. . . Hosanna
to the alligators in the highest:
Glory be to their Maker.
—Diana Woodcock, “In the Company of Alligators”
We have lived here now for a whole year. Our neighborhood—carved from the Everglades—has zero lot lines and circle-around ponds (also known as lakes) while Surinam cherry hedges provide a bit of privacy. Our patio sits only ten yards from the water’s edge—in dry weather. This home in South Florida is much different from the family farmhouse that sat on 60 acres in Michigan where we lived for a quarter of a century.
Before we moved, people warned us about alligators. They’d send videos of gators scaling fences or photos of them stretched upright next to a front door or hiding in a garage. It’s true: I always scan the garage for gators these days before I step out into it. I also watch for snakes and tap every box before I open it. Even the little lizards can leap out of nowhere and stop one’s heart.
The whole backside of our small stucco house, with its bay window and wide slider, provides a window on the water. I’d get a lot more done if I just closed the blinds, but I’d miss out on the daily drama and adventure right outside my door. Our neighbors said they’ve only seen one small alligator in the lake in the 22 years or so they’ve lived here.
Seriously. I’ve seen two floating out there in the last couple of months. Two alligators. Here a day and gone the next.
I also saw a heron (Mary Oliver’s blue preacher) catch a carp and an egret spear and swallow (with some difficulty) a Mayan cichlid, also known as an “atomic sunfish”. This summer, a pair of river otters put on a show.
An osprey swoops in regularly, and a flock of green parakeets shows up every so often. Iguanas hang out in the yard, and one day I chased an armadillo around with my camera. We’ve got the usual supply of ducks (including the Muscovy we call “Dude” who comes to the door begging for a few Cheerios. A wood stork sometimes strides by or stands at attention atop the aggressive surface roots of our ficus tree that we should probably chop down. The incessant sound of cane toads (invasive and poisonous) in the spring aggravated me at first but then turned strangely comforting.
Even with all this adventure a step or two away, we still like to head out to the Arthur R Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, which is practically in our backyard. The refuge encompasses nearly 144,000 acres of the most northern remnant of the Everglades, and we often go to wander the marsh trails early in the morning or late in the afternoon. We almost always see at least one alligator and some new critter or bird, although we are still waiting to spy our first bobcat. The idea is to walk softly, speak softly, and pay attention in order to be astonished. I don’t understand those who trot down the trail while they make small talk and never stop to notice.
Recently I found Diana Woodcock’s little poetry book, Beggar in the Everglades, dedicated to “all the endangered ones whose home is the River of Grass.” Woodcock spent a month as poet-in-residence in the Everglades. She describes what we’ve seen here and captures much of what I feel, her goal “not merely to see but become one with it.”
One of my favorite poems is “Shark Valley” where Woodcock writes about watching a baby alligator as it sleeps on drifting debris.
. . . But I remain
because I know the odds: never again
to find myself alone on a canal bank
watching over a one-foot-long baby
alligator, never to feel as much motherly
instinct as if I’d birthed it. So I stay,
unwilling to walk away from the most
placid, endearing sight I’ll see all day,
unwilling to share it with bypassing
tourists so busy talking they don’t even
notice . . .
We live only half an hour from the ocean and beautiful beaches, and as much as I love to float on waves or soak up sun or stroll through sand, you’re more likely to find me staring at an expanse of sawgrass, chasing a zebra butterfly, or studying a gumbo limbo tree. They call it the tourist tree because its peeling bark looks like sunburned skin. Hurricane Irma (our first) severely, maybe fatally, damaged the largest one in the country.
You might also find me searching the water for a pair of floating brown eyes. Did you know that an alligator has very keen eyesight, that it can feel the vibrations of a human footstep, and that it has a brain about the size of a walnut but is smart enough to balance sticks on its snout to mug a nest-building egret? (National Geographic has a video, but be warned it’s not for the faint.)
Humans aren’t really the alligator’s cup of tea. The most dangerous gator is a female guarding her nest or one that’s received a human handout. Even so, swimming in a Florida lake is not on our top ten list of things to do. You might find us riding bikes along the levee at sunset. One evening the stick lying on the path turned into a large cottonmouth basking in the heat of the last rays. It did not, as you can imagine, take kindly to my nearly running it over. That was an adventure gratefully avoided.
Leaving our familiar setting—surrounded by corn or soybeans and familiar critters like deer and bunnies where the biggest adventure was doing battle with a bat—was hard. Here I’m finding adventure every day. I do sometimes, in my mind’s eye, see an alligator stretched out on the patio eyeing me through the slider. I know the first thing I’d do is grab my camera, but I should probably slip the Nuisance Alligator Hotline number into my favorites, just to be safe.
Read more excerpts of Woodcock’s poems:
Edge of a Sawgrass Prairie
One must stay alert—attentive to the margins,
shallows, uppermost branches. Take chances,
forsake everything familiar, and though partial
to ocean, explore where one’s never gone before:
sawgrass marsh, wet prairie, slough.
Everglades: Day One
No doubt hope’s voice rings louder here
than that of despair’s. I hear it everywhere:
sense of wonder reawakened, sense of awe
as eyes have taken in vast expanses of saw-
grass. Listening with ears and heart . . .