longer than planned at a Margaritaville gift shop, I was seeing the sun sent over the Everglades. 

It was just past seven and the clouds were blazes of feathers.  And after all this time I was at last able to see what I could not in days and days of driving on remote state routes, pacing along the fusion of the Atlantic, and shading my eyes in observation towers.  What I saw, less than a mile from my artist quarters, was the water-- the sawgrass, the sky, and the water, the red reflections of the disappearing sun at last revealing the liquid topsheet of the landscape. 

After all this time and all the miles and slapped mosquitoes, submitting to what the land demanded,  the Everglades had at last extended a hand.

I left my camera on the empty passenger seat beside me, because any photograph would have yielded nothing but digital disappointment, but it was good, for those moments, to sit together with the slow-moving waters, and stay a while.

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