On Becoming a Birder
One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the masks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise. -Aldo Leopold, “The Round River”
On the drive from Miami, after a roseate spoonbill sighting, we passed a blinking road sign. The sign read, “Wildlife Near Road,” and John surmised that the flashing lights meant that a tagged animal was within fifty yards. His voice thundered through the small car, his eagerness for our canoe trip almost aggressive. In Wisconsin, he said, members of an elk herd had been implanted with microchips, and when the herd approached the road, lights on “Elk Crossing” signs began to flash in order to alert drivers. This procedure saved lives, he said, animal and human. When I suggested that the lights flashed all the time—that maybe the danger of exterminating wildlife was a constant—he shook his head. John was sure that the wildlife nearby was a Florida panther. His uncle told us the saying in Florida: you were more likely to be struck by lightning than to glimpse a Florida panther. They were that rare.
We sped along the narrow highway, flanked by canals, alligators, and anhingas. Even inside the vehicle, the sun was merciless. As we hurtled southward, I had to keep reminding myself that we would soon be on the water. Soon, tropical breezes would circulate between our dripping limbs, and we’d move at a more reasonable pace. A truly Southern pace, as slow and smooth as the paddle as it glides over the water before the next stroke. Stroke, slice, feather, I breathed. Water at dawn. Stroke, slice, feather. The promise of open space.
I had essentially invited myself on John’s family trip. When his family backed out, I told him I still wanted to go. I had left Alaska to resume residence with my parents in coastal Georgia—for the winter or for good, whichever gave out first—and by December I was desperate to prove to myself that I could find the wilderness of Alaska a few hours south of Miami.
It certainly had the promise of adventure; the night before, we’d celebrated the new year with John’s cousins at a party where we’d burned our last year’s regrets and released dream-scrawled balloons to carry our resolutions high above the city. While the flock of white rubber creatures dispersed into the atmosphere, we slept off hangovers and prepared for twelve days of paddling through the Everglades.
In Savannah, a lady does not ever have to pee, but rather, she uses the little girls’ room, or better yet, she powders her nose. Hippies are free spirits or people who dance to their own tune. Homosexuals fall under this category as well. Those who are just plain weird are strange birds, or, more specifically, a strange duck. People who are sick, whether terminally or temporarily, are simply under the weather. I spent my childhood navigating my mother’s language without a dictionary; it was rude to ask for specifics.
When I returned to Savannah after eight years of relative absence, these phrases caught in my ears and reverberated. At eighteen, I’d left for college in the north with relatively no experience of life above the line. Now, having seen and heard some of the world, I had words to fill in much of what my mother wouldn’t say—but how to know if I had hit the mark?
In my travels, I learned that Savannah is beautiful. A destination. People clamored to tell me of the cobblestone streets, of the palm trees lining the road, of the historic graveyards. Visitors are sure to feel the comfort of true Southern hospitality and rich food. It is one of the only cities in the nation where one can order alcoholic beverages ‘to go’ and enjoy them while strolling along River Street. Coastal breezes keep the negativity at bay, and you need not look far to glimpse the Old South, that mythical land of ladies, gentlemen, and manners. The local vocabulary lends itself to such interpretations; if we don’t talk about things, we can pretend they don’t exist.
Thirteen years before, I had lumbered southward on a tour bus carrying my entire eighth grade class. From the Outward Bound headquarters on the Barron River, near Everglades City, we staged a week-long canoe trip through the Ten Thousand Islands. Within two days, we were down one group member to an intestinal disease and a high fever and another to extreme homesickness. Among those who remained was my spunky childhood friend Jennifer, who around day three informed us at the top of her lungs, “I’m moody because I’m on my period, OK?”
On Tiger Key, trip leader Suzanne stamped barefooted around the campfire and read to us from “Where the Wild Things Are.” Clem, our other leader, tried to talk birds. We ignored him. We swam and climbed trees, forgetting our awkward pre-teen bodies in fleeting, ecstatic moments. I had devoted approximately twenty-five pages of my fifth grade journal to memorializing the good qualities of another group member, Thomas. When I saw he’d been stationed near me for an afternoon “solo,” however, all those scripted and potentially flirtatious conversations escaped me. I found the nearest detachable object—a shell—and threw it at him. We began to talk. In the kind of moment I encounter in my adult life with alarming frequency, I realized that he was far more interesting to me before he spoke.
Soon our chatter attracted other creatures like us. Clem sauntered up, binoculars around his neck, birding book in hand, and joined the outer ranks of our circle. He could have been a castaway. He was unshaven and exotic. He did not speak, did not really even make eye contact; he simply stood among us and lifted his binoculars to the sky.
Gradually, we quieted; some among us even tried to speak to Clem but received no reply. Maybe he did not speak our language? When no alternatives presented themselves, we dispersed silently, each to our own circle of wilderness, and left Clem alone with his birds.
Once, when the whole group tied up to a mangrove tree and Suzanne was handing out pita bread for snacks, I turned around with my camera and captured Jennifer smiling, the Gulf of Mexico open wide behind her, and her blond hair puffed up by the wind into the shape of a rooster’s tail. The sun was shining into her face and she squinted her eyes against its attack.
John and I pushed off from a public dock near Chokoloskee with an escort of pelicans. We had scarcely cleared Chokoloskee Bay when he stopped paddling to rig a small fishing rod.
“Shouldn’t we get to where we’re going first?” I asked.
In the park office, the ranger had scoffed at our estimated daily mileage. He had alternated between various condescending tones as he lectured us on fatigue, lack of water, powerful tides. Where I demurred, John bellowed: we were experienced paddlers, we knew the area, and he had paddled a similar route before. While I shared his sentiments, I was horrified by his tactics. How would it look when, several days from now, we were marooned on a mangrove island and in desperate need of rescue? Wouldn’t he regret his confidence then? My response was a learned one; I can still hear my mother explaining why it was essential that I, a young woman, should always wear clean underwear and shave my legs. “You never know when you’ll be in a car accident and have to be taken to the hospital,” she said. The moral was implied.
We had planned the trip over the phone, John in Fairbanks and me in Savannah. In the years preceding the trip, we had nurtured a friendship predicated on balance. We wanted the same things in life, it seemed, but we came to them from hopelessly opposite shores. Our pre-trip conversations revolved around gear and were fraught with tension:
John: What do you have in the way of maps?
Mollie: I’ve got a map.
Mollie: Yes. It covers Chokoloskee Bay and Lopez River.
John: I’ll dig out my maps. We need better maps.
John: Are you scared of the alligators?
Mollie: No. I grew up in alligator country. I used to swim with alligators.
We drifted into camp just before sunset that first night. We made dinner accompanied by the growing drone of mosquitos. In the midst of what should have been peaceful, end of day stillness, they drove us into the cramped tent. Our wilderness experience had begun. I fell asleep bereft of my idyllic representation of the Everglades. In the coming days, my careful rhythm, my stroke, slice, feather, my dream of silent appreciation, all gave way to John’s constant chatter. When he wasn’t talking, or reading out loud, he sang. He didn’t sing normal songs, but the short jingles of advertisements, designed to stick in your head indefinitely. I ground my teeth, certain that he had failed that unspoken class on wilderness ethic that people who went into the woods were supposed to know.
A few weeks before my second Everglades trip, taken in college, I broke my wrist. A stout Tibetan boy had fallen into me during an intermural soccer match, and the doctor made me promise I would sit out the next few games. When I asked him if I could paddle, he cocked his head. It was January, the water in Vermont frozen solid.
“Next summer? Yes.” He moved to dismiss me.
“No, next week. We’re going to the Everglades.” He handed me a hard plastic brace and shook his head.
Though we were initially delayed by a tropical storm, we spent the next five days in paradise: blue skies, warm water, light breezes, sandy beaches, and sun, always sun. The first day, we stopped to lunch at the bottom of Indian Key Pass, where the horizon beyond Indian Key opens up into the vast sunny blue of the Gulf of Mexico and it feels like the world may actually, despite the great advances of modern science, be flat. We ate on a small sandbar near Indian Key.
As we approached the sandbar, large white birds occupied every available inch of sand above the waterline. We marveled and drifted closer, and the birds took flight—first one, then a few, then all, every last bird on the island. They swirled and turned above our heads, and someone asked what kind of bird they were. Someone else, possibly me, in awe, cried out, “Albatross!” There must have followed some debate on this topic, but “albatross” was repeated several times, and we landed on the island with food and sunscreen on our minds.
Albatross, for one, are not entirely white, and, for two, do not occur along the eastern coast of the United States, nor are they found in the Gulf of Mexico. The birds were certainly not pelicans nor eagles, two large birds I could identify without difficulty. Perhaps my memory has altered them, and it was a flock of white ibis. Perhaps my companions knew that “albatross” was a false designation; I did not. Still, there was something honest about our misidentification, and that was that we were in paradise. In paradise, every bird is exotic, every magic is possible. We need only desire a creature for it to appear. The mirage radiates so convincingly that we do not care to peer behind it.
A dolphin breached right next to the canoe Kristin and I were paddling, and while we laughed about what would happen if it flipped us over, we almost ran into a sea turtle. It floated nonchalantly just below the surface of the water, so that its head and shell were out in the air. If I had curled up in a ball on the sand, it could have covered me completely. On one of our last days in the park, a giant sting ray leaped out of the water in front of us. Its sleek body and barbed tail cleared the water before its re-entry.
We completed our journey without getting lost, despite using a single small map to navigate the labyrinth of floating mangrove islands. My broken wrist never once caused me pain. We did not see a single alligator.
As it turned out, I was terrified of the alligators. I had, in fact, grown up in alligator country, and I had, in fact, swum in places where alligators lived. I had not seen one up close in a long time, and I wasn’t prepared for the primordial fear that struck me when they slid on their bellies from mudbank to river as we passed by. Under the water, they could be anywhere. When one of these monsters was not nearby, I told John how I had once hooked an alligator in the head with a fishing lure and tugged and pulled until the exasperated creature went under and broke the line. But when they were close, I panicked. I was short with John, blaming him for his apparent lack of fear, and always, I said, he had paddled too close.
Because I had not encountered alligators on my previous trips, they seemed to me like a malignancy in the swamp. I knew that was ridiculous, but I couldn’t shake the ominous feeling, like I was seeing my fears incarnated before my eyes.
“This is where they live,” John said. “They live here and you don’t.”
I didn’t want to exterminate them, but I didn’t want to see them, either. I wanted to swim, to bathe in the river, to not have to be so aware of them lurking in every muddy shallow. This awareness, I thought, was the sad difference between being young and being not young. I found myself wondering if I had passed just as many alligators on previous trips and simply blocked them from my sight through some kind of innocence. Suddenly here I was on a river, and I could see the creatures of death around me on every side. They knew better than I the course my life would eventually run.
There are thousands of alligators in the park, and John and I paddled the Wilderness Waterway, which took us up into the glades and through brackish and even fresh water, where the alligators live and feed. In the end, it was the repetition that calmed me. Around this bend is an alligator (I’m alive); on that mudbank, two alligators (I’m alive); tomorrow, we will see alligators (I’m alive); the next day, more alligators (I’m alive).
A few weeks after we had both left Florida, John called me in the middle of the night. “What did we figure out down there?” he asked. He sounded desperate.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “You never figure out what you go into the woods to figure out. You think you’re going to find Jesus, and all you really find are your own failures.”
John paused. “Aren’t they related?”
My second trip to the Everglades landed me back on Tiger Key. Nestled in the warm sand with four friends from college, I dreamt in blunt sequences. A month before our trip, my friend Jennifer—the spunky girl who had traversed this island with me—was shot in the abdomen during a burglary in downtown Savannah. She bled out in the hospital New Year’s Day, 2006. In my dreams, we traversed life in bland snippets: we played soccer, went to parties, sat on a dock, shared a damp cigarette.
My friends and I had taken turns driving all the way from Vermont to Miami. We stopped over in Savannah to pick up a second canoe from my parents. I didn’t really want to be there, at home, in the place where people died. I wasn’t talking about it, wouldn’t for several more years, and I resented my mother for having mentioned it in front of my companions. It felt as if she had exposed part of my intestines, and now my friends could poke around, examine what I had eaten and judge me for it. Worse, she shared my pain in a language that made it inaccessible to me. She memorialized Jennifer, made her a hero, something other than who she truly was. Maybe I didn’t know who she was either, would never know.
Where my mother responded with emotion, I wanted to respond with logic—with specific words—but I was unsuccessful. For years, the best I could do was to box up the pain and label it “bad.” I labeled Savannah “dangerous.” That spring, another member of our small high school class died in a car accident. Maybe there was something in the water. I stayed away.
The court ruled that it took three men to kill her. Because she came from a prominent, white Savannah family, and the men convicted of her murder were young, black males, the city erupted. The prosecution relied on the testimony of one man’s uncle, who was granted immunity in exchange for his story. Powerful white families called for a renewed war on crime, and strong black voices responded: young black men and women had been being murdered for years, in astonishingly high numbers, and no one outside of the black community had cared. Racial tensions that Savannah claimed to have put behind it decades ago now stood at the forefront, oblivious to their having ever been laid to rest. Men I had grown up thinking of as fathers and leaders spoke of carrying guns downtown. For protection, of course. I felt like I was in one of those bad movies about the Jim Crow South.
I mourned my friend. I was afraid to walk alone through the city, but I also feared the anger that lived in my home. To speak of complexity was to come out a traitor. I was haunted by an imagined conversation I kept having with the mother of the man who supposedly pulled the trigger. Later, I would find out that she had collapsed in hysterics in the courtroom and had to be carried to the emergency room. My desire to place Jennifer’s death in a larger context—one that diminished the wrongdoing that killed her—spoke, I thought then, to a lapse in my character. Even now, my heart pounds with an old fear: if I speak against my culture, will those men—fathers, weak with bloodlust—come after me?
On Tiger Key, I awoke from dreams of Jenn to the lapping of waves against the sand. My life was brimming with possibility, my future full of places she would never go. I made a promise to her that night that she could go with me. That I would, in a sense, carry her. To my twenty-year-old mind, it seemed a plausible endeavor.
“We are looking for ghosts,” John told me. He was sitting at a picnic bench on Chatham Bend, scribbling into his journal. He was referring to Watson’s victims, Bloody Watson who had once cultivated cane and citrus on this very bluff. John had recently read Peter Matthiessen’s epic, “Shadow Country,” and told me I couldn’t come on the trip until I had read it, too.
“There are a lot of ghosts down here,” I responded. I looked out over the water.
“Birds used to fill the sky. So thick you couldn’t see the sun.”
“What, pollution?” I asked.
“Plume hunters. Chevelier. That game warden, Guy Bradley, everyone said Watson murdered him? Haven’t you read the book?”
Matthiessen’s book integrates human history and natural history seamlessly. While his fellow men describe Watson and ponder over the mysterious man’s role in a string of murders in the glades, they simultaneously report on the fishing, the endless clam beds, the gator hunting, the bears, the panthers, the snakes, and the birds. In other words, they identify the particulars of the landscape, which the reader soon understands is indivisible from the people who inhabit it.
The canoe trip with John marked my third visit to the Everglades. I had become a haphazard explorer of wilderness, and the Everglades had survived seven more years of storms and been invaded by Burmese pythons. There are several theories about the presence of the pythons in the glades, but it is likely that they were released by residents of south Florida when they became too large to endure as pets. Now they have a healthy breeding population and no known predators aside from humans. Just as John and I returned to Miami from our trip, a special season was opened for hunters to kill as many pythons as they could in one month. The slaughter was not as successful as Florida Fish and Wildlife had hoped, with a grand total of sixty-eight pythons killed, but did give them more information, they said, about how to focus their future efforts. Over 2,000 pythons have been removed from the park since 2002.
In Miami, we met with an environmental activist who showed us research that mapped the rising sea level. The unique habitat of the Everglades depends on a delicate balance between saltwater and fresh, and rising oceans mean an influx of salt in the glades. The red mangroves and sawgrass that live in saline environments are spreading inland. As sea levels continue to rise, the Everglades will be inundated and the most important breeding ground for wading birds in North America flooded.
John made an impulsive purchase just before we left the Ranger Station in Everglades City. Unable to bear the thought of not knowing something, he bought an Audubon guide that contained every species of animal and plant found in Florida. When he caught a new fish, he dug out the book and identified it. Within two days, he had memorized the entire thing. He interrupted my reading with bursts of “It was a crevalle jack, it had to be!” and “Did you know that there is a saltwater catfish?” Once, he closed the book and rolled over to stare at me.
“I know what we need,” he said. “To see the elusive mangrove cuckoo!”
For the next two hours, anything I said was met with the response, “Mangrove cuckoo?” Later in the night, some splashing woke me up and I turned over in my sleeping bag to peer out of the tent. John was motionless beside me. I lay back down, got comfortable, and was almost asleep again when I heard a whisper from the other side of tent: “Was it a mangrove cuckoo?”
To me, the book that named the birds and the fish and the trees felt superfluous; it was an intrusion on the magic of being in the wilderness. I was looking for paradise; I wanted to be in the land of the white albatross. I wanted to find beauty, by any name. Perhaps the ghost I was searching for, more than any other, was my innocence.
By the time John and I went to the Everglades, I had already discovered many things about myself, most of them the hard way: that I had a temper I was bad at hiding, that I often paired with high energy people, that I liked to pretend to be laid back, that I was stubborn. Sometimes John eyed me sideways with a look I pretended not to see, and other times he completely ignored me. It might have been sexual tension, but it manifested as a pissing contest. We argued about how to read the map, about what spices to put in the dinner pot, and, more than anything, about how to paddle into the wind. We disagreed on routes, and once I spent half an hour trying to prove that the island we were looking for was behind the island that we were actually looking for. In this case John was right, and I held it against him as I would against my mother. His visible effort not to gloat made the gloating all the worse.
When we were planning the trip, a good friend of mine had scolded me for going alone with John:
“Doesn’t he have a girlfriend?” she asked.
“What’s that got to do with it? We’re paddling,” I replied.
Upon learning that John’s possible girlfriend wasn’t Southern, my friend relaxed. Apparently, a Southern woman could inflict great harm on another woman who traveled alone with her man.
“Still,” she said. “Don’t shave your legs or anything. He might get the wrong idea.”
On the drive from Miami, John was the first to see what I would have called a miniature flamingo.
“It’s a roseate spoonbill, look!” he yelled.
Sure enough, we looked; the bird was pink and had a bill like a double spatula that it swung around in the water as it fed. We sped past it.
“I’ve never seen one before in the wild,” John told us, “a roseate spoonbill. This is going to be a good trip.”
The roseate spoonbill was beautiful. When we encountered a pair of them feeding later in the trip, and later still a flock of around ten birds, I got as excited as John did.
“You take pictures, I’ll paddle!” I called.
“Just look at the color on them,” John marveled. “Who else gets to see this kind of thing?”
They flew above us and then away and neither of us cared, for the moment, whether we were gaining on the wind. John had researched the area beforehand, knew much of its history. I had spent more collective time here than he had, and knew nothing. Albatross.
We didn’t see a Burmese python or a Florida panther, nor did we ever find the elusive mangrove cuckoo. We did see thousands of birds, and at John’s prompting, we identified them all. I was reminded of the intimate power of calling a being by its own name. We may never know who the birds really are, but naming them reminds us of the diversity that populates our skies. These birds were given names by ornithologists, by naturalists, by scientists, by other “ists” that I had, in my great desire to believe in magic, ignored. As a writer, I have learned to study people and behavior. I believe in the inexplicable. But below the birds of the Everglades, in the face of John and his fact book, I saw how detail could engender magic. A bird’s given name, its genus and species, a description of its habitat, its feeding and mating practices, none of this, I saw, precluded its mystery as a living breathing individual being on the face of this earth. If anything, the mystery deepened.
All along the rivers we startled great blue herons. They are solitary birds, and only rarely would two fly out of the same tree. Occasionally, we questioned ourselves. “That one looked different,” John would say, and I would respond, “Perhaps a tricolored, Louisiana heron? A yellow-crowned night-heron?”
“No,” he would respond, “A great blue.”
“GB!” We called in greeting. “Just passing through. Sorry for the interruption.”
By the end of our twelve-day expedition, I was asking John to pass me the book as often as I asked to see the map. I was eager to undo my stubborn ignorance. We saw turkey vultures and black vultures, wood storks, ospreys, little blue herons, great white herons, belted kingfishers, anhingas, double-crested cormorants, thousands of white ibis. We identified immature little blue herons, who are white and look a great deal like egrets. And finally, we saw the egrets. Snowy egrets were once plentiful birds; hunted nearly to extinction so that ladies could wear a single feather in their hats, these birds have made a miraculous recovery. The fact that they live and breed today is testament to a resilience not singular to humanity.
At several points during our voyage, we veered off of the Wilderness Waterway in order to paddle deeper into the glades, up to Canepatch campsite, or back down to the Gulf in search of beaches. One of these was Highland Beach. We arrived in the afternoon and sought refuge from the sun under the royal palms. Later that night, we let the fire die and retreated to the tent. I had fallen asleep, and I woke up to John pulling the zipper of the tent flap and climbing out. When he returned, I asked him if everything was okay.
“American oystercatchers,” he replied. “Lots of them.”
“Brown and white birds with black heads and bright orange beaks running around all over the beach? I think so.”
Oystercatchers come up onto beaches at high tide, when the oyster and clam beds are unavailable. They are among the few species of birds that nest on sandy beaches in summer rather than migrate to, say, the Arctic. They are, in comparison to many shorebirds (the elusive white albatross among them), rather easy to identify.
When I returned to Savannah after the trip, I told anybody that asked about the alligators and the pythons. But even while I catered to the demands of sensationalism, I had my eyes peeled for the birds. Savannah is a coastal city, and my parents live on the bank of a small tidal estuary. Grimball Creek winds through a large expanse of salt marsh and eventually intersects the Intracoastal Waterway. Bottlenose dolphins, the same species that John and I saw in estuaries in the Everglades, sometimes come up Grimball Creek to chitter to us and feed. I have spent hours watching a great blue heron feed at low tide just feet from my perch in the yard. Out above the salt marsh beyond the creek, a flock of snowy egrets whirls like a snowstorm, scanning mud flats exposed by the retreating tide.
I had enjoyed relationships with these birds for years, but I had never known their names. I thought of them as mythical creatures, and I feared that naming them would make them ordinary, would diminish their magnificence. Perhaps, as the Israelites feared to speak the name of their God, I would be struck by lightning. It was, after all, more likely than my seeing a Florida panther. Back from the Everglades, I began to investigate the world around me with a new eye. I pointed and asked questions; I felt as if I were learning to speak again. I had studied three different foreign languages over the course of my education, and each had taught me a new way to view the world. Here I was again, at the beginning.
“What is that bird?” I asked my father one afternoon as we worked in the garden.
“That’s a mockingbird. They’re mean, they’ll dive bomb you if you get anywhere near the nest.”
I pulled the bird books down from the shelves and poured over them. One morning I called John and woke him up.
“It’s six in the morning here, did you know that?” he asked.
“Scarlet ibis,” I replied. “Check it out.” I heard him rustling around. He is one of the only people I know who wouldn’t reproach me for waking him to discuss the existence of a bright red bird.
“They aren’t native. They’re introduced,” he said. “Almost a quarter of the species in south Florida are introduced.” Even half asleep, he was full of facts. “Oh. I see. South American, well that’s not so far. At least they’re not Burmese. But we didn’t see one.”
“I know, but they’re scarlet, John. They hybridize with the white ibis, produce pink offspring.”
“But they are different species. E. albus and E. ruber.” We compared the information in our bird guides for a few minutes more, and then hung up the phone.
Multiple bird guides state that scarlet ibis were introduced and are a separate species from white ibis, but the single difference between the two is pigmentation: their feathers are different colors.
I am not the first white person to dub the Everglades dark, ominous, mysterious. To fear the alligators. For many of us, wilderness is a mirror. Even when it plays the role of paradise, landscape is yet another vulnerability to master, to control. And the more unknown the landscape is—or perhaps by “unknown” we mean the desire to inflict harm—or a wrong we wish to cover up—the more we seek to dominate it.
In 1549, Father Luis Cancer de Bargastro, a Dominican friar who represented the Catholic Church (and the Spanish crown) in his mission in Puerto Rico, set sail for the Everglades. The Church had protested the Spanish treatment of natives in the New World, and had been granted—at least in theory—the power to colonize peacefully. In naturalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s account, the crown was hopeful about the effect the friar would have on the “unregenerate heathen of Florida, those worshippers of the devil, cannibals, child murderers, workers of abomination” (“The Everglades: River of Grass,” 105).
But as Father Cancer waded ashore, leaving his party afloat and bewildered, he was met by a group of natives who, in what seemed like an invitation to an embrace, surrounded him and clubbed him to death on the beach. Douglas wastes no time in hashing out the particulars:
He died, truly a martyr, but not more by the savagery of the Indians than by their inability to understand how a Spaniard could be anything but dangerous to them. Father Cancer fell also at the hands of all those other Spaniards who had shed the blood of so many thousands of Indians, in wanton defiance of his own belief that all men are brothers. (110)
The other members of Father Cancer’s entourage made it back and sent an account of the voyage to Spain. Though whites would eventually return to the glades, the story of the friar’s death kept them away for many years.
Hundreds of years later, white frontiersmen who settled in the Everglades saw their habitat, and the native people who lived in it, as wild, that age-old power, so often feared and feminized: a virgin landscape in need of man’s dominion; something we must slaughter or manipulate. Bears and panthers roamed out of the impenetrable mangrove forests and into cultivated cane patches, and men taught their children to get out of the river when the gator’s ridged forehead disappeared from view on the opposite bank. Watson and his compatriots eyed the glades as an obstacle: once the useless, swampy land was drained and the harsh grasses burned, the pests cleared out, modern agriculture would extend its sweeping arm and turn the nightmare into a gold mine. And everywhere, birds fell from the sky.
When the mirage falls away, taking with it the oversimple dichotomy of good and evil to which we subject the landscape, what remains? A young woman dead. A city unable to acknowledge the wounds that stifle it. An ecosystem disappearing in slow, salty exhalations. Two paddlers in search of something wild, or something lost. The brilliant beating wings of birds taking flight.
In the face of death, some of us go cold prematurely. Others grow anxious, frenzied. Perhaps John’s need to know every creature’s name, to categorize and classify an entire habitat’s worth of knowledge, was a desperate attempt to hold on. And what if my stubborn resistance was actually self-preservation? How, after naming these magnificent creatures, after acknowledging the detailed reality of their existence, could I ever bear the loss of them?
As we neared the end of the manmade canal that would take us in to Flamingo, and the end of our trip, we had to move aside for the large boats that ferry tourists to and from Whitewater Bay. Most of the boats slowed to spare us their wake, and the tourists leaned over the rails to take our picture. “Twelve days!” they exclaimed. “It’s a wonder you’re still speaking to each other!” We laughed, and the tension from our recent battle began to dissipate. The tourists couldn’t have heard us as we crossed the final windy stretch, Coot Bay; we each hurled insults into the wind about the other’s lack of paddling skills, and our voices were hoarse with bitterness. “Control freak” drifted across the waves to me, and John winced when “damn know-it-all” reached his ears. Still, we agreed as we cracked cold beers and sat on the grass in Flamingo, the anger made us paddle faster.
When John’s aunt and uncle arrived to pick us up, they gave us a wide berth. It occurred to us that we smelled like animals. We lifted the faded green canoe up onto the car and John lunged for the ropes. I stepped back and watched him work. After an entire twelve days spent in each other’s company, our carefully balanced friendship had survived; this one act of tying the canoe onto the car threatened to destroy it. Afterward, when the canoe was secured (not, of course, how I would have done it), we walked toward the showers.
“That was really hard for you,” John said.
“I didn’t even say anything.” I stared at the grass passing beneath our feet.
“You stood there wringing your hands. Your knuckles were white. It was pretty obvious.”
That night, clean and human and back in Miami, we shared a room with twin beds. I heard John roll over in the darkness.
“You’re a hell of a lot more sensitive than you let on,” he said.
“I know,” I replied, “It causes problems.”
In the introduction to his birding book, David Allen Sibley offers new birders some sage advice: “to become an expert birder, you must study birds” (“The Sibley Guide to Birds,” 9). We begin by looking. But what of those among us who, while looking, cannot help but transform what we see into what we want to see? Practice seeing details, Sibley writes. Recognize patterns. Study habits, and beware of misjudging size. Meet other birders.
Birders have little to go on, as most birds are concealed by feathers. The feathers, then, give us the clues through which we attempt to identify the nature of the creature beneath them. This is not a trifling endeavor. Lives are won and lost in misidentification. “Do be cautious,” Sibley urges, “be honest with yourself and others, and when mistakes are made try to learn from them. … In all situations you must first consider the welfare of the birds” (14). We must tread lightly. We have so very little time.
Mollie Murray is originally from coastal Georgia and now lives in Soldotna, Alaska, where she works as a writing instructor and tutor. Her writing has appeared in Ruminate, Newfound, and South Dakota Review. She is currently finishing her first nonfiction manuscript.