There I was, in the center of a Florida swamp—encircled by oak trees, water cypress and cabbage palms filled with wading birds. Egrets, wood storks, herons, ibis and spoonbills—all of them were perfect miracles—arching their long necks, reaching with their great golden bills, tripping like dancers on stilted legs, their great wings rustling. Hundreds of birds gathering branches and Spanish moss for nests, birds hunched over eggs or hatchlings, water birds perched in the trees like exotic fruits, waiting, watching. And below them—us, gawking people. We could almost touch the birds. And below us, in the water, alligators by the score, their snouts raised, reaching for their nightly feast. Not the birds, not us, but something bought for them by the St. Augustine Alligator Farm.
I’ve always been suspicious of tourist sites whose names end in “Farm”—Rattlesnake Farms, Bear Farms, Moose Farms….
I expected a zoo full of dried up prehistoric looking creatures of immense girth. After all, they don’t exactly ingratiate themselves, do they? They sleep most of the time, and when they overcome a lethargy that looks a lot like big dead lizard, they only do so to eat.
But, in the flesh, so to speak, there is something monumental about them. Camouflaged, they look like the earth they sleep on. Just another log, another rock. Their stillness is deeply impressive. Not a blink of an eye. Not a breath. Until it’s time to eat. The “Farm” housed hundreds of these silent, patient monsters. Waiting, and for what?
This was no farm; it was another universe. Above us, teenagers were on an obstacle course, gliding above seven acres of live alligators, crocodiles, birds and lemurs. Occasionally, a mother, father, or pint-size sibling would look up, recognize one of their own, and cheer the child on.
Every April through July, the birds in the swamp rookery come to roost above the alligators, knowing that the creatures will keep tree-climbing predators away. And the teenagers? Who knows?
It’s all quite extraordinary, isn’t it, how we and our fellow creatures live together on this bizarre, watery planet?