The inner eye

I have had a couple of quiet weeks at home since returning from New Zealand.  It has alternately snowed and rained.  The world is soggy; the llamas in the field down the road look soaked and sad. The grass is limp and frantically green.  The roofs and trees are coated with lime green moss and the deck and patio have a coat of slippery greenish black algae.  This will have to be dealt with, all in good time.

There are hopeful signs.  On our dog-walks I noticed a blooming bush with tiny, frilly lemon yellow flowers.  On the way to town yesterday I saw a group of trumpeter swans on the Indian reservation where they stop for a while in winter on their way north.  Soon many more swans will join them.

In the mean time I have played Mah Jongg twice and made pavlova twice.  We continue to watch lectures on ancient civilizations, I do laundry, Jerry  chops wood.  I read The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes to Jerry at bedtime.  I read old issues of Science, the journal of the AAAS and  remember my former life as a scientist.

A snippet of news in Science brought back an old memory.  It told of the increase in population of the endangered Florida panther through hybridization with panthers from Texas.

I encountered this beautiful animal once in my life.

In my late 30’s I taught biology at Florida Southern College.  A colleague of mine who taught microbiology invited me to go on an little expedition with him and an executive from Park Davis (a long since vanished pharmaceutical company) to the Florida Everglades to collect soil samples.  Park Davis was hoping exotic soils would yield exotic molds and miracle antibiotics.  The trip sounded like fun, and I got paid the amazing sum of $25 for my “assistance.”

Though the mists of time have blurred the memory, some parts of that adventure I remember in vivid detail.  The microbiologist pulled a camper-trailer that he called “The Scamper”.  The Park Davis man went with him.  I had a VW mini-bus and I took along my teen age son and daughter, my youngest brother and his wife and my father, a lean, wiry 60 year old.  Were there others?  I seem to remember my son’s friends, Steve Cummings and his girlfriend, and some ambiguity about whose girlfriend she actually was.  It was spring vacation and the kids were out of school.

We drove first down the center of Florida to Lake Okeechobee, a huge shallow lake that is the headwaters of the Everglades and camped there before going on to the Everglades.  My group stayed in a public campground in tents.  The Scamper parked in the KOA campground where there were excellent showers that we all used.

Arrangements were made with a US park ranger to visit an Indian mound near the lake.  I think only the three official members of the expedition went (the microbiologist, the Park Davis man and me). The mound was not known to the public and the ranger said the park did not want it overrun with souvenir collectors.

The sky was blue and cloudless.  We walked along an old road, hardly traveled anymore, past a derelict farm, its windmill still standing, still turning, softly clacking in the hot wind.  Alone.

The mound was surrounded by scrubby pine woods.  It was a hill that must have been many hundreds of years old.  We climbed to the top.  The ranger said he often found teeth in the soil there and I looked around but saw only leaves and pine needles.  I thought about the people who had lived there so long ago.

The next day I stopped at a roadside stand on the way to the Everglades and bought a bushel of grapefruits to take home.

We camped in the shade of tall palms in the Everglades.  We had a couple of tents, but my daughter said she preferred to sleep under the stars.  Though there was a warm breeze rattling through the palm fronds, I noted the presence of mosquitoes and opted for the tent.  The doors of the VW were open as we made camp in the twilight.  I heard a noise and went to the van to investigate.  Seven or 8 large raccoons rushed out the side door.  There were grapefruits all over the place.  The raccoons had taken a bite of each one of them and rejected it.

The next morning my daughter said she had awakened in the night to see a circle of raccoons around her, the tapetum of their eyes shining in the faint glow of the campground lights.

My kids and my brother and wife had their own agendas.  I think they rented canoes.

My father went along with me and the microbiologist and the Park Davis man to collect samples.  We had passes to go into parts of the park not open to the public and we took a boat out into open water and then back amongst the mangroves.  The microbiologist thought that would be a good place to get soil.  A network of blue salt water inlets separated the mounds of dark jade swamp. The mangroves were dense.  How would we get from the boat to places where we could collect samples?  There were 3 large men to accomplish this and me, a small woman.  Perhaps I could wiggle my way into the tangle of tough leaves and branches of the mangroves. There was also the fact that only my father and I could swim.  I was elected.

I could barely scramble my way into the dark lattice.  The plants grew out of a wet black ooze and I had to move through them by walking on the arched roots that rose up from the mud.  I was met by a cloud of voracious mosquitoes.  I suppose there was a scarcity of warm blood in that isolated place and a relatively hairless creature in a bathing suit must have been a heavenly gift to the hungry little whining devils.

I filled the plastic bags with soil, sealed and labeled them and clambered out as fast as possible.  It felt wonderful to plunge into cool blue salt water and swim to the boat.  I had a lot of mosquito bites.

I put on a shirt and some jeans and we took the boat along a river in the glades.  The banks were lined with palms and vines and here and there orchids hung from tree branches.  Ibises and roseate spoonbills were feeding in the shallows.  The Park Davis man was an orchid enthusiast.  He stopped the boat and pulled a small orchid from its growing niche.  My father sputtered.  “You can’t do that.  It’s illegal!”  The Park Davis man shrugged and popped the orchid into a plastic bag.  “Despicable!” muttered my father, “Utterly despicable! Stealing from a wilderness!”  Nothing more was said, but the microbiologist looked nervous.

Later I asked the Park Davis man if he didn’t want his grandchildren to be able to enjoy the park.  He said it made no difference to him.  He’d be dead.

That evening I walked alone past a barricade that said “not open to the public.”  I had my pass, you see.  It was not a particularly interesting area.  There were low bushes along a dusty dirt road.  I had walked a short distance when I saw the panther in the road just ahead of me.  It was a soft tan color, about the size of a medium sized dog.  A beautiful creature, lithe and silent.  It paid no attention to me, loped along briefly and disappeared into the bushes.

After 40 years I still sometimes walk with the panther in memory.

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19 Responses to The inner eye

  1. dale says:

    Wow. I’ve never seen a panther, though I’ve heard them by night, and they’re not so uncommon here, now that the hunting’s been dialed back.

    Amazing that someone could have a passion for orchids, and be so indifferent to — their origin and their future, and his own posterity. So a narrow bit of life to be interested in, the little slice that happens to have our own name slapped on it!

    I’m glad you’re reading Holmes, I thought that was a wonderful book!

  2. wisewebwoman says:

    Lovely memory, Anne, thank you for sharing it so fulsomely.
    it put me in mind of the lynx I saw on my property here about 3 years ago, I haven’t seen it since. It was slinking along the property line, I won’t forget its muscles and large head and the eyes that glittered. It still walks with me.

  3. Marja-Leena says:

    Another fascinating story from your fascinating life, Anne. I’ve never seen a panther but imagine it would forever stay with me too, as would seeing (but not picking) the orchid in the wild (nasty man!).

  4. Deborah says:

    I remember seeing a lynx on my street when I was a child – encounters with wildness always leaves a mark, dont’t they? Very descriptive and interesting story and how did I miss that you were a biologist??

    What struck me was your father’s reaction to the picking of a flower. You must have been like him, and close to him.

  5. Tabor says:

    The only animals I fear when hiking or walking are panthers or mountain lions. If they wanted to taste me, I would never see them. When they are not interested in you, they can be seen…although I only saw them when I was a little girl living in Colorado…they are too rare to see these days, especially in Florida. Sounds like a nice adventure and I am glad your father had principles to speak out.

  6. Jean says:

    Thank you for this beautifully remembered and written piece. In suburban London, in the depths of endlessly, endlessly grey winter, it was wonderful to be taken on a trip to ancient, swampy places and to meet a panther. In winter-time, both literal and metaphorical, there is always memory and imagination.

  7. pauline says:

    perhaps the panther is your totem…

  8. Brighid says:

    Interesting story. Good for your dad for speaking up about the taking of life from a protected place.
    The panthers scream ecohing across the lake at night in summer is at first chilling. It always sounded so much like a woman screaming to me as a child.

  9. Annie says:

    Are the swans returning north already? In Toronto, the whistling swans hang around until March before heading north again.

    They say the eastern panther is returning around here (Maritime Canada), but government wildlife experts say they are the descendents of private collection escapees.

  10. Freda says:

    Your story is a masterpiece of writing, especially in the way you lead us to the climax of actually seeing the panther. Amazing to be able to describe a camping trip like this in such detail. As for the Park Official…… words fail me.

  11. I can imagine treading on those mangrove roots while the mosquitoes scream around.

    Would you believe that there are panthers here in Middle England? Very, very large cats, anyway, thought to have been released into the wild when it became too difficult to keep them as exotic pets.

    Glad you met my nephew!

  12. Darlene says:

    I am amazed at your courage as I read of your exploits. You have led a very interesting and exciting life. I am looking forward to hearing more of your adventures.

    I have only seen panthers in photos. The closest I have come to a wildcat was when a Mountain Lion invaded our backyard and was sitting next to the pool. That’s closer than I want to be to a wild animal. I am not courageous.

  13. Mage B says:

    Just Magic. Thank you.

  14. What a great piece, Anne — so poetic and vivid.

  15. Hattie says:

    Being on the Mainland as I am now, in the Pacific Northwest, I feel a certain deadness in nature. It isn’t just the season. It’s just that so much is paved over and artificial. There are no free things around. It’s all under control.
    I love your adventurous spirit!

  16. Oh, the pictures here with their meta-messages…the racoons circling your daughter at night, the panther appearing suddenly after a living thing was yanked from the earth…we intrude on the space of others.

    Beautifully told to us.

  17. Lucy says:

    What a great story. Except for oddities like escapees, all the big wildlife has gone from our part of Europe now, though I saw a badger in the day once.

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