One day I was painting by myself at Black Point Nature Preserve on Merritt Island. If I squinted hard as I looked southeast I could see the vehicle assembly building far off in the distance at Cape Canaveral. It was a brisk day in February and the saltwater marsh was alive with migratory birds and Canadians. Squadrons of low flying thrushes buzzed a few feet above my head, and their wings made a thrumming sound like the engines of WWII fighter planes: vrooomph. Canadians drove slowly by in large, white Winnebagos on the winding road that snaked its way between the ponds. Many of them would pull over and get out to watch me paint my landscape. They would inevitably ask, “Have you seen any alligators?”
The nearest bathroom to my work site was a mile or two away. I usually went behind some bushes to relieve my bladder when my morning cup of coffee cleared my kidney. On days when the preserve was busy I went down a raised path that divided two black mud ponds until I rounded a bend where small trees and bushes hid me from hikers, bird watchers and gator seekers. On previous trips I had spotted the bones of wild pigs on the ground along the path, but thought nothing of it until this particular morning when I nearly tripped over a gator.
He lay across the path five feet ahead of me. He was eight foot long from head to tail and moved incredibly fast as he rushed and dived into the canal on the right. I had rickety knees, but when I saw the gray blur of his body in motion I managed, without actually being aware of making a conscious decision, to leap backward five feet. After I caught my breath and calmed my pounding heart I crept closer to the edge of the canal. I could see his knobby head half submerged in the water a few feet away and that his ping pong ball sized eyes were keeping a careful watch on me. I opened my zipper and peed into a bush while keeping a careful watch on him.
That might have been an act of bravado on my part, or perhaps my fright gave my bladder an overwhelming need to be emptied. At any rate, when I finished and closed my zipper I backed up the path till I rounded the bend, and then trotted fifty yards to put some distance between me and the gator. I wasn’t sure that he would remain in the canal and that he was able to distinguish me from a very large wild pig.
I went back to my painting and lied to Canadians when they asked me about where all the gators were. I didn’t want to have to run back there and wrestle a very nice, polite man from Ontario from the jaws of death.
I was nearly over my fright and had settled into my painting once again when I heard a crackling sound behind me. Bushes, rushes and small trees grew along the edges of the ponds around me, and when I looked carefully I saw a two foot gator climbing into the low branches of a mangrove shrub ten feet to my rear. It was too small to be much of a threat, so I ignored it. Then I heard crackling sounds to my left. A three-footer tried to find a comfortable spot to sun in the branches of another mangrove. And another appeared straight in front of me. They were all small, but I started to get the feeling that Tippi Hedren got in “The Birds” when she saw bunches of crows staring at her from their perches on a jungle gym in a deserted school yard. Nature, or Gatordom, seemed to be marshaling and concentrating its forces on my position.
I began to paint faster and faster in a style that was more emotional and expressive than usual as prehistoric reptiles continued to gather around me, and I began to ponder the brevity and fragility of my existence. I ended my work when the sun dipped toward the west, the shadows lengthened, and my nerves were completely shot.
I was happy when I crossed over the bridge from Merritt Island to the mainland in Titusville, and took comfort from a visit to a kwicky-mart on the edge of town. The gaudy displays of beer, chips, soda, tobacco and tabloid magazines made “Nature red in tooth and claw” seem far, far away.
I decided to paint a cityscape the next time I went out.