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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