At last week's Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Miami, one of the daylong excursions offered to us was a trip to the Everglades. Never even having been in Florida, let alone the Everglades, I was happy to take this adventure.
On the two-hour bus drive, Everglades Superintendent Dan Kimball and Sierra Club organizer Jon Ullman described the stresses on the Everglades, from water shortages to invasive species such as pythons.
The population boom of South Florida has not been kind to this wilderness; human booms are always busts for the environment, and two proposed nuclear plants and miles of power lines are only twisting the proverbial knife.
Other insidious problems include soil erosion and, of course, sea level rise, a.k.a. the Mother of All Disasters.
National Park System Director Jon Jarvis was also on the trip. I met the director at last year's conference in Missoula, Mont., where he'd led a similar trip through Glacier National Park. Obama named this NPS veteran to the top position in 2009. He's a straight shooter about climate change, saying it's the greatest threat to the park system - ever - and he sees the park ranger as an educator for the everyday park-goer.
Jarvis talked about the upcoming 100th anniversary of the park system in 2016. He and his NPS crew are using this milestone to launch their 36-step call to action, connecting diverse populations to the parks, and thus to nature. Jarvis believes that reconnecting with the out-of-doors can heal many of our ills.
He told us he looked forward to the day when your doctor will say, "Take a hike and call me in the morning."
Departing from the bus, we were each given a wooden stick about four feet long. We strolled into the Pahayokee section of the Everglades, clear water about 18 inches high, with dwarf cypress trees and other growth sparsely distributed. We were invited to plunge our sticks into the soil— it too was about 18 inches before hitting limestone.
It was a sudden, unexpected sense of home for this Hoosier.
We began our slog toward a dome of not-so-dwarf cypress trees, stopping along the way to check out the grasses and reeds. There were orchid buds adhered to the bark of the trees. I found one tree with an ants' nest at eye level. I approached slowly, and the closer I came the more ants began spilling from the fist-sized brown mass, until I was upon it, and the nest appeared to be comprised only of a teeming mass of ants.
The nearer we approached the dome, the deeper the water, until it was up over my knees. In the dome, the canopy made for peaceful and cool environs. We spied more wildlife: a brilliantly green frog, a nest of spiders, flowers and bladderwort.
On one leaf I saw what looked like another, dead leaf, but when I poked it with a reed, it moved slightly, clinging to the leaf. It was alive! Its front end was spectacular — two pincher-like claws extending from the sides, with a bulbous head. The back, by contrast, simply tapered off to a point, but when I stirred it with my stick, it repositioned itself — and I realized that the back was the head and vice versa.
A few minutes later, I showed Director Jarvis the moth's image on my camera screen. He suggested it had evolved that way so if a predator did take a bite, it would consume the expendable tail, rather than the can't-live-without-it head.
Somewhere in here, I decided I would remain in the Everglades, as it was like nowhere I had ever been, with so many exotic flora and fauna to investigate, but then the mosquitoes, three, four at a time, began to squat on my bare arm. It was time to go, after all, and the bus was loading.
More talks from park potentates, more bad news about the Everglades, yet I couldn't stop thinking about my bug discovery; you might say I was head over heels about this cleverly disguised organism (which I would later learn was a Mournful Sphinx).
I'd taken a hike, and I would feel better in the morning. In fact, I was feeling pretty darn good right now.