Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Lightning Forest Chapter Five: Seahorse


      Playing hooky from work, we drive west across Central Florida. The sand ridges of scrub rise and fall like waves under the car. Glimpses of this ancient habitat peek out between signs for new development projects and old orange groves. Rows of new houses are placed as tightly and regularly as the orange trees themselves. Landscape nurseries are everywhere. Countless acres of hybridized magnolias and crepe myrtles are bound together with miles of black irrigation tubing. Thousands of live oaks helplessly push thick calloused roots against their plastic pots. Black sheets suffocate every weed and tree trying to rise up in the wrong place. ‘For Sale’ signs and survey flags carve up the rest of the land like a livestock carcass.

      We drive down into the mysterious and dark Withlacoochee River floodplain, the olive and gold house of the Pluto Sphinx. Towering cypress and tupelo. Countless tillandsias and swaying mosses. A phosphate mine blows a thin layer of dust for a mile around. Like many nostalgics, I prefer the back roads of Florida to the homogenous, bland interstates even though waffles and slurpees are more easily found there. In this two-hour drive, the entire cross-section of Florida and its history can be seen, its immediate future is glaringly obvious, and, if you look closely, its distant future is apparent.

      After two hours of driving, we arrive at the seashore, pull over to the side of the road, and start the long walk across the dunes. The sun beats down from all angles and radiates up beneath us.  Sweat pours down our foreheads and we start to labor in the heat. Every step sinks and shifts into the sand. These white dunes are whittled down versions of an Appalachian mountain top. Over tens of millions of years, the tall, sharp, and peaky Carolina mountains eroded into the gracefully rounded mountains and piedmont of today. The sea-level was much higher then and the large area of land between the piedmont and modern shoreline was a shallow and wide bay. The shallow bay encompassed what is currently named the Carolina low-country and coastal plain, extending through the Carolinas, southern Alabama, and Georgia.  The way the ocean currents moved over the coastal plain and played against the piedmont functioned as a great pulverizer and sorting machine. Boulders turned to sand. Sand was sorted by its composition. Quartz from feldspar and hornblende. Clays and silts dropped out or dispersed. Hurricanes blew. Currents swirled. During the late Paleogene, the machine whirled out of control. The changing landscape and significant increase in erosion forced and flushed the materials out of the coastal plain. Quartz transported southward until it became trapped along bryozoan reefs and limestone shelves. The sand accumulated. Over the eons, uncountable tons of quartzite sand fell onto what would eventually become Florida. The oceanic currents curled out to sea somewhere in the south-central area of the state. That is why the sand of South Florida is mainly composed of broken down carbonates like coral and shells, not quartz. Geologically speaking, Florida is not much more than a limestone shelf grown in place on the ocean floor covered by the washout sand from ancient mountains.

      Just beyond the first dune ridge, five inches of warm standing water flood the saltgrass and billions of mosquito larvae snap back and forth around our feet. The water is so thick with them that it feels like soup. The water barely covers my ankles but I can’t see my toes for all of the larva. For fifty yards we slosh through the primordial slush. The mosquito biomass must be measured in tons. A few more days from now, they will emerge and rise and make this walk almost impossible. Sweat pours into our eyes. The ice cooler gets heavier with every step, the beach-chair straps dig into my shoulder. What is there to love, here? A few herbaceous flowers. A billion mosquito larvae.

      Then, over the last dune, geology, mosquitoes, and the hike are forgotten. Bright and smooth, the Gulf spreads like glass out to the impossible horizon. Being a workday, we have the beach to ourselves except for hundreds of birds relaxing on the wrack line: skimmers, gulls, terns, oyster catchers, sanderlings. As we walk up the shore, huge flocks of panicked birds fly a noisy parabola out over the water and return to the beach behind us. After a moment of ruffled feathers and squawking, they all turn to face the same direction like moored boats.

      We spread our blue blanket, unfold the chairs, and forgive the sun for its oppressive heat once again. Cheese sandwiches and icy grape soda from the cooler refresh our dry, empty stomachs. An empty cargo ship chugs out to sea. Countless brightly-colored coquina shells emerge under the gentle hand of the waves, only to frantically upend like ducks and bury themselves in the wet sand before the next wave hits. Purple, yellow, rose, orange, striped, and lavender coquinas are the Easter eggs of the beach. Each wave reveals and pushes new coquinas a few inches along the current before they wiggle under the sand again. In this tumbling way, coquinas move along the shore, finding food and meeting new, equally beautiful coquinas along the way.     
      Then, a seahorse. Dead on the sand. Somehow, he escaped the hungry eyes of all these ruthless birds. I pick him up. This is the first wild seahorse I’ve ever seen or touched. It is a lined seahorse (Hippocampus erectus), largest of its kind. I’m surprised at his weight, as though he were carved out of a jadestone. The medieval chapel of his body is covered by a multitude of knobs, plates, horns, buttons, and ridges. A rococo elf. A trinket. Seahorses elicit our empathy because they swim upright, much as humans walk upright. This, it turns out, is only the first of his many curses. His skin is rough like sandpaper. His eyes are stars. His mouth is a tunnel too narrow for an insatiable and bloody appetite. Seahorses are getting rarer in Florida as the quiet lagoons are facing increased pressure from development and pollution. They are caught by the hundreds of thousands in shrimp nets. They are dried and shipped overseas for Chinese medicine. They are shipped in plastic bags to pet stores all over the world. Human empathy is not always desirable.

      I think, “here it is again, Death.” I can do nothing but serve witness. I will take him home so I can study his form with a magnifier lens. As I start wrapping him in a paper towel, my gentle wife stops and convinces me to place him back in the water. Will he re-hydrate, will he suddenly awake as from a slow-motion dream? Or is it only right and proper that he finds his final resting place under the waves, weightless once again? We wade out into the clear water. I hold him under, cupped in the cage of my hand, assured that he is indeed dead and this is a waste of time. I wait a few seconds, eager to give up and claim my prize. There is a beautiful beach to walk and countless baubles to discover. But there! A bit of vibration, gentle as the emerald moths I’ve scooped from the screened porch, so slight I almost don’t believe it. Again! The seawater seeps inward. Slowly, the vibrations inside the body become a quiet pulse. The jadestone feels mechanical. The plates and buttons move on joints and hinges. The single fanlike fin in the middle of his back begins to shudder. He moves unnaturally, but indeed alive. The thick tail uncurls and curls, a vine tendril with a mind. His tail twines around my little finger and squeezes. The stars loosen in their orbits.

      The vibration takes on a new urgency. He is no longer content to be held, if ever he was. He pushes against my hand. Now there is a new problem. These are dangerous waters for seahorses because there is no protection. There are no lagoons of seaweed, no quiet fields of eel grass. It is all sand. My mind churns over the options for his safe future. Do I try to walk him somewhere in the mangroves on the other side of the island? Do I put him in a cup of seawater and drive him somewhere?  Either option requires another long, hot trek across the mosquito divide. I hesitate.

      Eventually I give in to the little, burgeoning desire and release my hold. He drops to the bottom, a few silvery fish dart in to investigate. He swims away with that tilting lazy way that seahorses propel themselves. I wonder if he will be strong enough to combat the undercurrent of surf or shy enough to escape the sharp eye of the pompano.  I will never know.

      What will it take to hold the whole state of Florida underwater and let the desire for life take hold once again?

      So we swim, diving under the clear sky. Up and down, into the waves. We pretend we are the only people in this world. Needlefish by the hundreds rise up in the transparent waves around us, shining green and blue. Gentle cow-nose rays flock past in schools of 30 or more. The waves tug on our balance. They roll us over, tumbling flotsam, pushing, kneading us toward the shore. The ocean is trying to make pebbles of our bodies, then sand. The warm breeze blows, itself the engine of dunes. We feel it pull energy from our skin.

      The clock wheels out of control. Years, decades, centuries speed past in a blur. We watch the ocean recede into the polar ice caps. The water table drops out from beneath us. Florida’s landmass is growing. The salty brew of mosquito larvae dries up. The herbaceous plants alter, but not as much as we’d expect. Salt grass to sedge. Beach sunflower to tickseed. Beach pea to prostate pea. The plants of interior scrub are eerily similar to salt-tolerant dune plants. A sand pine seed blows in on the breeze, shakes its pioneering root downward. An acorn is dropped from a jay’s beak. Eons pass. Cuticle replaces chitin. Nostril replaces siphon. Eons pass. Some animals go weird. They love the deep sunny dry sand and can’t cross the chasms of swamp, river, or shade. They lose legs, turn toes or heads into spades, and blanch to white. Those without wings live nowhere else. They are created here, only for this place. The dune stays dune. Now we don’t call it ‘beach,’ we call it ‘scrub.’  A giant, white millipede lies dead on the sand. I’m surprised at its weight. It degenerates quickly like a sea creature out of water. Each segment is smooth as glass and heavy as ivory, anchoring two pairs of legs and a defensive chemical duct. Alive, in my hand, this millipede would secrete pearls of benzoquinones from each duct, it legs would wrinkle forward in the form of waves.

      Eons pass. The Earth begins to warm again. Polar ice melts and the tides return. Each century, the waves push inland. Dunes erode and level out. The ancient ruins of neighborhoods sink under the ocean. Tampa, Jacksonville, and Miami are discovered by some futuristic aqua-diving archeologist. Whales, or some strange, enormous future of whales, swim over the kelpy prairie that was once St. Pete.  The moon, smaller now because it is slowly pulling away from Earth, rises over a thin, silver finger of sand. There is no longer a separation between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. This lonely, last island beach is the oldest of scrubs, the Lake Wales Ridge. This time, the water might keep rising, wiping the table clean. Or it might recede again, leaving this doubly-ancient habitat the chance to persevere once again.

      The cycle of rising and falling oceanic levels has been occurring for millions of years. When these ancient seas lasted long enough to establish significant shorelines, geologists named them: Wicomico, Penholoway, Talbot, Pamlico, Princess Anne, Silver Bluff.  Each sea laid down its own limestone bed from the countless echinoid and molluscan shells that lived and died in its waters. Each sea cultivated its own shoreline and dunes. Today, my home sits atop a beach on the eastern shore of the Pamlico Sea. Standing on the white sands and surrounded by dwarfed scrub plants, I can almost hear the gentle surf around me. I own beachfront property, it’s just the tide has been out a really long time.

      I still think of that re-animated seahorse slowly fanning along over the sandy ocean floor. He knows nothing of scrub or Chinese medicine. He knows nothing of how Florida used to be or where it is going. Mercy is only a circumstance to him, not a moral imperative. I can only hope that he arrived back in his watery kingdom eager to reclaim his blade of turtle grass.

      There are waves. There are waves in time. Mountains rise. Mountains crumble. Mountains release their jewels. Dunes rise. The scrub is a beach patiently awaiting the next wave to wash onto it. Time is the hand that holds Florida in its cage. Time is the hand that will decide if Florida will be wrapped up like a useless artifact or plunged again into the sea.

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Monday, May 16, 2011

Puddling Spring Azures at a Hetch Hetchy Seep

We were blessed to encounter a large group of spring azures puddling at a seep in the Hetch Hetchy valley.

Male butterflies of many species often gather in large groups at muddy puddles or seeps to collect the salts concentrated at the water's edge. The salt collections are a "nuptial gift" that the male gives the female during mating.

Blues can be very difficult to identify, but spring azures are easy. On the underside of their wings, there are no "eye spots" or colored crescents, only thin dark dashes and curves. Also, spring azures are particularly common and love to puddle.

What a beautiful, quiet moment we had surrounded by hundreds of spring azures. The sun gently warmed the granite slope. Tiny multi-colored wildflowers dotted the mossy landscape. There were no crowds of people elbowing their way for a better view. There were no honking cars. All appointments canceled. All obligations filled.

Soon after this encounter, my poem "Upon Misidentifying a Blue" was accepted for publication by Connecticut River Review.  Now, I'm not saying that spring azures made it happen, but who can argue the results?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Five Horse Poems

A Blessing
by James Wright

Just off the Highway to Rochester, Minnesota
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

Name of Horses
by Donald Hall

All winter your brute shoulders strained against collars, padding
and steerhide over the ash hames, to haul
sledges of cordwood for drying through spring and summer,
for the Glenwood stove next winter, and for the simmering range.

In April you pulled cartloads of manure to spread on the fields,
dark manure of Holsteins, and knobs of your own clustered with oats.
All summer you mowed the grass in meadow and hayfield, the mowing machine
clacketing beside you, while the sun walked high in the morning;

and after noon's heat, you pulled a clawed rake through the same acres,
gathering stacks, and dragged the wagon from stack to stack,
and the built hayrack back, uphill to the chaffy barn,
three loads of hay a day from standing grass in the morning.

Sundays you trotted the two miles to church with the light load
a leather quartertop buggy, and grazed in the sound of hymns.
Generation on generation, your neck rubbed the windowsill
of the stall, smoothing the wood as the sea smooths glass.

When you were old and lame, when your shoulders hurt bending to graze,
one October the man, who fed you and kept you, and harnessed you every morning,
led you through corn stubble to sandy ground above Eagle Pond,
and dug a hole beside you where you stood shuddering in your skin,

and lay the shotgun's muzzle in the boneless hollow behind your ear,
and fired the slug into your brain, and felled you into your grave,
shoveling sand to cover you, setting goldenrod upright above you,
where by next summer a dent in the ground made your monument.

For a hundred and fifty years, in the Pasture of dead horses,
roots of pine trees pushed through the pale curves of your ribs,
yellow blossoms flourished above you in autumn, and in winter
frost heaved your bones in the ground - old toilers, soil makers:

O Roger, Mackerel, Riley, Ned, Nellie, Chester, Lady Ghost.

The Poet Goes to Indiana 
 by Mary Oliver

I’ll tell you a half-dozen things
that happened to me
in Indiana
when I went that far west to teach.
You tell me if it was worth it.

I lived in the country
with my dog -
part of the bargain of coming.
And there was a pond
with fish from, I think, China.
I felt them sometimes against my feet.
Also, they crept out of the pond, along its edges,
to eat the grass.
I’m not lying.
And I saw coyotes,
two of them, at dawn, running over the seemingly
unenclosed fields.
And once a deer, but a buck, thick-necked, leaped
into the road just –oh, I mean just, in front of my car –
and we both made it home safe.
And once the blacksmith came to care for the four horses,
or the three horses that belonged to the owner of the house,
and I bargained with him, if I could catch the fourth,
he, too, would have hooves trimmed
for the Indiana winter,
and apples did it,
and a rope over the neck did it,
so I won something wonderful;
and there was, one morning,
an owl
flying, oh pale angel, into
the hayloft of a barn,
I see it still;
and there was once, oh wonderful,
a new horse in the pasture,
a tall, slim being – a neighbor was keeping her there --
and she put her face against my face,
put her muzzle, her nostrils, soft as violets,
against my mouth and my nose, and breathed me,
to see who I was,
a long quiet minute – minutes—
then she stamped her feet and whisked tail
and danced deliciously into the grass away, and came back.
She was saying, so plainly, that I was good, or good enough.
Such a fine time I had teaching in Indiana.

Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening
by Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep

YellowJackets by Yusef Komunyakaa

Monday, May 9, 2011


We abandoned our overlooked and often-despised Florida scrub last week for one of our nationally beloved icons. We travelled 2,500 miles and over 6,050 feet in elevation just getting to our destination. We left 90 degrees, humidity, bears, and coral snakes in favor of 60 degrees, snow, Steller’s jays, and, hopefully, more bears.

Black-tailed deer in front of Lower Yosemite Falls
(not sure how the hoards of people were framed out of the shot)

I had been reading John Muir leading up to our vacation in Yosemite. I always had a soft spot in my heart for Muir in part because he was a UW alumnus. My dreams and expectations swirled with outzel, the elusive cassiope, peppery Douglas squirrels, giant trees, bears thieving sheep at night, and, of course, the dramatic clouds with their emotional cargos.

The world John Muir described seems as distant as another planet.
Sheep no longer graze in pristine meadows.
The Hetch Hetchy valley was flooded.
It no longer seems prudent to step out onto an overhanging ledge above Yosemite Falls.
Sometimes cars drive past blasting loud music.
Sometimes it seems every vista, every moment, is crowded with visitors.
Sometimes one struggles to find a seat anywhere, bench, log, or stone.
It was, by far, the hardest National Park we’ve visited to find vegetarian meals.

Bridal Veil Falls
(from the full parking lot)

Despite these challenges, if one suspends disbelief, it is easy to imagine how Muir, a traveler hiking alone for hundreds of miles through the chaparral and foothills, would find spiritual enlightenment in the valley.  We discovered a magical moment surrounded by hundreds of spring azure butterflies attracted to a seep. Dusk in a sequoia grove, all tourists long gone, as the birdsong came to life in the ancient branches. A quiet nap in a meadow while watching the shadow of the falls play against the sheer granite. The rivers plummet from impossible heights, ephemeral yet unstoppable.  Their distance from the valley floor lends them a supernatural appearance as the water seems to descend in slow motion. 

The world has changed. Yes. Generation by generation, it slipped away into something oily, scarred, overpopulated, and paved.  One day, the resources we saved in our park system will be too tempting to deny.  Yet, there is increasing inertia for restoring the Hetch Hetchy valley.  Yet, in the middle of the traffic and bustle of Yosemite valley, a quietness is exposed.

We can extinguish the wilderness, yet the universal truth of wildness is inextinguishable. 

Half Dome from Sentinel Bridge
(three feet from traffic, buses)

All photographs in this post are copyrighted by Melissa T Photography