Mating Manatees

Ken is a retired attorney who lives near the Osteen Bridge that crosses over the St. Johns River.  His back yard opens up on a backwater slough, and he sees gators, migrating birds, hawks, eagles and osprey.  He knows where the fish hide along the banks, and he can tell you exactly how high the water rose over the retention wall at the edge of his property after Hurricane Irma.

I teach drawing lessons to Ken.  He’s 87 but still eager to learn new things and pick up refinements in his technique.  He mostly does pencil drawings of wildlife and flowers, and gives them away as gifts.  I enjoy working with him and listening to his stories about working as an attorney for the city of Casselberry.

This Friday I happened to glance in a mirror that reflected the river behind us.  I saw gray shapes rounding up out of the waves.  Dolphins?  Ken told me that they probably were, but his wife, Mary, interrupted us a few minutes later and said, “Ken!  There’s these gray and black things rolling around in the water.  What are they?”

Ken looked out the window and said, “Manatees!”

He and I went out and studied the river. Ken told me that submerged manatees floated beneath the flat spots on the water where the waves rippled less.  Suddenly we saw a nose and a couple of flippers, a back and a flat tail.  Ken said, “That’s two of them together.  They’re mating.  This is a once in a life time moment.”

The manatees, five or six of them, roiled the waters for about fifteen minutes.  During a lull we saw a gator swimming away from the bank twenty yards upriver from us.  Ken knew him by name (Bottlenose) and told me that you could tell the length of an alligator by measuring from the end of the nose to the eyes.  A ten inch gap meant that the gator was ten feet long.  Ken said, “And it’s always true, even to within a sixteenth of an inch.”

We went back inside and finished the lesson.  Ken gave me an eagle feather with a split near the quill.  He said, “The eagle uses this kind of feather to brake his air speed.  I got this one after I saw two birds fighting over a fish.  It just floated down.  It’s perfect, not torn up at all.  I thought your wife might like it.”  Ken knows that my wife loves nature, and gave me a flower drawing for her to keep the month before.

I drove home through rush hour traffic, and the farther I got from Ken’s refuge, the uglier the world became.  Cars, truck and buses snarled together in nasty clumps as we passed through construction zones.  Aggressive drivers weaved in and out of traffic racing all comers to the next red light.  Strip malls packed either side of the road.  By the time I got home, I longed to find a quiet spot where I could reclaim a feeling of peace and clarity.

A lady at church speculated today that living here on earth is hell.  We needn’t worry about finding something worse in the afterlife.  I can almost agree with her but for those moments when I get to see manatees mating, when I feel a cool breeze crossing a river, when I hear eagles crying out in the branches above me.

If this is hell, God does have some mercy.  He gives us glimpses of heaven.


Nature in Action: Heavy, Man. Heavy.

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Backyard in the rain.

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Penta and Coreopsis

My wife Judy sits in our back yard garden every day when it’s not raining (the Florida drought has turned into afternoon monsoons) and watches nature in action.  She’s reported on the activities of caterpillars and butterflies.

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Zebra Long Wing (near the top)

One type of butterfly likes to lay its eggs on a passion flower vine growing up and through a beauty berry bush.  Geckos and other lizards love to eat the eggs when they in turn are not being pursued by black racer snakes.  Red shouldered hawks soar overhead in search of careless snakes sunning a bit too long in the open after a heavy meal.

Caterpillars hatch from the remaining eggs and begin to eat the leaves on the vine.  A parasitic wasp, if it manages to locate a caterpillar in the tangle of vegetation, injects its eggs inside.  The wasp larva hatch and eat their way out of the caterpillar.  Ants come along and take chunks out of caterpillars.  The vine secretes a sugary substance when attacked, and the ants are drawn to its tormentors.

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Zebra Long Wing caterpillars.

The desperate action continues after a caterpillar survives long enough to fatten and turn into a chrysalis.  A female proto-butterfly gives off a pheromone that attracts males before they emerge from their cocoons.  Male butterflies land on the chrysalises, flap their wings impatiently, and wait for the lady to make her debut.  I’m not sure if they allow the females to stretch their wings before the “romance” begins.

So nature in action seems to be all about eating or being eaten.  This leads to a frantic urge to spread one’s genes to succeeding generations before a bigger, sneakier, meaner creature seizes one in its jaws.  We witnessed desperate sexual ardor on display the other day among the branches of a plumbago plant in our front yard.  We saw a large female grasshopper bearing the weight of two smaller males on her back.  One male was attached to the female and attempted to deposit his seed.  He was distracted, however, by the male on his back.  The male on top had no homosexual intentions, however.  Instead the uppermost hopper frantically flexed his hind legs to try to pry the male beneath him off the female.  He had decided, apparently, that it was his turn.

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Male grasshopper.

Judy’s a plant physiologist and taught botany courses at Rollins College for many years.  She and I were talking about our garden and how the caterpillars were chewing their way through the milkweeds and passion flower vines.  I teased her about GMOs and said that scientists should come up with a genetically modified plant that turns insects into Existentialists.  Instead of chewing, mating and fleeing predators, the bugs would glumly sit around thinking about the ultimate futility of their lives.  “What’s the point?” they’d ask themselves, “of all this useless activity?  Life has no inherent meaning and worth.  Why spread it?”

Never kid a plant physiologist.  Judy told me that plants like the opium poppy and marijuana create protective intoxicants: the production of opium and THC evolved as a means of defense.  An insect predator becomes passive and uninterested in consuming more tissue after ingesting these drugs.  The motionless, tripping bugs attract predators, predators on the look out for a way to harsh a buzz with extreme prejudice.

I had been thinking of nature as the WWII movie, From Here to Eternity:  sex, violence, survival.  Now when I stroll in the garden I hear the opening strains of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and think about episodes of “The Mod Squad”.  You know, the ones where a love-in on the beach suddenly turns tragic.  Sex, violence, survival and drugs.  And as Peggy Lipton would say, “Heavy, man.  Like, heavy.”



Adventures with Rats

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I saw my first rat at the head of a troop of four rodents galumphing along with a humpbacked, rhythmic lurch from a strip of woods toward a dumpster in back of a Red Lobster.  I felt some fear about opening the lid as I dragged some garbage bags to the same destination.  The rats could be mistaken for small raccoons in the dim light, and they looked very determined to get their teeth into the same kind of crud that I was hauling.  Trash duty, what the manager called “a cigarette break”, apparently came with the added bonus of risking rabies from a rat bite.

My second encounter happened 30 years later as I stood in the shade outside my warehouse studio near downtown Orlando.  This rat was sleeker and could have been mistaken for a squirrel except for his stripped down tail, laid back ears, and long, bounding gait.  He crossed a parking lot and the street in front of me and headed for a hole in the wall near the foundation.  He stopped when he saw me looking at him and froze for a second.  His eyes were wide with fear.  I was too stunned to do anything but let him pass.  A month later I noticed holes in the bottom of my plastic waste can and gnaw marks.  Inside the can were a few torn up baggies that had once held peanut butter sandwiches.

We began to see more signs of rat activity in the building.  One day a bold rat charged Rose, a fellow painter, while she sat and ate a sandwich.  I heard that she screamed and dropped the sandwich, and that the rat got away with the booty.  The artists held a meeting and decided to ban food in the building and to call Florida Hospital, our landlord, to ask for help.  A few maintenance men eventually came and sealed some of the holes around the foundation and put down glue traps at the base of the pipes and conduits on the inside walls.  Folks had seen rats using them to travel from an open storage loft down to the floor.

I found more gnaw marks and holes in my waste cans.  I set out spring traps baited with peanut butter in my studio.  I killed one rat, but then the rest of them got wise.  I’d find sprung traps stripped clean of bait several feet from their original position.  The little bastards had figured out that if they nudged the base of a trap the kill bar would spring harmlessly.  They chowed down in safety and then sharpened their teeth by gnawing on the wooden edges of the traps.  I went to Miller’s Hardware in Winter Park and bought something more newfangled.  It was a plastic box with one open end.  A small metal tray near the back wall could be baited.  A battery pack delivered an electric shock if a rat ventured far enough inside to eat the bait.  I killed three rats before the rest of the colony figured out that it was a death machine.  At that point I began to wonder which species was smarter, humans or rats.

I had two unfortunate rat disposal moments at the warehouse.  I made the mistake of leaving a baited trap in my studio during a three day absence.  When I returned I could smell rot and death from the moment I entered the front door of the building.  The aroma and the partially liquefied remains made me gag several times as I scraped my victim up and carried him out to a nearby dumpster.  I had to scrub the kill zone over and over and leave my windows open for the rest of the day.  A few weeks later I heard a woman scream.  I ran out of my studio and found Kathy and another woman by the bathroom.  They pointed to something odd on the floor.  It twisted and flopped.  I came closer and saw a rat caught on one of the glue traps.  The ladies nominated me to take care of the ugly mess, and I got a broom and a dust pan.  The little guy looked terrified as I picked him up on the pan and carried him out.  His chest bellowed in and out, and while he continued to try to break free his efforts were feeble.  I paused for a moment and tried to decide what to do.  I had seen my father kill a mouse caught in a trap by crushing its head with his heel, but couldn’t bring myself to do that.  Instead I laid him under a bush and left him to his fate.  I assumed a bird or cat would finish him off, and that he might have a few moments of peace in the open air before he met his fate.

Shortly after our rat problem became manageable at the studio I began to hear odd noises late at night in the walls of my home.  I could hear scrabbling, scratching and gnawing sounds.  Pink tufts of insulation fell from our air conditioning vents at odd intervals, and I  decided to call in a pro.  I didn’t want to crawl around in the dark of our attic in search of prey.  Crazy Eddy drove up our driveway in an old, dented pick up truck.  He was a wiry man of average height with three day old whiskers.  He wore dirty overalls, a long sleeved tee shirt with holes in the arms, and a sweat stained baseball cap.  He knew just what to do.  He put chicken wire over the ventilation vents on the roof and around the base of the hose that ran from the air conditioner up through a conduit and into the attic.  He checked all the ventilation holes around the bottom edge of the attic, but noted with approval that I had already chicken wired them shut.  Then he set spring traps in the attic near the trapdoor in the bedroom hall.  He said the sealed in rats couldn’t go out to forage and would take the bait when their hunger overcame their natural caution.  We heard a trap snap a few days later.  Crazy Eddy came by, cheerfully cleared the trap, wrapped the mangled body in a plastic bag, and reset.  We only had to call him once more.  Most of the rats must have been outside the house when Eddy sealed up all the entry points.

Last night I heard a scraping noise at 3 a.m.  Then I heard a thump and scrabbling sounds above my bed.  I got up and followed the noise out to the bedroom hall and heard something passing over the wooden trap door to the attic.  I tapped gently on the ceiling, but whatever was up there ignored me until I rattled the door hard.  Silence for a few minutes, and then the scrabbling noises began again.  I gave up and went back to bed, but couldn’t get to sleep until nearly dawn.

This afternoon I found chicken wire eaten through on three ventilation holes and a small gap in the eaves on the east side.  A vine grew up and into the half inch wide space between two boards.  I stripped the vine off, stapled new squares of chicken wire over the open ventilation holes and the gap in the boards, attached sticky glue traps to outside wires leading from the ground up to the attic, and set glue and spring traps in the attic.

My wife recalled how much Crazy Eddy had charged for his services and said that I had just saved us $750.  I disagreed and said, “That’ll come true when I clear a dead rat out of the attic.”

Insomnia: A Cure for Viewers Like You

My wife is a retired biologist and is fond of dialing up nature shows done in the PBS style:  a narrator speaks…slowly…with a dignified hush that lends…solemnity and import…to what…he’s saying.  In the background you can hear birdsong and the rush of water over rocks in a burbling stream.  A local guide recalls some folklore associated with the animal being studied, and then another expert wearing a safari outfit (khaki shorts, cotton shirt, boots and a wide brimmed hat) adds some scientific background about the wider ecosystem in which the creature lives.  Snoreeeeee!  After five minutes, even if I give a damn about lemon orangutans living in the New Sudetenland who have taught themselves how to ferment wine from grape seeds partially digested by Indonesian otter spit, I just can’t keep awake.

It occurred to me that this could be a big money maker.  I could simply make a recording of a randomly composed nature story, recite it in a calm and clear voice, and sell it on Amazon as an insomnia remedy. There would be no overhead as there wouldn’t be any expenses associated with travel, photography and research.  I could softly gargle and whistle to imitate a brook and bird song.  An no one would stay awake long enough to be offended or to question the validity of the nature report.  Win win!

Here’s a sample script.

(gargle, gargle, gargle)

The pileated wood stork of outer Patamongolia builds its nest on the back of the great occidental humpbacked moose and guards its eggs against all intruders.  It chose this moose quite carefully after noting the prevalence of a north/south orientation in its grazing pattern, thus ensuring that warm thermals sifting through the Achuwatana Pass would keep the eggs at a proper temperature.  She has also chosen this particular moose because its back and sides are one of the most diverse habitats of occidental humpbacked moose parasites to be found in this hemisphere.  Small mice,  intransigent mites, northern temperate wolf slugs, nine legged ticks and brown spotted microtoads provide a varied diet for our mother bird to be.

But all is not well in this gyno-ornithological realm.  The stork’s greatest enemy is the bovine snake, an seven foot mouth breathing serpent that is vaguely related to the incontinent anaconda of Ethiopia.  Look there!  One such slithering ova-larcenist insinuates its coils on the moose’s rack and waits for its chance to steal an egg.  But the wood stork is onto him and pecks at the snake’s nose until he slithers away down the moose’s front leg and off into the veldt.


But what’s this?  Just as the mother has a moment to relax she discovers that she has another unwelcome visitor.  It’s yet another male who wants to court her.  She knows that the minute she turns her back on her nest her new paramour will kick the eggs off the moose’s back and attempt to mount her.  She decides to defend her clutch even though the male’s mating dance, a combination of the rumba and the chicken dance, is hypnotizing in its many feathered, erotic grandeur.  When he sees that she is refusing to respond to his ardent advances, he adopts a male rejection body posture (sullen eyes, hunched up wings, pronounced slouch) and flies away with a partially damaged ego.

(air blown over the open mouth of a soda bottle)

But suddenly a storm rushes forward from behind the dark Atchapalpula Mountains to the east.  The dreaded tornadosoon season has descended upon the moose and stork without warning.  The moose sniffs the scent of rain and disaster in the rising wind and canters away.  Our plucky mother digs her claws into the moose’s back while desperately holding onto her nest with her beak.

A semi-transparent leopard crouches in a bobalong tree beside the trail and waits to leap on the moose’s back.  He is doubtful that he will be successful in taking down the lumbering beast, but decides to take a chance.  Who knows when he will have an opportunity to make a kill once the storms have passed? The pileated wood stork leaves her perch and pecks at the leopard’s translucent, silver eyes and drives him back.  She saves the moose, but in doing so loses her nest.  The moose continues on its way unaware that his life has been saved by the sacrifice of a mother bird.  The semi-transparent leopard watches the stork as it pensively pecks at the broken egg shells lying in dusty moose tracks, but does not attack.  The stork has taken the precaution of spreading an oil found only in gaoboana fruit along its wings and belly.  This oil gives the bird the scent of a rasping hippopotamus, an animal that the leopard despises because of its ambivalent position concerning  the transmigration of souls.

(inspirational kazoo music)

Our plucky little mother stork will survive to breed again due to her botanical foresight and knowledge of latest trends in comparative theology among the fauna of the  Palpula Plains.  She and her descendants will continue to find shelter on the backs of moose and will follow their yearly trek from the Bucocoaraaaahgo River to the swamps of the Atchapalpulan plateau. But for now our brave, little heroine needs to find a mate, a moose, and perhaps a stiff drink of lemon orangutan wine.  It’s been a long day.

(gargle, gargle, whistle…)

Get Lost in the Woods (But Never Wade with Gators)

I was raised in the suburbs and didn’t have much opportunity to take a walk in the woods when I was a kid. One of the first things that Judy got me to do when we were dating was to go hiking. We went up to Glen Helen in Yellow Springs, Ohio and began to wander up and down the trails. On the way to a small pine forest, a rarity in southwest Ohio, we paused by some boulders at the edge of a small river. I looked up at the overhanging cliff and said to Judy, “This looks like a great place for an ambush.” I was half kidding—it would have been an ideal spot for a surprise attack—but saw that I had surprised her, that I had put the tranquility of our surroundings in a whole new light for Judy. She wasn’t amused. I was beginning to learn that my part in our nature travels was to point out butterflies and pretty flowers, not to speculate about how to turn a peaceful path into a killing field.

We camped at Acadia National Forest in Maine on our honeymoon, and hiked up a mountain on a foggy day. The fog got thicker as we climbed higher, and black tree branches glistening with moisture clawed at our backpacks and sweatshirts as we snaked our way upward. The wood looked like the gloomy, haunted forest in Snow White. I thought that we had reached the top on several occasions, but saw that one rocky outcropping led to another. When we finally reached the crest of the mountain we were surrounded on all sides by gray fog. It felt like we were in the middle of limbo with no distinguishable features around us except for the few square yards of rocks, gravel and lichens at our feet. A fog horn sounded mournfully in the vague distance.

On our way back down we took another path. Our map was unclear about its route, breaking off into broken dashes that didn’t inspire confidence. Once we got down to ground level the trail petered out completely, and soon we were bushwhacking between oaks and elms and through weeds up to our thighs. Judy had been a girl scout, and I followed her until I noticed that we had begun to meander in aimless directions. I took the lead when she confessed that she was lost, and heard some odd sounds coming from straight ahead. I remembered that a crew had been working on a stretch of road on our drive to the hiking trail and decided to home in on the beeps and rumbles of an engine.

We burst out of the forest and surprised the workers as they patched potholes. We followed the road back to the parking lot where we had left the car, and agreed that we should have taken the same route back that we had used to get up to the top. It was just common sense.

A year later in the Rocky Mountains we didn’t follow that agreement. We were up on the continental divide looking at glacier topped mountains that seemed to fade away into an infinite distance. The late afternoon sun turned lichens on the side of a mile deep canyon a bright,golden color. We were intoxicated by the beauty of the vista and perhaps by lower levels of oxygen at a high altitude, and decided to take another trail down off the mountain. Blue Lake shimmered in the distance, enticing us to visit its shores.

We discovered, of course, that the path was a lot harder than it looked from up on high. We had to cross icy patches of melting snow, gravel and boulder fields. The going was slow, and Rick, our guide and Judy’s brother, began to get edgy. The sun was sinking fast and we had a long way to go. Just as the light failed completely we stepped off the last glacier and sat down in a rocky clearing on the edge of a dark wood. We were exhausted.

We sipped some water and ate trail mix and tried to decide what to do. We could wait till daybreak and hike out, but Judy had to catch a plane at six in the morning for a conference in Asilomar, California. Or we could try to stumble along the path in the dark and hope for the best. We didn’t really want to spend a cold night sleeping on gravel and dirt, so Rick took the lead and we began to hike in the dark. I went second with Judy following close behind. She shamelessly used me as a guide dog. It was pitch dark and I couldn’t see my feet. When I tripped over a log or turned my ankle in a hole she knew what to avoid.

Rick went ahead in spurts and I was afraid that we would eventually be left behind. When we lagged 30 or 40 yards back he would hold up his cigarette lighter and shine it so that we knew that he was still there.

We exited the woods at 2 a.m. and staggered to the car. Judy caught a later flight, and I spent the rest of the day sitting on a sofa in an apartment in Denver watching cable TV. I had time to go out for a hike before I flew out of town the next day to join Judy, but I couldn’t seem to bestir myself to leave the comforts of a plush sofa and a refrigerator filled with beer.

Years later we moved to Florida and eventually discovered Wekiva Springs State Park. A spring gushes out of the ground, the water pushed up under pressure from the Florida Aquifer, and spills out of a pool to form the Wekiva River.

Judy and I rented a canoe on a sunny day in June and began to paddle down stream through the Wekiva forest. We saw baby gators and turtles sunbathing on wooden stumps along the banks. A blue heron waded in the shallows and looked at us suspiciously before flying to a distant spot on a sand bar. It was a lovely day.

We turned around when we reached a marina near Rock Springs, and had to fight the current on our way back. When we passed under a laurel oak tree we heard the sound of a snap and were surprised when a heavy branch landed in the middle of the canoe between the two of us. I was in the bow and looked over my shoulder after I heard and felt the thump. The branch surprised me a bit, but I was more concerned by Judy’s behavior. She was trying to back out of the canoe off the stern. I looked down at the bottom of the canoe and saw an angry rat snake heading straight for her. I told Judy to stop moving and began to yell and wave my arms. The snake reversed course and turned on me. I put my paddle in front of its nose and dared him to make the next move. Judy took the opportunity to grab the branch and use it to lift the snake up by its middle and dump him in the river.

While we paddled on our way Judy said that the snake had probably climbed out onto the branch looking for a bird’s nest, and its weight had caused the branch to snap. I thought that we had been extraordinarily lucky that one of us hadn’t been hit on the head by the branch or bitten by a seriously pissed off serpent.

We rounded a bend and heard a series of crashing noises off to the right. Judy called out, “Look, there’s a black bear cub climbing a tree!” When I spun around to look the cub was gone, and I told Judy to help me turn the canoe so that we could go back and take a closer look. Then I realized that the cub probably had a mama lurking nearby that wouldn’t take kindly to any intrusions into its privacy. I cancelled the order and told Judy that we should start paddling like mad. It was time to get the hell out of there before the river offered up any more surprises.

About five years ago Judy and I decided to take a hike on a hot summer day at the Little/Big Econ Nature Preserve outside of Oviedo, Florida. The path is on a high bluff that follows the Econlockhatchee River. The black water river is a deep, murky brown from the tannins it absorbs from the trees along its banks, and teems with fish and fairly large gators. If you walk along the banks for a long enough stretch of time you’re sure to see the unsettling sight of a fifteen foot alligator rise up slowly from the inky depths to crest on top of the river. What danger had once been completely invisible becomes lethally apparent.

Judy and I came to a break in the trees along the bluff and looked down to the white sands on the opposite shore of the river. We saw a twelve foot gator sunning itself on the beach. It was fat like the crocodile in “Peter Pan”, opened its giant jaws from time to time to reveal its white gullet and spiky rows of teeth, and it spun the stump of a missing hind leg in slow, counterclockwise rotations. He had probably lost his leg in a territorial fight with another alligator, which prompted the following question:  How big was the gator that defeated the fat monster sunning itself on the beach in front of us?

We went further up the path, got hot and tired, and decided to come back the way that we came—yes, we had learned our lesson over the years. The gator was gone by the time we returned to that spot, but he had left behind a long belly slide track in the sand leading into the water. We went further up the path and took a break in the shade. As we sipped some water we heard someone coming along the path toward us. He was a dripping wet, thirty year old man who wore nothing but sodden boxers. He carried shorts and shoes in his hands and came up to us as if there was nothing odd about his appearance. He told us that he taught environmental science up the road at UCF, and that he had been wading in the river back by a nice beach with white sands. I told him about the fat, three legged gator that we had seen there, and suggested that it was a bad idea to go wading in a black water river infested with gigantic, prehistoric reptiles. He just laughed and said, “I didn’t see any gators.”

I turned to Judy after he merrily trudged onward and said, “They never do.” We began to lay bets about whether or not the young professor’s tenure review committee would ever have to take up his case.