Slowing Down

It’s a trip I made over and over again a few years ago, the 8 mile journey from my house to the place where my son’s horse was kept.  Usually I’d be running late, trying to get to his riding lesson with a teacher who had little tolerance for tardiness.  Rushing down the highway at 65 mph I quickly glanced at the trees of the St Marks National Wildlife Refuge along US 98, hastily appreciated the fact that I live surrounded by one of the last tracts of real longleaf pine forest left in Florida, one not chopped into fragments or totally obliterated by clear-cut logging, and then I’d speed up a little more.

Turning off the main highway onto a back road, I’d check my watch, noticing how the landscape changed from forest to the houses and pastures and woods of a rural human community.  I wish I had a decent pasture like the ones I drove past, I’d think idly.

My son and I discussed whatever was on his 12 year old mind, be it school or his horse or the latest squabble with his brother and I’d calculate whether we had enough time to get the horse saddled and him on its back before the lesson was supposed to start.  That was the normal trip.

After months of that, we moved the horse back home.  I don’t have a trailer so I rode him 8 miles back through the woods.  At 4 miles an hour, it was a different trip, a different reality in fact, compared to the usual 65 mph experience.

The first several miles was along a  back road with almost no traffic so I stayed on the road shoulder.  The sun glittered on chips of mica or glass or something shiny embedded in the asphalt surface of the cracked old pavement and the nondescript country road surface was a field of diamonds in the late morning sun.  Even though it was December, the weedy road shoulder was studded with brilliant blue and yellow wildflowers and I met every last dog in every house along that stretch of road.

Then the road turned right to join the main highway for the 6 miles back home.  Gentle though this horse was, I didn’t want to ride any horse inches away from the speeding cars of rushed preoccupied drivers like myself so I turned the other way, down a dirt road that I knew would lead to a hiking trail through the wildlife refuge.  After winding past cypress swamps and through tall stands of pines, the trail would come out onto a network of grass covered refuge roads  and one of those would take me back through the forest and along the coastal marshes to home.  I’d emerge from the forest with only one block to go along the highway before picking up the quiet dirt back roads of Panacea.

A quick canter down the dirt road and there was the hiking trail, barely visible in a carpet of wiregrass and wildflowers.  Slowing down to a walk, I slipped into a semi meditative state of mind, the warm sun a welcome gift on my face.  After a mile or so, the little used trail was invisible on the ground and I followed the widely spaced red Florida Trail blazes on the trees.  There weren’t too many, they were placed so that as you passed one you could just barely see the next one way up ahead.  Then I couldn’t find one at all.  A marked tree must have fallen or something, I guessed.  No problem.  I knew where I was and cast about to pick up the next blaze, but after making wider and wider circles I still couldn’t find it.

“Oh, well, rats,” I thought and turned the horse back in the general direction of the highway.  In a few moments, I picked up the old fence line of the refuge boundary and followed that.  It would take me along the same general route, just not so deep in the woods.  Pretty soon we were on the back side of a huge junkyard on the highway.  Fifty year old junked cars were stacked up in piles 3 high.  Human hands probably hadn’t touched them in years.  Even on the refuge side of the fence, ancient rusted human artifacts lay scattered everywhere, left from a time 80 years ago, before the refuge was established.  I’d passed that junkyard a million times by car just a few feet away and never realized it was such archeological resource.

Eventually, I turned back away from the fence and took off through the woods again.  The horse picked his way carefully, the wind sang in the trees and I felt like William Bartram exploring the Florida wilderness of 200 years before.

What is only a barely noticeable little high spot from a speeding car turned out to be a huge sand dune covered with turkey oak scrub that ran for a mile east of the highway and then dropped abruptly off into a series of little ponds circled by dwarf live oak and cypress.  One of the prettiest natural spots I’d ever seen, only a little ways from the highway, I’d passed it a million times without a clue that it was there.

All of us race up and down the straight asphalt slashes of our lives at huge speed every day, seeing only the carscape of our immediate concerns.  It seems to go on forever but it’s really only the thinnest of strips.  Out  beyond that strip is the rest of the world, the rest of our lives.


The Carousel

Revisiting childhood haunts is a rite of middle age — a time to wonder what happened to the child that was, to acknowledge the shifting nature of a human life.  When I left my home in Florida and returned to Hampton, Virginia, where I grew up, for the first time since I left there twenty six years before, it was a journey to see what was gone, what still remained after all this time.  I knew the waterfront had been totally redeveloped to attract tourists — the shabby old Victorian mansion at the foot of King Street, a block from the water, where I lived as a kid, was gone.  Its stained glass windows and stately window seats had been bulldozed to make way for the redevelopment.  Probably, the public dock at the end of King Street where the commercial fishermen tied up, the place where I was forbidden to go but constantly did anyway, was gone too.  But I wanted to see what it had been turned into.

When I got there, the massive old dock of weathered timbers wasn’t gone.  And neither was the fishing fleet.  Even though they had redeveloped everything else, built a huge museum, yuppie restaurants and all the rest, the planners had the wisdom to leave that last block alone.  The clam dredgers still flew their yellow quarantine flags, Cooper’s Marine Hardware and L.D.  Amory’s fish house were exactly as they had been.  In the midst of the slick tourist glitz something real and nitty gritty was left.  Not only left, it was alive and well.  And I knew that those years when a little kid sat on that dock, staring out into Hampton Roads, aching to go to sea, were the formative ones for me, leading to a career as a marine biologist.

Oddly enough, back up the road, almost exactly on the spot where I used to live, the centerpiece of the new urban park was the carousel.  Built in 1920, with hand carved horses and original oil paintings, it had been rescued when the old amusement park at the beach finally closed after sixty four years.

It had been a bit creaky when I used to ride it at the old park in the 1950s and the colors weren’t too bright but to a child it was a wondrous thing.  When the gates opened there was always a race to get the most beautiful horse, the one that was highest up when it stopped.  You might jump on and off three different ones before you had the right one.  And on each circuit, you could see behind the calliope, watch the drum sticks mechanically beating the drums, and the moving punched paper roll that played it like a player piano, the cymbals going up and down.

One night I was there late, the only one left on the carousel, maybe the only kid left in the park.  Somebody going home gave me a huge string of tickets, more tickets than I’d ever seen before.  And I rode and I rode and I rode, in a state beyond exhaustion, the entire herd mine to command.

Now the carousel had been restored and moved into a glass building across from the new museum.  The horses pranced and leaped — whites and bays, grays and chestnuts, blacks and palominos — some with stiff cropped manes and others that flowed and curled on their necks.  Every detail of flared nostril and veins on the legs was there.  Those old carvers knew horses, carved with a love of detail and perfection that is nearly forgotten today.

The saddles glowed with brilliant new paint, reds and golds, green and silver.  The gilded chariots with eagles and Miss Liberty carrying a flag — chariots that no self-respecting child would be caught dead in — were fit to carry gods and goddesses.  The original mirrors glittered in the hundreds of electric lights that studded the ceiling and the brass that was dull and tarnished years before shone like gold.  The once scuffed and shabby wooden deck glowed in polished golden oak.  And the calliope played and played, it’s builders name, The Philadelphia Toboggan Company, proudly emblazoned across it.

It was supper time, the museum had closed and the beautiful glittering thing was nearly empty.  One little boy had it all to himself, going round and round and round, his eyes full of wonder, holding on tight, sitting proud and straight as he rode into glory.  And after he left, it was mine — all to myself — and I rode and I rode and I rode as I had so long ago.

But I was a middle aged woman, not a little girl and when I had ridden enough, there was still one ticket left.  What to do? I didn’t want to ride again just to use up a ticket.  That would be dreadfully wrong somehow, a loss of innocence, a waste.  What I really wanted to do with that ticket was to give it to a child, preferably to a little girl.  And a little girl appeared and I gave her the ticket.

Back when I was child, in the 1950s, this little girl, who was black, could not have ridden, could not have even come into the amusement park.  Now she could and she did, picking out the highest most beautiful horse of all.  And she sat her horse proud and straight, eyes shining, and the restored carousel was more beautiful than ever.

Seasons of the Sea

On land, every spring bears the face of flowers. Right now in March, the first subtle bloom of redbud and red maple flowers in the tree tops a month ago has exploded in a riot of azaleas, wisteria and dogwoods where I live.

But the seasons of the sea, as marine biologists and fishermen all know, are as strongly marked as those on land. Right now in March, the season’s first horseshoe crabs are returning to the breeding beaches they will visit every full and new moon all summer. Manatees are returning to coastal sea grass beds, emerging from the year round warmth of coastal spring fed rivers that sheltered them all winter.

Come the full moon in April everything else will explode back into life again as well.  Pink shrimp that spent the winter buried in the sandy sea floor will emerge by the millions and swarm across the bottom in what shrimpers call the spring hopper run. Fish that moved offshore into deeper warmer water move back into the shallows even as the white pelicans are flying north overhead.

It all reverses in the fall. With the first few cold fronts, the water chills, gets stirred up and choppy.  It’s a signal to all the juvenile crabs and fish and shrimp that grew up in the warm shallow food rich inshore waters of summer that it will soon be too cold for survival. Just like birds headed south for the winter, they head offshore to deeper water, water that will stay relatively warm through the brief chill of a Gulf Coast winter.

Fall is run season for mullet — the year’s crop of fish form schools and run along shore, their bodies ripe with eggs and sperm, to spawn in deep open water.  In a few places fishermen still wait along the shore to catch them as they did 100 years ago. The mullet that complete the migration will spawn their microscopic offspring that will ride the currents back into the bays and marshes a few months later in early spring.  Rare Keep’s ridley sea turtles disappear from their crab rich grass bed feeding grounds in the fall.  Some will move south, some will bury in the mud, hibernating like pond turtles till the water warms up again.  Off Cape Cod, other ridleys are traveling south for hundreds of miles, maybe as far as Cape Hatteras to escape the lethal freezing temperatures of a north Atlantic winter, a real winter.

In the surf zones of northern Gulf Coast barrier islands from Dog Island in Florida west to the Mississippi, mother electric rays who came inshore to birth their young in August and September leave in November, headed back to offshore sand bars in thirty feet of water.  The newborn brown spotted babies will stay on, feeding on tiny worms and burrowing sea anemones until January cold forces them to remain buried and inactive until spring time.

When a fall cold front swept through one year, the November sky looked like a blue porcelain dish above our heads.  My Florida State University students and I walked along the shore, all of us bundled up against the cold north wind that was blowing with bared fangs across the water.  The full moon tide had fallen hard and fast that morning, pushed by both gravity and the wind and the mud flats were dry for a quarter of a mile off the beach.  Dry and covered with shrimp, hundreds of shrimp, big shrimp stranded as the water rushed off the flat.  Unlike the pink shrimp of spring, these were closely related white shrimp trekking to the open ocean from the muddy shallow nearly fresh water in river mouths where they had spent the summer growing from microscopic babies into big edible seafood shrimp, 6 inches long.

Their opalescent white bodies and green and black tail fans gleamed in the bright sun.  Caught by the weather, by the unusually fast fall of the wind driven tide as they moved along the shore toward the open ocean, these shrimp would not complete their fall migration from the marshes at the head of the bay out to the sea.

Their misfortune was our gain.  Scientific theory and learned discussion of marine animal migration was on total hold as the students switched from ecology to applied biology, specifically to fisheries biology, more specifically to harvesting the marine resource at our feet.  Lunches were emptied out of coolers as somebody drove to the nearest store to buy ice. Marine biology was all very well but this was dinner, this was real.

The Driver’s License

I had to get my driver’s license renewed so I stopped by the office behind the courthouse that is open two days a week in the rural Florida county where I live.  There was a single clerk talking on the phone, trying patiently to explain some detail of a new regulation to somebody on the other end who evidently just wasn’t getting it.

Three of us stood on the other side of the counter, our presence silently urging her to get back to us.  Finally she finished and quickly turned to the line.  Then the phone rang again.  She answered and two more people came in.  Then three more behind them.  She finished with that caller and tried again.  The phone rang again.  Somebody mumbled “Take it off the hook” but she wasn’t allowed to do that.

“Would everybody please have a seat,” she asked. “Please!”

We all relented and sat down except for one elderly man who had been first in line.  She finished that call and finally turned to him.

“Well, Mr.  Evans, did you come back with glasses?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am!” he answered brightly. “I went all the way to Quincy but I done got ’em now.”

“OK, I’ve still got your form from last Tuesday.  All you’ve got to do is pass the eye exam.  Look through this machine and read the numbers in the first three rows,”  she said adjusting the black eyepiece to fit his eyes.

He fumbled with the new glasses.

“I don’t see anything.”

“Sir, those are bifocals, be sure you look through the top of them, not the bottom.”

He fumbled some more and then hesitantly read the first three numbers, “five, six, three,” and paused for a long time.

“Good,” she said in an sympathetic voice, “now the next line.”

Slowly, painfully, he read them as she patiently waited, encouraging him along.  Mercifully the phone didn’t ring again.  It didn’t matter how many were waiting, there was no hurrying this.  It was serious stuff.  If he failed, it was the end of his life as an independent self-sufficient person.  He knew it, she knew it, everybody in the room knew it.

As a society we’ve about given up on the rites and rituals associated with the passages through life, with coming of age and getting old.  Most tribal societies had prolonged and difficult puberty rites to initiate youngsters into adult life.  Today getting a driver’s license for the first time is the unofficial gateway to adulthood just as losing it when we’re old marks an ending of sorts.

Part of her job was to pronounce this sentence on the old folks who couldn’t pass that test, in order to protect the other drivers on the road.  It wasn’t an easy thing to do and we were all hoping he’d make it.  It was touch and go on a few of the numbers, but he finally passed.  His life could continue yet a while as his own.

Diving in a Sea Grass Meadow

The little boat pitched and tossed like a wild horse on its anchor line under a purple and black sky in front of a remote marshy island in the northern Gulf of Mexico. The idea had been to spend some time alone on the island, but the sea was too rough to even think about wading ashore. My analytical thinking mind urgently pointed out that I was there with a broken rusty anchor, no bail cup, and no fresh water. I hadn’t checked the tide or weather radar before leaving. I hadn’t even told anybody that I was going. I broke every safety rule in the book

Marine biologists and writers, my husband and I run Gulf Specimen Marine Lab in Panacea, a tiny nonprofit aquarium and write books about the ocean. A precarious life, it is dependent upon the unforgiving sea for survival, both financially and sometimes literally.  Years before, I began spending time alone in the forest and along the shore in order to better handle the mental challenges of each day, and it had eventually become a major focus of this intense and always uncertain way of life.

Solo meditation at sea, even close to shore, has an edge to it that is not part of sitting in a building. It means being totally in this moment and alert to what is needed. There is no room for the mental cobwebs of restlessness and dissatisfaction. The weather worsened until I barely had the strength and energy to pull the anchor against a stiff wind and chop, but as I got underway and was running back to port, I felt alive and strong.

The next day I went back to sea with a much better prepared collecting crew from our aquarium to dive for sponges and sea whips further offshore. The storm had passed and the sea was silken flat and pastel baby blue. There was no horizon as the sea blended with the sky in the far distance. A limestone outcrop on the sea floor was covered with yellow soft corals and bright orange sponges. Silversides, spots, grunts, hogfish, and a school of 5 huge tarpon kept a discrete distance while a 5 foot spotted eagle ray swam over the rocks, its tubular mouth vacuuming the rock and its two wing tips pointed straight up.  A school of silvery look downs passed by, undulating back and forth in sinuous movements. Lying quietly amidst the rubble two brown nurse sharks tried to hide.

Amidst them a young green turtle cruised along. Maybe fourteen inches long, the sunrise pattern of yellow and brown streaks on the shell was perfect camouflage against the bottom of rock, sponge, coral and sand patches. It half swam, half crawled over the rocks, head down, tearing algae off the bottom.   Its effortless soaring flight, banking and tilting with slow relaxed strokes was a total contrast to the heavy crawl of nesting females on the beach. Who would have thought they were such free and graceful creatures, flying underwater, rising vertically to the surface to breathe?  I followed it for a while, my awkward flippers thrusting, pounding, swimming as best I could, but the turtle winged its way off the reef, out over the white sand bottom, put on a burst of speed and left me behind.

After working offshore for a few hours, we moved to an inshore sea grass meadow. It was full of tiny emerald green snails that none of us had ever seen before. Comb jellyfish flashed red, yellow and green in the afternoon sun on a falling tide. A spider crab sat motionless with her eyestalks rotated back in her head. Was she asleep? Do crabs sleep? I touched her, she swiveled her eyes up to have a look and scrambled away.

It was awesomely beautiful and the joy of simply being alive and present grew and grew to a thunderous level. Suddenly my consciousness shifted into a physical experience of no independent self apart from the ocean. Human bones and muscles moving through the water were simply and totally as much a part of that ecosystem and that place and moment as were the fish and the sea grass. Any sense of human or personal distinctiveness disappeared. The human was just part of the fauna in that moment. It wasn’t an idea, it was physical reality and the entire universe was there, totally complete and alive. Arising out of joy and gratitude, the awareness began to open into something transcendent. It absolutely needed silence and solitude to continue to unfold but the other divers were waving me back to the boat. As soon as there was the sound of words and voices, the unfolding stopped and I was again a separate human being swimming in the ocean. 

The Ant and the Candy Bar

“Let’s do something different today,” I said to the family one Sunday morning. “Let’s all drive to the Apalachicola River and walk along the bluffs. We haven’t done that in years.”

My husband was agreeable, but my younger son had fishing plans. Well, OK, then, it would be a good chance for some one on one quality time with the fourteen year old, something that was impossible when both boys were together, endlessly squabbling and requiring constant militaristic parental intervention. Only he didn’t particularly want to go, but then again, he didn’t want to stay home alone all day either. But a day with your parents when you’re fourteen just isn’t so cool.

“Look,” I said, still hoping to engineer a good family time, “you go along with us to the park and then we’ll go into town and go to a movie or something — we each get something we want.”

“How many hours do I have to spend at the river?” he asked suspiciously. “Do I get to go to the video arcade?”

We haggled and finally made a deal but he was clearly only pulling time with us in order to get the goodies in the mall. We headed out through endless woods of North Florida, on one of the most monotonous long roads anywhere. And he suddenly realized how far we had to drive.

“You didn’t tell me it was so far away,” he wailed. “You tricked me, you lied!”
“I thought you knew where it was,” I answered firmly trying to head off the onslaught that was forming.

“And I’m hungry,” he continued, getting madder and madder. “We didn’t eat any breakfast.”

“OK, OK, we’ll stop at the next store,” I agreed. This kid was always a lot easier to talk to with a full stomach. We pulled into the next one and loaded him up on sandwiches, drinks and a candy bar. Continuing down the road, it seemed to work. It’s hard to eat and fight at the same time. By the time the candy bar came out, peace seemed to be restored. It was a Snickers.

“Hey, a Snickers,” I said. “I haven’t tasted one of those in years — let me have a bite.” He gave me a cold look. “You lied to me about this trip. I’m still mad at you.”

“I did not and that’s a huge candy bar.” Another cold look.

“I’ll throw it out the window if you even ask again,” he announced loftily, savoring his revenge. I didn’t really want the candy all that much but this was irresistible – too good a chance to let pass. I tried to be kind, but it was impossible.

“Please give me a bite,” I said slowly and firmly, calling his bluff.
It was the moment of truth. There was a long pause. The struggle within him was visible. He really wanted that candy bar but now it was a matter of honor. He had taken a stand. What price integrity? Slowly the window went down. He hesitated and then tossed it. And I was proud of him.

The car roared on down the road, the candy bar crashed on the ground, rolling through the grass of the road shoulder. An ant froze as the earth shook from the impact. It turned to run but then a powerful wonderful smell overcame it. It was sweet beyond any flower the ant had ever smelled before. Waves of sugar rolled over its tremulous antennae — six legs moved as one, pulling the delirious ant through the thickets of spiderwort and clover.

And there it was — a huge brown monolithic block on a bed of crushed grass. Had the great ant god sent it from above? Was it alive, would it attack? The ant reached up with its first two legs, delicately touching the soft wall that was starting to ooze in the hot sun, releasing yet more of the wonderful, overpowering fragrance.

Yes! Yes! Impossible, but it was food. Sugar beyond imagining. Enough for fifty ant colonies. They were rich, there were no more problems! It would take thousands of workers, days of effort, but this could feed the colony forever.
After gorging itself, the ant raced back to her ant hill smeared with chocolate. At first she was not believed but the smell overcame her sisters as it already had her. A wave of frenzy swept through the colony and out they streamed in a mad dash, back to glory.

But when they arrived, the hated enemy ants from the next ant hill were swarming over the candy bar. It was war! Screaming, the two armies closed, mandibles snapping, legs and heads tearing. Soon bodies were everywhere as the battle raged.

“Well,” said my son, miles on down the road, “I suppose I could have shared the candy bar.”

Horseshoe Crabs at Full Moon

Horseshoe Crabs on the Full Moon

Every spring along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, horseshoe crabs come to sandy beaches at high tide  to nest on days near the full or new moons.  Night  tides have more crabs than afternoon tides. Years ago I did a research project on the behavioral ecology of the crabs. Their blood is used test medical supplies for bacterial contamination. The crabs are then released, but the point of the study was to be sure that they were unharmed by the process. It was proactive conservation rather than waiting until a problem arose and then trying to fix it.  The work involved teams of volunteers tagging and releasing ten thousand crabs. Would those that were bled remain as active and likely to be seen again as those that were not bled? I had spent month after month on horseshoe crab breeding beaches hiking for miles looking for tagged crabs. The study showed that the bleeding process was not hurting the crabs and in the intervening years I had moved on to other work and rarely visited the breeding beaches.

Last spring I went to a horseshoe crab breeding beach on the March full moon at the 3 AM high tide to see how many crabs were coming ashore locally after the BP oil spill.  We were east of the main effects but not very far east. Were they ok or had their populations been hammered?

On the first nesting moon of the season, I didn’t expect to see more than a few dozen. It was windy and the crabs were having a tough time, flipping over in the surf, but there were hundreds there in a short stretch of beach, digging into the sand to lay and fertilize eggs, insuring the next generation in a lineage that has survived nearly unchanged for four hundred million years. Hooray! Whether populations further west survived where the oil came ashore was another matter but at least these were still kicking.

And after all these years, there wasn’t a single crab with a tag.  They were as naked as they were before all that tagging work. Ancient creatures that have been around since long before the dinosaurs appeared, their span on earth is incomprehensible to a single finite human mind.  The project that had been so important in my life years before was gone without a trace, as ephemeral and impermanent as a single wave breaking on the shore. For that matter, so was I.  The tags were all gone and in a few years I would be equally gone.

As I walked the silent beach alone in the moonlight for several miles, time and events broke into smaller and smaller pieces, with the mind focusing on each one of them, experiencing each moment with total focus. Now is the time to step over a log. Stepping over the log.  Then is the time to take this step. Moving the leg forward. Then is the time to sit down. Sitting down. Then….. Etc etc. Mindfulness wasn’t an abstract ideal, it was simply how the brain physically shifted into a different way of functioning, measuring the night by time to walk, time to sit, time to rest.

We abstract time by labeling the hours of the day and the days of the week. Dividing our days into hours and minutes, we create an artificial mental scaffolding of schedules to keep and tasks to do. We label the cycle of seasons and number the years, creating a sense of progression and linear time, but each unique named day of the labeled month of the numbered year is only a mental abstraction, a human idea superimposed on the endless cyclic alternation of darkness and light and seasonal weather patterns.

The alternation of daylight and darkness is contiguous and unbroken for billions of years. There is only the still silent passage of the sun and moon overhead over and over again as the earth spins on its axis, only the changing light and colors as sun, moon and stars pass across the sky. There is no new day, only the endless cyclic alternation of light and dark, cold and hot, wet and dry weather, activity and rest. In the morning daylight simply resumes. It is not a new day. This timeless space has existed for millions of years.

All caught up in the world of thinking and personal identity, we mostly don’t even notice that the nonverbal cyclic time that underlies the calendar even exists. Go back through enough sunrises and sunsets and everybody would be wearing different clothes and using different technology, but there would be no gap between then and this very moment.

Horseshoe crabs time their actions to the cyclic waxing and waning of the moon. They’ve been doing it for hundreds of millions of years as humans count time but to the crab perhaps there is only right now.

“The distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion,” said Einstein. This moment, this night was not separate from the moment when the first living thing appeared. Endless time became timeless.