In second grade, and every year after in February, my class would go to Blue Spring, a refuge for wintering manatees. (Incidentally, don’t believe the park brochure when it says “warm” waters. As a former swimmer, I know 72 degrees is actually pretty fucking cold for swimming.) Manatees are not very exciting creatures. They’re adorable in their own way, but they’re not splashy like whales or clever showoffs like dolphins. They just sit and vegetate, and every once in a while a boat will run over them.
Don’t get me wrong–I keenly felt the pain of “Scarback” and “Halftail” and all the other poor maimed animals and wished violence upon the boat owners who didn’t heed the Save the Manatee speed limits. But there is a reason the manatee is also called the sea cow.
I didn’t generally have to go on a field trip to see some new, exotic Floridian creature. Our old house, situated by a “charming” little “lake” (Lake Rogers, an overambitious retention pond), had a large backyard that was not in any way speaking a yard. Sure, there were some patches of grass here and there, but most of the area was covered with large oak trees (live oaks, specifically; festooned with pounds and pounds of Spanish Moss), various shrubs that defy identification, and the ubiquitous Saw Palmetto. The palmettos were the main source of my and my siblings’ various abrasions during early childhood. The neighbor kids and I would get it into our heads to use them as fans or swords, and we never remembered until our hands were being ripped open by the fronds’ spines that this was a terrible idea.
Before my parents enclosed our back porch, all sorts of interesting critters would walk up to the our sliding glass door. Yes, we had a large squirrel nest in one of the oaks, and the little rodents would frequently wander around the concrete porch floor. But quite possibly the coolest animal event occurred when an armadillo calmly walked up to my mother as she was sweeping. My toddler brother and I pressed our little noses to the glass and giggled with delight as my mother gave a startled “Dios mio!” and, after words failed to shoo Army (as we came to call him), began buffeting him with her broom. Army promptly rolled himself into a ball, and so he and my mother invented the sport of Dillo Ball. Unfortunately, that was the only game of Dillo Ball ever played, and my mother won in what ended up being more of a rout than a game.
From that point on, I made it a point to bring scraps of food out with me every time I went out back to search for Army’s jungle home. We only saw him a few times after then, and we only discovered his lair after my father decided to “do something” about the jungle. (Army lived under the bent trunk of one of those saw-toothed plants of Satan.)
The impetus for this bushwhacking came from the events of a particularly muggy Sunday afternoon. (All afternoons in Florida are muggy, but this was an extreme level of humidity.) My parents, wanting to live vicariously through their children, had provided us with not only a swingset (complete with two swings and a pair of rings, as well as a platform whose only apparent purpose was to provide something off which to jump), but also a truly cool clubhouse.
The wooden clubhouse was raised some six feet or so off the ground and came with a ladder, yellow slide, fireman’s pole, and one of those cruel knotted ropes kids always have to climb in the gym class of popular films. (I never had to climb a knotted rope in P.E., nor do I know of anyone who had to do so.) Oh, and it had a tricolored plastic sheet roof: blue, red, and yellow. Since ours was the first family on the street to have both a swingset and a clubhouse, we naturally had a lot of visitors in the form of neighborhood urchins. Most of them didn’t take the trouble to ring the doorbell and ask if I could come out to play; they just waltzed into our backyard and clambered all over everything while I ran onto the porch and glared. My mother thought she could keep this “riffraff” out by planting some large shrubs around our borders, but when that didn’t stop them, she forced my father to put up an intimidating fence.
This particular afternoon saw me pushing my three-year-old brother in the special baby swing. After growing bored with that particular activity, I took him out and set him on the ground, instructing him to watch as I performed an elegant leap off the platform. Of course, as soon as I had climbed up to the platform, a large group of black hornets swarmed out from under me. Speaking as someone who is terrified of being stung by a bee, wasp, or hornet despite never having been stung by one, I am not ashamed to admit I frantically executed my leap and ran into the house as fast as my little legs could carry me, probably emitting little embarrassing shrieks along the way. My assumption that Daniel would follow me was incorrect, and by the time I looked out from the sliding glass door the bugs had done their work.
He somehow managed to escape multiple stings, but when my mother saw his right eye swelling shut, she feared for the worst. After ascertaining that the same luck that saved him from the wrath of the swarm had also saved his eye (he’d only been stung on the eyelid), she rounded on my father and insisted he start child-proofing the backyard.
Even after my father and I cleared out most of the alien flora (read: any plant my mother didn’t want to survive)–a task that took at least two years–we would get strange visitors. One rainy afternoon saw what we later discovered was a Red-tailed Hawk perching on our swing set. Having only seen vultures and buzzards feeding on roadkill, with maybe the occasional cardinal thrown in, I was agog at this magnificent raptor’s presence. She sat there calmly despite the drizzle until, just as I was starting to get bored, she dove toward the ground, picked something up in her talons, and regained her perch. I gasped as I saw what was writhing desperately in her right foot: a Black Racer.
As previously mentioned, the Black Racer isn’t venomous. Chasing one into the bushes therefore provides an adrenaline rush without the actual fear of death. And here was one of them unwillingly taking part in a retelling of the story of the Mexican coat of arms, as the hawk proceeded to messily devour the snake. But while I felt sorry for Mr. Snake, I was also giddy with delight at having seen Nature In Action. Consequently, when friends came over, I regaled them with the story and proudly showed them the blood on the swingset.