Monday, January 23, 2012

Just add water

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings once wrote that the scrubland of northern Florida is "not pretty, but it's beautiful." I think I'm beginning to understand what that means.

Last week beauty bombarded me in the Everglades, the Keys, and Miami, but today I traveled through parts of Florida that wouldn't immediately grab a tourist's attention. When William Bartram first saw the Alachua Savannah in the 1770s, he waxed rhapsodic about the wealth of wildlife inhabiting the swampy prairie: deer, bison, alligators, snakes, and birds of all description.

Long years of development and drainage permanently altered the ecosystem, now preserved within Paynes Prairie Preserve (see it here). A narrow road winds through pine forest, palmetto scrub, and live oaks draped with Spanish moss, and then the vista suddenly opens up into broad grassland stretching to the horizon. In a normal year it's possible to see bison, wild horses, alligators, and many wading birds, but recent droughts have driven the wildlife away to swampier climes.

In the heat of the afternoon I hiked through woods to find a wide path leading to a viewing platform in the midst of the savannah. Signs warned me not to molest any bison, wild horses, or alligators that might block the path, and it was pretty easy to obey. I stepped over piles of manure in the path but never saw a living creature except a hawk, a few buzzards, and some nondescript little brown birds. The path was so long, flat, and featureless that the viewing platform in the distance never seemed to get any closer, but I kept plodding along anyway, wondering whether the bison, wild horses, and alligators were just waiting for me to turn my back so they could come out for a frolic.

The River Styx needs water too--I crossed it on dry ground--and I passed a swamp where cypress knees that should have been poking up out of slimy water were instead sitting high and dry. The lakes near Cross Creek are low and the swamplands parched, but Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's house and grounds still offer a rare look into the writer's life. I took a short hike through oak and palmetto scrub where the only sounds were a woodpecker's tapping and the gentle swaying of Spanish moss.

Most of what I saw today wasn't quite pretty, but looking at Cross Creek and the Alachua Savannah through the eyes of the authors who loved them, I can see how these places could be beautiful.

Just add water.

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