Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Day in the Swamp: a montage of our favourite moments

 Even though this blog is meant to keep our friends and any other interested readers updated on the goings on during our year away, reading it should not induce torpor. So, to keep things lively I will claim artistic license (yes, it's a stretch, but there is sufficient evidence that the blog quality police are off duty) and rather than give you 'a day in the life', I have decided to create a montage of the most exciting times we have had so far.

I'll talk about the big town fair, 'Celebrate Bonita', the Turtle Preserve on the beach just near our abode, kayaking through the backwaters and close up spotting (or rather retreating, paddling backwards in terrified defiance of spotting) alligators, communal creating on Earth Day the visit to eccentric Everglades Wonder Gardens.  All the special events I mention above honour the local landscape - whether geological or social....

The city of Bonita Springs - officially a city for only the last twelve years- has a population of about 37000.  Prior to its incorporation, it was a piece of the county where surveyors used to hang out.  With a collective imagination inversely proportionate to their indifference, they called the place 'Survey, Florida'. hmm. The population has just about tripled in the last 20 years and although it falls on the state and national median lines in terms of crime, income and ethnic diversity, it seems surprisingly civically engaged in a way - especially given its previous spirit of apathy -  that is not really average at all.  There are at least 6 incorporated non-profit organizations serving its population; town hall meetings that are full of residents, many of whom step up to the podium to proffer their opinions on various social issues; there are art shows, music festivals  and huge town fairs, like Celebrate Bonita! that we attended, without expectations of any kind, last month.

It was impressive how of the 37000 people living here about 8000 showed up with folding chairs that they set up in front of the bandshell.  Riverside Park which, from the way it is built and designed, you would imagine hosts many more of these large scale events, looks quiet and expectant most of the time.  During Celebrate Bonita, Evening of Music and Art-walk (the latter two occur once a month) this impressive park which dwarfs the old town's green spaces at other times of the year is jam packed with residents and visitors.

Here we are waiting for the Screaming Orphans (http://www.thescreamingorphans.com/)
to come on as part of the line up of great bands that are booked for this event.  The Screaming Orphans are an Irish band of four sisters who are neither vociferous nor without parents (they assured us during the show that 'ma' and 'pa' were super supportive of their musical pursuits and of them in general).  They were, although obviously not local, a perfect fit for the festive environment.  It's a shame I lost the video of Luca doing a jig to their Irish folk inspired rock tune.

There were food trucks celebrating local food traditions including delicious authentic barbecue fare, fresh squeezed lemonade, ears of local corn, wholesome ice cream  and......wholesome beer.  In this small town of just a few people and even fewer - one would hope - fires, the local fire station had spectacular representation.  There were 6 firefighters on site manning information tables, giving away children's fire safety-themed toys and giving tours on a  huge rescue truck (apparently we are not supposed to call them simply 'fire trucks'.  That annoys the brigades of town heroes as each truck has a purpose;  there are pumper trucks, ladder trucks etc.  but no plain fire trucks).  Local businesses had booths and tables set up on the perimeter where they gave out a disproportionately high (relative to much bigger cities' fairs) free samples of stuff.


There was an entire section of the park devoted to kids.  There was a train ride through the park, all kinds of bouncy castles and, in fact, entire bouncy cities set up for the kids' diversion - all free. This isn't quite as cute as the Irish jig but it ain't your average kid-being-cute video either. Wait for the special feature at the end....edgy and hip.

video








 Didn't you feel like you were right there at the foam party at the end?


  I've been to the desert (albeit sans anonymous equine) and find that landscape beautiful, almost other-worldly.  The sea next to mountains typical of the pacific rim makes a majestic apposition of nature's extremes.  If you had asked me, some months ago,  what my favourite places are in this world, I would probably name a destination offering one of those two views. The local topography would not have made it on the list.  In fact there is evidence in fairy tales and general overall lore - which favours things pastoral in tone  - that the sticky, moist, often insect harbouring environs of south-west Florida are not even poetic enough to make it into classical adages (the defining legacy leaving expressions).  People count farm animals to chase away insomnia - not manatees.  And you don't hear 'what's good for the pelican is good for the ....um.. dude pelican'. See, it doesn't work.

The area has a romance about it which  - to my surprise - I have grown to crave on scenic drives (to buy groceries).  The overgrown look of the region used to be reminiscent to me of movies with serial killer themes.  Now the banyan trees with their ginormous trunks and simultaneously teeny willowy branches dipping into the river leave me a little struck.

For cheap and satisfying weekend entertainment, we sometimes ride our bikes the two miles to the turtle nesting area on the beach near our house.  Turtle nesting season is just beginning so they are out in droves and residents whose lanais (that's what they call balconies here - so that's what I'm calling them too!) face the beach install special turtle bulbs.  It's the law here that lights that potentially attract turtles be dim and warmly orange (rather than stark and white or fluorescent).  If the turtles see the light they come off the beach towards them, get beached and perish before they can lay eggs and propogate the species.  The concern for propogating this species is admirable and touching.  It is ironic that we cannot be moved to be so concerned as to legislate for the protection of other species just as fragile.. Sigh.

We slow down a few times to give some traveling egg layers a wide berth and I observe and take photos as Gavin explains to Luca that the turtle is going to his house.  Luca must wonder why the turtle's house on this preserve looks curiously like a roped off section of sand! After a few minutes of scientific observation, we park our bikes and continue down the sandy path too soft for our bike wheels and continue down to the end of the trail where the Gulf of Mexico meets one of the powerful rivers that run in this part of the state.  For the 45 minutes on the trail between leaving our two wheeled transport against a tree and emerging on a lively river beach where boats are anchored for fishing or coming and going in the estuary as people wave from their beach towels, we can imagine being on a deserted island (think: 3 hour tour....3 hour tour) because we pass no one on the way, see no footprints in the sand and hear utterance of neither greeting nor gossip. When we arrive at  Destination Civilization at the end of our hike, we take a dip in the river/ocean mélange and head home. Flora, fauna, physical activity, and frolic - all to be checked off the list.

A few weeks ago, we had some friends visit and understandably wanted to give them a 'best of' kind of experience.  These self imposed standards are never a good idea.  What if you consider my 'best of' more of a  'most mediocre of'?  Thankfully, in this case we all came away from the visit still the 'best of' friends (had to squeeze that in - cheap laughs are all too alluring) spiritually and otherwise whole.  I say otherwise whole because, having seen an alligator up close, we did narrowly escape having chunks taken out of us.  Well, some of us saw an alligator. .....

Between requisite trips to the beach and to family style restaurants with happy hours that last a whole afternoon, we went kayaking on the Calusa trail (http://calusablueway.com/?CMP=KNC-Calusareprisegoogle0910&HBX_PK=Brand/Calusa+Blueway&HBX_OU=50 ) And since the odds of seeing an actual Calusa person these days is nil, the big draw for kayaking in those backwaters is the serenity, the scenery and the promise of wildlife spotting: turtles and manatees during their respective seasons and the enigmatic (there's that shamelessly claimed artistic license again) ........ ALLIGATOR.  They are known to inhabit the back waters and rise and fall non-chalantly in the water as boats pass.  And although there has not been an alligator attack in the area for over 70 years, statistics gotta turn around some time.  With that heuristic in mind, I was jostled out of my euphoric state of playfully splashing each other and our friends, Mark and Lisa in the other boat, gazing with pride behind me as Luca 'pretend paddled' from the child seat on the middle of the kayak and flung into a spirit of panic when some boaters returning from an ALLIGATOR sighting confirmed the ALLIGATOR'S coordinates and guided and encouraged us to approach said animal to extreme proximity and with no caution whatsoever!

All I could see was myself desperate to protect my family standing up in the boat ready to dive and swim out of danger with Luca under my arm....this would of course destabilize the kayak and tip it sending Gavin into the water.....this in turn would swell the smell of flesh in the water which would transport  the ALLIGATOR into a hunger frenzy at which point he would glower at us with his chilling eyes....that would freeze my insides with fear so I would pass out, dropping Luca from my arms and send Gavin- noticing that Luca is flailing trying to keep afloat- into a panic that would drive him to get into a fist fight with the ALLIGATOR - fistless though he (the ALLIGATOR, not Gavin) may be - where he would meet his tragic end (Gavin, not the ALLIGATOR)

So, I insisted to Gavin - for his own good, of course - that we retreat from the ALLIGATOR seeking mission and let Mark and Lisa go ahead and report back on whatever  predator splendor they happen to behold.  Gavin, pouting,  agreed to hang back.  There we were, still in the water, noticing the quiet in spite of the 'green noise' one hears in the wild....the noise without which everything is so quiet that any signs of life seem debile and listless.

We awaited our friends anticipating hunt-inspired stories of near misses or angry, silent growls from the ALLIGATOR...."it was 19 feet long with glistening blades for teeth...".  They returned disappointed reporting that the elusive swamp dragon - just 6 feet in length - seemed a little bored with his adversaries and slunk into the water moments after they arrived.  You could almost see the famed ALLIGATOR eye roll but, instead of reading, "my eyes retreat as I poise to pounce" the caption accompanying the eye roll read "yawn...tourists".



So, with one quasi-crocodile dundee moment almost under our belts, we proceed to the next adventure.  Earth Day was celebrated in a few places in the area.  Our event of choice was at Koreshan State Park (http://floridastateparks.org/koreshan/default.cfm).  The Koreshan were a community of people whose numbers dwindled quickly in later 20th century until the few remaining members transferred their land in 1961 to the State of Florida at which time it was turned into a Heritage site celebrating and explaining (only a little bit though) about the Koreshan community. The strength of their beliefs (that the earth was essentially donut shaped) starkly justaposed with their tiny population and numerous philosophical opponents make their legacy - the park - something of a sacred ground.  It seems others feel the same way as the Earth Day celebration was well attended by many friends of the earth who wanted to feel like we were breathing special air that day.  A highlight - simple in its inception - but so charming as to warrant real estate  below was the communal painting to which we contributed.


 The Everglades Wonder Gardens has been in old Bonita Springs for over 70 years.  Founded by the Piper brothers two generations ago, it has become Bonita's foremost tourist attraction with a quirky museum - the "Lion Attack" exhibit displays only a wristwatch framed and mounted behind glass -  and a bittersweet backstory.  It started out as an animal hospital and now operates as a kind of dynamic zoo with enclosures of very dangerous indigenous animals who performatize their feedings daily to throngs of hundreds every week.   It has been family run since the cantankerous brothers founded it in 1936.  Now with their grandsons ending the heirloom status of this local icon - one, feeling no inclination whatsoever to take over the family business and the other with an inoperable tumour - the place is closing...forever.  I went there with a Mom's club which meant that the 20 or so of us with one or two kids apiece descended on this small but power packed park on a quiet Friday morning.  I think we whisked past the poisonous snakes and the black bears rather quickly. That's right.  Black. Bears. You'll understand my hurried pace when you remember my alligator story above.  I did get  some shots of the cute, harmless turtles at the end of the park near the gift shop though!

In the end, whether edited down to 'best of' format or allowed to unspool slowly, all of life's bytes inhabit the same space. The small moments fill up time next to, under and behind the big bubbles of celebration, turning points and breakthroughs as they bump up against each other inside the months and years. I have lived small moments too that have been  released by us being here right now at this time in our lives....like the private moment of smug I enjoy I quietly rebel against a culture bound by its vanity plates and bumper stickers by riding my bike to the nearby yoga studio, or ....like the moment of joy when, when asked at storytime whether he would prefer a story in English or in Spanish, my son replies "espanol, mami"...or the moment I realize looking at myself as if from outside of me, that I would rather live a lofty life in an ostensibly small place than rattle around in a big hollow expanse forever seeking life's large  bubbles to fill the time ...feeling foiled and thwarted at every turn.