Breaking the Silence of Tea

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<ol><li> 1. Breaking the Silence of Tea It smells like eggs, I say. And it does. Rotten eggs. The heat doesnt make the scent any more pleasant. Its only eight in the morning and already boiling hot, accompanied by the kind of humidity that gives one the sensation of breathing warm liquid. The bugs dont even seem to notice the several layers of insect repellant coating our bodies, as if the sun has melted the spray right off. Were being assaulted by squadrons of mosquitoes. And horseflies. And some other creations that Lucifer has come up with in his down-time. Yup, Dad says as he squints at the top of a nearby mangrove tree, shading his eyes with one hand, the other set at his hip, elbow jutting out. Its the sulfur dioxide, I think, he says, eyes focused on the gnarled fingers of the mangrove branches. See how the water is reddish-brown? He looks down and points. The tannic acid? The smell comes from the decomposing stuff in there. He peers back up into the branches. Small fish dart around in the tea-colored brackish water, through submerged branches and dark, dead leaves. An alligator sits, half-submerged, twenty yards out near the opposite shore of the swamp, its gray-green scales blending in with the gray-green of the rushes that line the bank. The Great Blue Heron my father is observing leaps from its mangrove perch and lets out a short, deep croak, very similar to a belch, that is answered somewhere to the west. My eyes remain fixated on the fish living in tea, the mangrove crabs making their way up and down the roots sitting at the surface of the water. This is the third time Ive been to Sanibel Island, Florida, each time with my family. Whenever Ive visited what I like to think of as my own little slice of paradise, 1 </li><li> 2. Dad and I have woken up early on at least one day and gone to J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Every time weve visited Ding Darling, weve had this conversation about the smell emanating from the stagnant sections of standing water, the result of some type of sulfuric oxide (chemistry fails me) that is common in many swamps where large portions of decomposing matter rest underwater. Its a pungent scent that crawls up your nostrils and snuggles up against the front of your brain, makes you gag involuntarily where the smell is particularly overwhelming. The fact that the sensation exists is inevitable. After all, it is a natural process. When 5,200 acres of undeveloped mangrove ecosystem, ripe with tannic acid and tea colored water, was set apart in 1976 as a wildlife refuge, the smell most certainly existed then. Its unfortunate, then, that this scent can lead to negative thoughts on the reserve. When tourists pass us, its rare not to hear a complaint concerning the smell, commonly followed by something like, Lets get in the car. It smells out here. These are people who obviously do not appreciate when something wondrous is sitting in front of their face, like a flock of ibis glistening in the sun or hundreds of fish leaping into the air for bugs in a synchronized swimming spectacle that has dissolved into chaos. When I say, It smells like eggs, it is not a critique. It is an observation, like, That car is blue, or, My leg hurts. Sometimes, especially at Ding Darling, the visuals are so beautiful and otherworldly that breath can be stolen right from the body, and all that is left is a shell of a person frozen in wonder. In those instances, all one can do is mutter the obvious. Thats what Dad and I do every time we visit. The same conversation always occurs: It smells like eggs. 2 </li><li> 3. While we walk down the trail of crushed seashells - named Indigo Trail in the reserve I hear a soft crunching noise behind us. I pause, hoping for a moment that when I turn around an alligator (preferably of the smaller variety) will be dragging its belly across the trail to the water on the other side. Instead, when I turn, my eyes are met not by scales but by feathers. Directly at my feet, not a foot and a half away, walks a Yellow- Crowned Night Heron, almost indifferent to my existence while it goes about its heron duty, whatever that may be. For a brief moment, it pauses in mid-stride, and cocks its head upwards to meet a ruby-red eye to mine. We stare at each other, and it seems to me, if he could talk, he would say, Whats up? We both stand there for a moment, regarding each other. Im fascinated that hes this close, and he seems to be fascinated that I care. Im living every birdwatchers dream. If I want to touch him, I can, but it almost seemsrude. Well, the heron says with his eyes as he looks away, I uhIll be going now. He walks straight ahead, across the trail, ducks beneath some low- hanging branches, and as he wades into the water, he turns to me, almost as if hes worried Ill stalk him. FreakIve got my eye on you Then he disappears into the undergrowth, the patterns on his back becoming one with the reeds and the trees. Stepping into Ding Darling is like stepping into another world, which to some degree is a bit clich, but there really isnt a better way to put it. Other than the occasional distant droning of a jet overhead, you wouldnt even know that your feet were on United States soil. People are few and far between, and can be seen walking quietly on the seashell trails with binoculars and birding guides, or idling in their cars on the road that runs through the middle of the reserve, staring at a gator or cormorant relaxing close to 3 </li><li> 4. the pavement. In certain places, the park shares a border with backyards, but if you didnt know exactly where these points are, youd be none the wiser; a thick wall of mangrove trees makes it impossible to see more than a few feet beyond their tangled barrier, warped and terribly twisted, their branches seeming to protect the swamp as fences protect yards. Its a harsh world. The literal fight for survival is staged every day in a hot, sticky soup of a swamp. If you walk along the trails of the refuge, youll find the small lizards that litter the swamp chowing down on insects, and snakes busy eating the lizards in return. Flocks of White Ibis plow through the mud in the shallows nearly 24-7, looking for helpless crustaceans to eliminate. Herons spear and swallow fish in quick, spastic, violent maneuvers. One year, the annual photo contest winner was a shot of an alligator eating another alligator, blankly staring at the camera with empty obsidian eyes with drops of blood dripping down its maw in the water. But the island reserve is also arrestingly gorgeous. Bright yellow flowers nonsensically appear among the rocks and sand and sharp edges of dry grass. When the sun is just right in the evening, light glitters in a dazzling display of colors across the largest lagoon; millions of tiny diamonds dance across the surface of the water among silhouetted forms of waterfowl, the birds prowling the shallows like mitochondria dancing around in a cell. The birds, the main draw of the park, seem to be as numerous as they were when God created them. White Ibis may be the most common, and probably the dullest with their uniform dirty-white suits, but theres a Jackson Pollack painting of color and 4 </li><li> 5. movement interspersed. Roseate Spoonbills sift through the water, their bright pink plumage giving them appearances of roses running over the surface. Ospreys fly overhead, occasionally crossing paths with the odd bald eagle. Black Stilts seem to defy physics, walking on toothpicks while looking for small fish and crustaceans. All of these beautiful birds interact on an everyday basis in quantities unmatched anywhere I have visited or seen on television. Adam and Eve didnt witness such a perfusion of life. Had any of these birds ever died in this portion of the world, or do they just keep living and reproducing? The sad, obvious truth that so many of these birds have died defies logic. The whole purpose of the creation of the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, the whole reason behind its existence, is to shelter these animals and other native fauna of the island. Its a broken record among environmentalist that far too much of the worlds natural forests - indeed, far too much of the natural world has been replaced or permanently mangled by humanitys needlessly heavy footsteps. Cartoonist Jay Norwood Ding Darling, an avid hunter and fisherman, the man responsible for all the postage stamps with ducks on em, recognized this fact. In the ironic tradition of Theodore Roosevelt, here was a man that loved to kill animals with a zest, but recognized that too much of his quarry was disappearing. In 1934, Theos brother Frank put Darling in charge of the U.S. Biological Survey, which would eventually become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He did such a bang-up job increasing the size of the National Wildlife Refuge System that he now has a nice little plot of land named after him on Sanibel Island. Its supposed to be a refuge for wildlife, and it is, but it also has the feeling of a 5 </li><li> 6. trap or a desperate last resort. For a lot of the animals that call Ding Darling home, there arent too many other places left for them to go to. I would assume that, every passing year, what started as a hint of claustrophobia among the wildlife has grown stronger and stronger. Hurricane Charley drastically changed the landscape of the reserve in 2004, leveling trees and nearly irreparably destroying habitat. The animals cried, DEFCON 2! The fact that this is one of the few places these animals have left does not remove the beauty from the reserve. Neither my brother nor my mother can truly appreciate it. The mosquitoes get to Connor as if, from the moment of arrival, hes the only source of blood in twelve states. Five minutes after arriving, he resembles the target of a hundred snipers, their red laser sights popped up all over his body. Hes been once, and we had to leave quickly. Mom enjoys the sights and sounds from the comfort of a car, though she much prefers to be out in the sun with a good book, moving back and forth from the beach to the pool. It seems almost sacrilegious to not prostrate oneself in so holy a place, and I will forever look down on those who ignore the wonder of Ding Darling. In this world, our usual discussion of football or family or school or anything at all inevitably disappears; the visuals of the unspoiled land saps up all conversation. And so, in these precious times Dad and I are together in our little slice of paradise, when we feel the need to say something to break the silence, when nature isnt breaking it for us with croaks and groans and whistles and birdsong, water lapping against a shore, mangrove branches creaking in the wind, or leaves rustling together, we mention the eggs and other observations of the obvious. Sometimes we just stay silent, 6 </li><li> 7. soaking in the sun, tea bags in the tea. 7 </li></ol>