“But if we don’t understand and care for the smaller manifestations of wildness close at hand, how can we ever care for the great wildernesses?” —Conor Gearin
Temperatures hover around zero in the Chicago region. The “Winter Storm to End All Storms” seems to have fizzled out in a matter of less than half a dozen inches. And here I sit, in 70-degree weather. In Florida. There’s a part of me that’s sad to miss the first real snow of the season. A small part of me. (A very teeny, tiny part.)
But there’s solace knowing that this week, I’m absorbed in learning the names of birds, blooms, dragonflies, shells, and other flora and fauna of southwestern Florida. This region, which I’ve visited for almost 45 years, doesn’t hold the same place in my heart as the Illinois tallgrass prairie, my landscape of home. But hiking here reminds me of the breadth and depth of diversity of the natural world, and the joy of discovery. Here’s a postcard to you:
Hello from Florida! Visiting this tropical region in December and January jolts me out of my sense of normalcy about what “winter” looks like. It reminds me that the way I experience life in this season in the Chicago region is completely different than how my neighbors to the south experience it. What a change from the Midwestern prairie! Displacement—a complete change—is a good reset for me to begin a new year.
Here are a few of the wonders I see on my hikes:
My first Mangrove Skipper.
The Great Pondhawk. A new dragonfly species for me!
Another “lifer” is the Mottled Duck, paddling through the mangroves. (Don’t know what a “lifer” is? Take this quiz.)
Ducks are easy to overlook, when there are these birds around. Roseate Spoonbills!
Wow. Such shocking pink. They look like they were run through the wash in the whites load with one red sock, don’t they?
Only the hibiscus rivals it here for color.
And—of course—there are pelicans.
So many pelicans. A flock of pelicans is called a “pouch of pelicans” or sometimes, a “squadron of pelicans. Fun!
This poem runs through my mind:
“A wonderful bird is the pelican, His beak can hold more than his belican.”
Swimming near the pelicans is a mama manatee and her baby.
Four—or are there five?—are at the marina. I learn manatees are large, gray-ish aquatic mammals that feed on sea grasses. They can weigh up to 1,200 pounds, similar to a bison! Baby manatees stay with their moms for up to two years. Boat collisions pose a threat to this species, so hanging out by the boat docks, as these manatees are doing, isn’t a great idea. (Read more about manatees here.)
As I watch them surface every few minutes for air, I find myself wondering about the future for this unusual mammal. I think of the Illinois bison at Nachusa Grasslands, Midewin National Tallgrass Preserve, and Fermilab back home, and how bison have been preserved in good numbers at these places after near extinction. Maybe there is hope for the manatees, too.
Bison are the biggest hazard on my prairie hikes back home. But here, it’s a large reptile.
Yikes. They may weigh more than 750 pounds! See you later, alligator.
As the sun sets over the Gulf Coast, I pack my bags and prepare to head home.
I’ll miss the delights of the island’s natural wonders, but my heart is in the tallgrass. I can’t wait to see the prairie with a little snow on it. At last. Even if the temperature is 70 degrees colder than it is here.
Sending you love from the Sunshine State!
The opening quote is from Conor Gearin’s essay “Little Golden-Flower Room: On Wild Places and Intimacy” from the digital magazine The Millions. His essay is included in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2019 (edited by Sy Montgomery), a book I purchased at Gene’s Books on Sanibel Island, one of my favorite independent bookstores. Gearin’s essay beautifully explores one small Iowa prairie remnant.
Need a New Year’s Resolution? Help save Bell Bowl Prairie, an unusual hill remnant prairie that is slated for destruction by Chicago-Rockford International Airport. Your action can make a difference! See how at www.savebellbowlprairie.org