, Gloucester, MA

November 15, 2012

Journal Pages: The tenacity of the wild

Journal Pages
Susan Emerson

---- — In the pre-dawn wilderness, I embraced the silence, the perfect stillness in total darkness, the sense of being safely suspended in time, in space, or in nowhere.

Well, actually, I was comfortably situated instead within the safe confines of a screened-in lanai, all cozied up in a green wicker rocker, wrapped in a woolen shawl, at least several safe steps back from the Florida wilderness.

But if I either closed my eyes or opened my eyes, the same soft blackness of the last few minutes of night held me in Zen-like suspension. Then, quite suddenly and coinciding with the first blending of the purposeful daylight with the lazy, lingering night, a huge screeching cloud of white ibis fell from the sky, splashing into the shallow creek not twenty feet away from me, as if each were responsible for hitting a different target.

Startled, I watched as the birds hungrily devoured breakfast (fish? lizards caught unawares as their internal clocks waited for the warmth of the sun to wake and alert them to danger?). Unfettered conversation among the birds was loud and seemingly well-understood, although I understood nothing. As when I hear any foreign language spoken, its own swift rhythm tries to trick me into thinking that so many blendings of new sounds are paired with actual meanings.

It was only with the graceful arrival of a stately snowy egret, confidently claiming the whole body of water for himself, that the forty or so white ibis rose in unison as quickly and noisily as they had come. Calm and order returned to the area as I went inside to eat my own breakfast.

Later on, I pedaled my bike, weaving in and out of circles and side streets, most of which posted subtle signs reading, “no egress,” in hopes of discouraging interlopers. But undeterred, I quietly perpetuated my own fun, arranging personal garden tours in Naples, Florida, this different and sometimes-home.

I was outraged to pass my favorite 4-by-6-inch patch of roadside garden in the entire city, only to see that someone (an unappreciative Parks Department employee?) had nearly obliterated the only patch of stapelia I had ever found in the wild.

It is a rabbit-ear-soft plant with four-sided, vertically extending stems the size of my fingers. Stepelia’s roots creep horizontally, and when it flowers (well deserving its pet name of “stink plant,” as it carries the distinct stench of carrion to attract the flies that pollinate it), its star-shaped, fleshy flowers measure 14 inches from point to point.

I wished the best to the few straggly remnants still intact, and was glad I had rooted cuttings from it over the years, all of which have grown into hearty specimens of the plant, thriving indoors on Cape Ann.

Peddling toward Naples Cay, a newly discovered destination last year, I passed areas dense with fern, and yards bordered in heart-shaped, wine-stained and celery-green caladium. Beds of Scottish broom punctuated with their tiny red flowers blew wistfully in the soft, Gulf breeze.

Just in time, I noticed a fat alligator languishing in the sand, one watchful eye opened in my direction, as I nearly leaned my bike against a tree. Don’t they keep these beasts in cages? No, of course they don’t – the alligators were here first.

Deftly and very quickly, I moved away, choosing instead one of hundreds of banyan trees lining the quiet, established street. I pressed my hands against its smooth, gray bark, my fingers tracing the smooth ridges that extend into roots that will grow down into the sandy soil to form secondary trunks.

They will evolve, if the Parks Department allows, into new banyan trees.

I sense a tenacity in this land, a land that, like the patient alligator, could reclaim everything if, and when, it wished.

Susan S. Emerson is a regular Times columnist.