Secrets of Mother Nature

By Amy Bennett Williams Photography by William S. Speer December 1, 2009

ng.jpgAt water's edge, the stream was no more than a thin, damp sheet ribboning up the beach. Higher up on the sand, it became deeper,  a wet channel leading toward the wall of red mangroves, before disappearing into them. How could we not follow it?

My mom and I ducked into the dark archway. The beach vanished behind us; the stream snaked ahead. Now ankle deep in warm tannic water, we picked our way upstream. Inside the shadowy tunnel, a greeny gold luminosity played over the water, dappling our faces and rippling over the leafy walls that closed above us.

On either side, the mangroves’ roots—slender flying buttresses—were spangled with barnacles. Then the mangroves thinned, the landscape opened, and we found ourselves in a sunny clearing.

Here, hundreds of horseshoe crab shells littered the pale sand. The dun-colored husks lay everywhere. It was hard to take three steps without crunching them like leathery eggs. Had we discovered a horseshoe crab graveyard?

I turned one over and a squad of tiny crabs swarmed out, then scattered. My mom and I examined some of the empty horseshoe shells. Their odd profusion was just the sort of Florida phenomenon that fascinates her.

A surgeon’s daughter, she inherited her father’s love of learning about the inner workings of things. That, coupled with her taste for art and adventure, created for me a childhood filled with science and sensory surprise.

Come pomegranate time, she’d peel so many, it looked as if she were wearing violet gloves. I remember her smile as we gorged on the sweetly exotic capsules within. A fruit’s season is short, we learned. Stains disappear soon enough; enjoy while you can.

She was by my side that first kaleidoscopic afternoon at the Jungle Gardens, as a keeper approached with a bird that to my seven-year-old eyes looked as big as a peacock—a hyacinth macaw with an inky scimitar bill and lizardy, talon-tipped feet. It was as beautiful as it was frightening. Whispering encouragement, my mother gently touched the bird’s head. It ruffled its lapis feathers and half-closed its eyes. The keeper looked at her; she nodded, holding out a cardigan-clad arm. Calmly, carefully, the bird stepped on; then my mom looked at me. Would I like to try? Well, it hadn’t attacked her, so I slowly reached out. The macaw eased itself onto me.

The claws prickled. It was heavier than it looked. I remember my arm trembling, but it may have been from the thrill: eye-to-yellow-ringed-eye with a creature that looked like it had just fluttered in from a faraway jungle. The world felt as if it held just the bird, my mother, and me. But someone was there to snap a picture; I still have it in my top desk drawer. 

A few years later, again at my mother’s side, I had my first up-close encounter with an alligator—a hatchling handed to us by a nature center volunteer. The length of a Coke can, with no more heft than a kitten, it regarded us with glittery amber eyes. At least I thought it did—it may have been looking at the ceiling tiles, or at nothing at all.

I held the baby up to my cheek. Smooth as polished marble—sun-warmed marble. Cold-blooded, of course, does not necessarily mean cold; it simply means they’re as warm as their surroundings, which in this case was almost body temperature.

One of the subtropical party tricks my mother taught me and I now use to amuse my own children is lizard hypnotism. You catch yourself an anole, slowly turn it over in the palm of your hand so it’s belly up but not panicked, then gently, gently, gently stroke its throat and tummy. Soon, the critter relaxes and sprawls motionless in your hand. Your audience gasps, then cheers as you flip the lizard upright again and it shakes itself awake and scampers off.

So I lightly gripped the little ’gator, eased it into position and traced a line up and down its sleek underside. Soon came the familiar relaxation, the loose-limbed lolling, which lasted until I flipped the baby back over. My mom smiled as it squiggled between two of my fingers and began to chirp. Neither musical nor dissonant, it was a charming sound. In the wild, of course, that noise would attract the attention of this baby’s own mother, and for a moment, I had one of those flashing, unbidden visions: a charging female, my mother, me. And though my mom’s not much bigger than a child, I knew there’d be a fierce tussle over who would protect whom.

That long-ago afternoon she and I pushed our way into the mangrove labyrinth was the first time I’d been surrounded by the peculiar trees. We walked back to the beach under the low arches of limbs, as sunlight flickered and flashed through dark leaf lace. We breathed generations of fallen leaves, now sulfurous ghosts. We listened to the languid wash of the tide, the bubbling clicks of barnacles, the tiny clatter of tree-climbing crabs. Birth, death, muck, water, mother, daughter.

Later, I did some reading about mangroves and the creatures that live among them. I learned the horseshoe-crab carpet we’d seen wasn’t evidence of mass death; it was simply molted shells. And I learned that red mangroves don’t just drop their seeds the way so many other trees do. Instead, their seeds germinate and actually begin growing while still attached to the branch.

Thus sheltered and nourished, when the young mangrove finally separates from the big tree and slips into the water below, it’s ready to sink strong roots of its own.

Those facts might have been new to me, but the larger lesson wasn’t. It’s one my mother has spent her entire life teaching me.

Amy Bennett Williams, an essayist for NPR affiliate WGCU, is editor of the Fort Myers News-Press’ Sunday magazine, Tropicalia, and has won a number of state and national writing awards.

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