Here to return to
A PEEP AT THE EVERGLADES
MY first stroll in Miami was taken under the pilotage of a lady who had already spent several winters here. In the course of it we came suddenly upon a colored man lying face downward in the grass, under a blazing sun, fast asleep. It was no uncommon happening, my friend remarked; she was always stumbling over such dusky sleepers. But in this Southern clime the luxury of physical inactivity is not appreciated by black people alone. I was walking away from the city at a rather brisk pace, one morning, when I passed a lonesome shanty. A white man sat upon the rude piazza, and another man and a boy stood near.
“Are you going to work to-day?” asked the boy of the occupant of the piazza.
“No,” was the answer, quick and pithy.
“I ain’t got time.”
I laid the words up as a treasure; I do not expect to hear the philosophy of indolence more succinctly and pointedly stated if I live a thousand years.
But though we Northern visitors may sometimes envy our Southern brethren their gift of happy insouciance, it is not for our possessing. We were born under another star. Our lack is the precise opposite of theirs; even in our vacation hours we have seldom time to sit still.
So it happened that on a sultry, dog-day morning, with a south wind blowing, the sky partly clouded, — a comfort to the eyes, — the professor and the bird-gazer, after an early breakfast, set forth upon a reconnoissance of the Everglades. We took each a boat and an oarsman, planning to go up the Miami River, or rather its south branch, till we were among the “islands” — small pieces of hammock woods scattered amid the wilderness of saw-grass.
As each of us had his own boat, so each had his own errand, one botanical, the other lazily ornithological. The professor expected to see and learn much — especially about the adaptation of plants to their surroundings; his associate expected to see and learn little — little or nothing; and according to each man’s faith, so it was unto him.
For the first mile or so — as far as the tide runs, perhaps — the river is densely beset on either side by a shining green hedge of mangrove bushes, every branch sending down “aerial roots” of its own, till landing among them is an adventure hardly to be thought of. After the mangroves come taller hedges of the cocoa plum, leafier still, and equally shining.
“Aren’t you glad you know what this bush is?” I shouted downstream to the professor. “Indeed I am,” he shouted back.
Without this knowledge, which we had acquired within a few days, by a kind of accident, as before related, our present state of mind would have been pitiable. We were surprised to find the plant so fond of water, having noticed it heretofore in comparatively dry situations. Another example of the extreme adaptability of tropical plants, the professor remarked.
By and by we came to the first cypress trees, the only ones I have seen in this all but swamp-less Miami neighborhood; beautiful in their new dress of living green. I rejoiced at the sight. Under one of them we landed, admiring the “knees” that its roots had sent up till the ground was studded with them. These, the professor tells me (it is nothing new, by his account of the matter, but it is new to me), are believed to serve as breathing or aerating organs, supplying to the tree the oxygen for lack of which, standing in water, as it mostly does, it would otherwise drown. All visitors to Florida are impressed by the beauty and majesty of the cypress, and many have no doubt puzzled themselves over the meaning of these strange, apparently useless protuberances — as if nature had attempted something and failed — that are so constantly found underneath. “They never do grow to be trees,” my boatman said.
It was at this point, as nearly as I remember, that the stream grew narrow and shallow at once, till behold, we were laboring up what might fairly be called rapids. Here, between the awkward crowding of the banks and the swiftness of the current (it was good, I said to myself, to see water actually running in Florida), the men were certainly earning their money. Fortunately, both proved equal to the task. Then a bend in the stream took us away from the neighborhood of the trees (not until, in one of the cypresses, I had remarked my first Miami nuthatch — a white-breast), and into the very midst of the saw-grass. This densely growing, sharp-edged, appropriately named grass, higher than a man’s head, standing to-day in two or three feet of water, is said to cover the Everglades. It must render them a frightful place in which to lose one’s way. “I should rather be lost at sea in a rowboat,” my oarsman declared.
All this while, of course, I had kept a lookout for birds, but, as I had expected, to comparatively little purpose. No doubt there were many about us, but not for our finding. The shallower and quieter edges of the river were covered here and there with broad leaves of the yellow lily, among which should have been at least a chance gallinule, it seemed to me; but neither gallinule nor rail showed itself. Here, as everywhere, buzzards and vultures were sailing overhead. Many white-breasted swallows, too, went hawking over the grass, and once a purple martin passed near me. Better still, he allowed me, in one brief note, to hear his welcome voice. Like the new leaves of the cypress, it prophesied of spring.
At intervals a heron of one kind or another started up far in advance. One was snow-white, but whether I was to call it an immature little blue heron or a white egret was more than could be made sure of at my distance. I recall, too, a flock of ducks, a cormorant or two, speeding through the air after their usual headlong manner, a solitary red-winged blackbird, astray from the flock, and the cries of killdeer plovers. Kingfishers were not infrequent, two or three ospreys came into sight, and once, at least, I made sure of a Louisiana heron. A lean showing, certainly, for what might have been thought so promising a place.
And now, as the grass grew shorter, so that we could survey the world about us, the water of a sudden turned shallow. The professor’s flat-bottomed boat still floated prosperously, but my own heavier, keeled craft speedily touched bottom. The rower put down the oars, took off his shoes and stockings, rolled up his trousers, and proceeded to lighten the boat of his weight, and drag it forward. This expedient answered for a rod or two. Then we stuck fast again, and the passenger followed his boatman’s example and took to the water. So we followed along, the water now deeper, now shallower, the bottom hard and slimy, till after a little we were at the end of our rope. If we were to go farther we must leave the boat behind us.
This was hardly worth while, especially as even in that way we could not hope to proceed far enough to see anything different from what we had seen already.
“We will go back,” I said, “drifting with the current and stopping by the way.” And so we did, my boatman and I, leaving the professor — who, as it turned out, went but a few rods beyond us — to pursue his investigations unhindered.
After all, in spite of our indolent intentions, the return was faster than the upward journey, as almost of necessity happens, whether one is descending a river or a mountain. The time for loitering is in going up. One good thing we saw, nevertheless, though it was only for an instant.
“What’s that?” my man suddenly exclaimed, in the eagerest of tones. “Look! Right there!”
“Oh, yes,” I said; “a least bittern.”
It stood crosswise, so to speak, halfway up a tall reed, for all the world like a marsh wren. Then away it went on the wing, and was lost in the grass. It was a good bird to see, besides counting as “No. 91” in my Miami list.
“I never did see a bird like that,” 1 the boatman said. “Such a little fellow!” he called it. It was a pleasure to find him so enthusiastic.
The best thing of the whole trip, notwithstanding, was not the sight of any bird, but our lazy, careless, albeit too rapid gliding down the stream, with the world so bright and calm about us and above. Here and there, for our delight, was a tuft of fragrant white “lilies” (Crinum) standing amid a tuft of handsome upright green leaves. More than once, also, we passed boatloads of fishermen (and fisherwomen), white and black.
One elderly and carefully dressed, city-coated gentleman I especially remember. He sat in the stern of the boat (his African boatman with a line out, also), watching the fluctuations of his bob as earnestly, I thought, as ever he could have watched the fluctuations of the stock market. His whole soul was centred upon that bit of cork and the possible fish below. He actually had a nibble as we passed! What cared he then for “coppers” or “industrials”? He must at some time or other have been a boy. The lucky man! By the look on his face he was happy. And happiness, if I am to judge by what I see, is one of the main things, in Florida. At all events, it was the main thing that I found in the Everglades._________________
1 One of the most striking peculiarities of Southern speech among the illiterate classes (I have observed it in other states besides Florida) is the almost total absence of the word “saw.”