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The Enchanted Forest

Sunday, February 27, 2011

One of the official activities for Liam and me at the Space Coast Birding and Nature Festival was to help the hugely capable and entertaining naturalist Joe Swingle lead a walk centered around gopher tortoises at the Enchanted Forest Sanctuary near Titusville, Florida. Now, what I know about gopher tortoises you could put in an overturned thimble, but Joe took care of all that. Besides, the tortoises were all snoozin' in their digs, because it had been so cold.  I was just along to help people see some stuff they might not have noticed, and Liam was toting Joe's gear and generally adding to the personability of the event. Phoebe came along, too! and so, to our delight, did Bill Webb.

About the first thing I noticed was some really scuzzy looking sabal palm fronds, and I wondered what might have scraped all the chlorophyll bearing layers off of them. So I turned the frond over and found an amazing network of frass and then tiny silken cocoons which I was too excited to photograph, wanting instead just to show it to the kids on the trip. Kids tend to get much more excited about natural history stuff than do most adults. No wonder I get along well with kids.

See that nasty pale area near the rachis? Well, the cocoons and frass networks were under the leaf.

So in Chimp CSI mode I dig around and carefully opened one of the silken cocoons, a process which fascinated the kids, and found this little culprit

which I could tell was going to eclose into a very small but long-winged moth. Which species, as yet unknown, but butterflies make chrysalis capsules, not silken cocoons, so we knew it was a moth. Cool!

Photo by Machele White from

When I got home I Googled it and found our pupa to be a palm leaf skeletonizer, Homaledra sabalella.  Which is a pretty cool name for a tiny, unsurprisingly brown moth. I dunno. I just liked the idea that there was a moth whose caterpillars were out scrapin' sabal palms for all they were worth.

We did some other things like percolation tests which we all enjoyed, seeing visible evidence that organic matter in soils (leaves, sticks and the like) greatly slows percolation in Florida's sand.

Bill Webb's photo of me and Liam, which he titled Science Chimp and Cub.

There was mistletoe in the oaks

growing in green balls in the leafless trees, reminding me of seeing the old black men with their car trunks full of mistletoe they'd shot out of the oaks in Tidewater Virginia, selling it on the old highway to Williamsburg, when I was a kid. 

Looking down, there was Innocence, Houstonia procumbens   (Rubiaceae), which reminds me of its close cousin Honesty, or roundleaf bluet (Houstonia coerulea). Only in albino midget form. I also like the idea of plants with just one name. Innocence. Honesty. Chastity. Cher. 

Moving along the trail, we found fresh bobcat pugmarks, which about made my eyes roll back in my head. Bobcats are not nearly the huge deal in Florida that they are in Ohio. Oh gosh I love bobcats. I love the idea of bobcats. I have seen three wild bobcats in my life (first in Texas; second in North Dakota, and third about this time last year, 8  miles from our house!) So I could die now and still be happy.  Here's my hand for scale. That's a big ol' pussycat.

And even better, a fresh bobcat log!

At this point I'm down on hands and knees trying to figure out how the earth got piled up near this turd with no visible scratch marks from the cat. Derr....I'm mumbling to myself when a voice comes from behind me, surmising that this is the sign of dung beetles working from below. Oh, now, I'm loving that, because we are short on dung beetles in Ohio. Lots of dung, not many dung beetles. Gotta do something about that.

And the voice belonged to...

Floridacracker! (pictured here with his candy-apple red, nattily spotless JEEP, a vehicular extension of his personality if I have ever seen one)

who made the trip over to the festival to meet me and the kids!

I am not sure I will be able to adequately convey how much it meant to me to meet this man at last, having enjoyed his creative output for years via his blog, Pure Florida.

In  my next post, I will try.

And the Birds Came

Thursday, February 24, 2011

I am on the beach at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and I have been quietly watching a fisherman catching and processing two Florida pompano. 

There followed a perfect lion kill tableau, complete with marauding hyenas and jackals, all disguised as a fisherman and a few innocent-looking Florida beach birds.

I got down on my knees and shot and shot quickly as the birds quarreled over the pompano carcasses. Macabre? Perhaps, but no more than my own species’ quick rendering of a beating heart and frantic eye into freezable filets.

First and boldest is the ruddy turnstone, here in winter plumage. I adore turnstones, smart opportunistic little brawlers that they are. They aren’t afraid to challenge a gull ten times their size if good food is at stake. 

While a ring-billed gull chokes down a morsel of fish, the turnstone darts in.

A ringbill tugs at a fish’s entrails as a boat-tailed grackle sizes up its chances of joining in. The low-angle evening light lends an epic quality to the tableau, with small hillocks in the sand reading as a dunescape.

The scene constantly changes from one carcass to the other. A laughing gull strides up to scatter the turnstones and a lone sanderling. I’m intrigued by the gull’s posture; it adopts the head-tossing, hunch-backed profile of a juvenile begging from its parent. Odd—is it begging the turnstones for a chance at the pompano? Does the sight of food just set off this juvenile behavior in a mature bird?

 A ring-billed gull swoops in and holds forth over a carcass.

It'll have to get what it can before the boat-tailed grackle steals it.

The ringbill manages to free some food before a herring gull and then a great black-backed gull swoop down and end its picnic.

Not many birds argue with a great black-backed gull, pirate of the sea. The herring gull manages to hold it off for awhile

until a young great-black-backed joins in.

and when they are done there are fragments, just enough for the boat-tailed grackles

little black coroners, pronouncing the pompano dead at last. Oh how I love this shot.

Used up, all the way up, by Homo sapiens, who took the lion's share,
 followed by four species of gull, two shorebirds and an icterid. Eight species all feasting on a silvery lavender blue pompano rimmed in lemon yellow

who only minutes before had been swimming in light surf on a warm evening on Cape Canaveral

whose eyes looked into mine and found me unable to help

but willing to swallow hard and document its final hour.

The fisherman packed up and went home, pompano filets swinging in a grocery bag

leaving me amazed and standing on an empty beach

wondering at the circle of life and death, the beauty of fresh food from the sea, hand-caught;

the stories in every little thing that happens,

 which are there to be shared by the spirit

left open to the thrust of grace.*

I turned back to find my children still playing in the same warm surf

and walked back to join them

rinsed clean 

thinking about everything and nothing at all.

                                                                                                       *Bruce Cockburn, of course.

Requiem for a Pompano

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Confession: As a Leo, beaches make me want to walk more than swim. I love to pace along the ocean’s edge, but I’m not the Amazon who rushes into the waves, peeling clothing as she goes, then dives like a porpoise into the sea’s watery embrace, bobbing up slick as a seal and laughing. Nuh-uh. The sea delights me visually and conceptually, but unless the water’s bathtub warm I’ll leave the frolicking to those who are better at it.  

So while Phoebe and Liam dared the waves I walked. On a beach, I tend to pick a visual point, be it bird, carcass, pier, or fisherman, and walk toward it.     

I noticed a small flurry of bird activity near an orange-clad fisherman, and made that my destination. Wheeling back occasionally to watch the kids through binoculars, I finally reached him and sat a respectful distance away photographing the gulls, grackles and shorebirds attracted to his station. He made a crack about being the birds’ agent and demanding I feed them before photographing them. With that little gesture, he set me at ease and let me know it was all right for me to share his space. I thought I detected a native Floridian in his easy demeanor and that hunch was confirmed. I really just wanted to find out what was happening between him, the sea and the birds. I figured there was food involved, and was intrigued by the assemblage of eight species he’d attracted: sanderling, ruddy turnstone, boat-tailed grackle; great black-backed, laughing, herring and ring-billed gull.

Soon enough, I noticed a couple of sand-covered Florida pompano Trachinotus carolinus (Jack family, Carangidae) 

 breathing their last on the beach, and the little assemblage of avian undertakers suddenly made sense. The fisherman was winding up his day, and he took the fish down to the waves to wash them before processing them. Pompano is said to be delicious, commanding the highest price dockside of any fish. Sadly, I wouldn’t know, never having been in pompano country.  I'm in farm-raised catfish country :-/

One pompano had departed this mortal coil, turning ghostly silver-white in the process. Still it was a gorgeous creature, with touches of yellow on tail and fins. I turned to the live one. It shimmered with blue, lavender and rose, the colors playing across its impossibly satiny, fine-grained skin. 

I wondered what it was thinking as it glared at me, this huge hominid pointing a black box at it, and it made a mighty flex of body and tail as if in response. If you aren’t going to kill me, throw me back, idiot; I’m dying here.

It was a tricky moment for a compulsive helper of the helpless. I don’t know what the pompano knew at this sorry nadir in its short life; whether it perceived me as a possible savior or just another awful spectre in its dimming eye. What I’m sure it couldn’t appreciate is that I was a guest in this state; on this unmarked spot on the beach. It wasn’t my place to take dinner out from under the Florida native who so genially tolerated my presence.

I am sorry, so sorry. I can’t help you. I could throw you back and take off running down the beach, I suppose, but this man has been here all day waiting for you to take his lure, and you struck it, and this is what happens when you make the last and worst mistake a fish can make. Besides, whether I throw you back or not, you are done for, my silvery friend. You’ve been too long in the thin cold air.

You are never going back home to the waves.

 I screwed my heart’s porthole closed again and kept shooting. While I’d been talking to the still-living fish, the fisherman had filleted the dead pompano.

The fisherman came and got the live fish and washed it in the surf. I pointed out the lavender, blue and rose still playing across its skin. I asked him if they always turn white when they die and he said he’d never noticed. He held it up to let me admire it for a moment before deploying his filet knife.

And with the first cut, he quickly turned a living being into food. 

So this is how it's done.

First he cut the muscle off one side, then he flipped it over and cut the other.

He cut two smooth filets off its sides, leaving the head, spine, ribs and organs in place, taking all the muscle the fish had and leaving nothing, really, and I wondered as I watched with dry amazed eyes when in the process the fish finally died. He dropped the filets into a plastic bag and I felt a little envy because at that moment they looked like very nice food to me. We had been eating out in a bland, unimaginative sort of way for several days and the cook in me was yearning for something fresh to prepare. I asked him if the two small pompano would be tonight’s dinner, and he said no, if you came out here expecting to catch your dinner a lot of times you’d go hungry. He would put them in the freezer for later. For some reason that made me feel bad. I hoped his freezer wasn’t like mine: a place where meat lies in state until it’s fit for offering to the vultures.

And then he unceremoniously tossed what was left of the beautiful pompano to the birds.  

I kept watching, of course...

Waves of Grace

Sunday, February 20, 2011


 We were the only people in sight on the Canaveral beach in late January. Just like we like our beaches. Not that we see many, being Ohioans.

The kids had to get their feet wet. I knew they'd get their jeans wet, too, but there was no fighting it. We'd deal with the sand and the dampness later.

It wasn't really beach weather, as evidenced by the windbreakers and sweatshirts, but when would we have another chance to be in the ocean?

 I left them to play with about a dozen parental warnings about riptides and rogue waves, trusting their hydrophobic anthropoid instincts to carry them through. They're careful kids. I walked and felt the foam with my toes, walked and felt the sand with my tired feet, studied my prints and made some more.

We made two visits to the beach at Cape Canaveral. The second time, they wore bathing suits under their shorts.

What is it about the ocean that can soothe us and make us delight in just being there, being alive, walking and thinking about nothing and everything at once?

Is it the rush of the ocean mother's heartbeat in our chests and ears? Is it the half-remembered origin of life coming to the fore? I watched my children walk and talk, knowing that before long the leggy blonde boy would tower over his statuesque sister.

Neither of them believes me when I say that.

For now, Phoebe is content to let her brother crack her up as he meets the ocean in a power-slide.

She turns to laugh with me as, caught clowning and off guard, he tumbles down...

and then, being Phoebe, helps him back up.

 He adores her, shadows her every move for five days and nights, and she is almost always kind to him.
She was 3 1/2 when he came into the world, and it was clear she was ready to care for someone else. I'll always be grateful that they get along so well.

I watch them as the brown pelicans glide by.  I am never without something beautiful to watch.

I want to paint the perfection of this young pelican in watercolors; I know just which colors I'd choose.
I mix them in the mind's palette.

Thank you for your perfect wing, your unfathomable ghastly grace; your flat doll's eye and impossible bill.

You surf the waves with a few dynamic flaps and endless sails, riding on a pillow of air just over the water's surface.

 When I was a child moving into my teens I felt awkward and ungainly, and I wondered why I had been born in the body of such a homely primate. I wanted to be a deer, an antelope, an eagle. I despaired at the clumsiness of my species. I was blind to my own lithe grace.

 Having children disabused me of that notion; it opened me to the loveliness of my own kind. My own grace has faded, but I've caught lightning here in these slender vessels, and I gaze at it, newly fascinated.

 The sun catches their hair and strokes their lean forms and I catch my breath and hold it.

I thank the sea for giving us a taste of the carefree ease of summer, and wish the sun would hang low in the sky for a few more hours. I don't want to go back to the hotel; I don't want to go back to gray flannel Ohio. I want to stay with my beautiful ones in this timewarp, the turquoise sea rushing around us, cancelling noise, soothing us into reflection and meditation.

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