The Sentinel

Down at the cut, beyond the banks of the sullen, dark-flowing river and its silent, receptive bay, silt-heavy waters tumble and settle into the ocean’s spilling froth.

Anchored by chains of sea-grass, dunes drag and shift in the wind, while along a sepentine ribbon of hard, reflective sand, treasures abound.  Portuguese Men of War, sargassum weed and a sea bean or two lie covered in spume.  Shells and echoes of shells move in tandem with the waves –  angel wing, bay scallop, lightening whelk and coquina – often worn, more often broken after crossing the bars which parallel the coast.

When the tide recedes and sandbars lie exposed, less common treasures invite a second look – sand dollars, an embossed candle, sea-glass in shades of pistachio and almond.  One day I noticed a bit of amethyst flashing in the sunlight – a tiny dot of brilliant, intense color. Assuming a shard of plastic or a broken fishing lure, I bent, and saw the truth. It was a shell – a tiny, perfect snail. (more…)

Follow the Muddy Dirt Road

Question: What do you get when you combine Italian immigrants, a bag of Louisiana acorns, some determined folk in a historically-minded Texas town and a California native who (along with his crew) moves trees with all the pride and competence you’d expect from an ex-Marine?

Answer: A feel-good story of the first order. Read on…

League City, Texas is growing. In the year 2000, the U.S. Census found 45,874 residents in the just-slightly-sleepy little town I call home, By 2010, I’d added myself and my mother to the new total of 83,560, and plenty of others have done so since.  Homes, schools and churches are popping up everywhere. New business is coming in, traffic is becoming an issue and we’ve earned the distinction of having the third-worst intersection in the Houston-Galveston area.

Road construction is a fact of life, particularly since so many streets no longer are traveled only by the people who live along them. Plans were well underway to convert such a street, Louisiana Avenue,  from an open ditch, rural roadway to a concrete-curbed storm sewer thoroughfare when some observant citizens realized a tiny obstacle stood in the way of all that progress – an uncommon and historically significant tree, the Ghirardi Compton Oak. (more…)

Transocean, Titanic and the Law

As a child, I rarely spent time on the water, but I knew a thing or two about boats.

In my child’s mind, boats were child-sized. Imaginary boats made of paper or leaves skimmed rain-filled gutters in the streets. Plastic boats fitted nicely into bathtubs or backyard wading pools. Even real boats were small. Fabricated from metal or wood, they crossed our rivers and lakes in tiny, buzzing swarms. You could fish from a boat, or go water skiing. Sometimes, you just filled it with people and drove it around, for all the world like taking a Sunday outing in the car.

On the other hand, ships were big. Ships lived on the ocean. They carried things, or fought wars. My great-aunt Fannie adopted Louisiana as her home, hung tire swings from her moss-draped oaks, rocked on her gallery until she became bored and then traveled to Europe on ships. So did great-aunt Sigrid, a mysterious woman whose accounts of her travels were equally mysterious; she wrote her postcards in Swedish. (more…)

A Little Nash Ramble

The guy running the front loader couldn’t have been nicer. “Look at this,” he said to his wife as she wandered up, shovel in hand, trying to shush the dogs. “She’s got the same danged map as that other guy.” Handing the map to the woman, he gave me a look generally reserved for well-intentioned but slightly dim folk. “Around here, we don’t call it a prairie. We call it a hay field.” 

“Well,” I said, “whatever you call it, I can’t find it. That map says it’s supposed to be twenty-six miles north of Highway 35. When I got to County Road 18 I knew I’d gone too far, but I sure hadn’t gone twenty-six miles. I decided I’d better stop and ask somebody who’d know.”

That made him smile. It made his wife smile, too. We stood around for a bit, grinning at one another while the dogs snuffled around my ankles and bumblebees trundled through the rising heat. Finally, he pushed back his hat and said, “Tell you what. Go on back down the road a piece, past the old Gibson place. Pass by the goat on the right and keep a-goin’. If you get to the substation, you’ve gone too far.”

Deciphering directions in Texas can take some skill, but there was no questioning the importance of “goat” and “substation” if I wanted to find the prairie. “Down the road a piece” and “over yonder” never translate into miles. If I’d asked enough times about the old Gibson place, I might have discovered it’s the Kutchka place now, or that the columns out front that made it recognizable aren’t there any longer since the Gibsons tore them out when they bought it. But, I might not have discovered any of that, so “goat” and “substation” it would have to be. (more…)

The Sage of Biscayne Bay


 If it hadn’t been for a Memorial Day trip to the middle Texas coast and the discovery of a slightly misplaced pair of purple snails, I never would have heard of Charles Torrey Simpson. The story of finding and identifying the shells can be found in my blog The Surprise of Tiny Purple Things, where Simpson makes an appearance as an obsessive shell collector and witness to a huge influx of purple snails onto a Key West beach. But Simpson’s story is more complex, far more intriguing and certainly more relevant to contemporary concerns about preservation of the natural world than I could have imagined when I first read about his exploits.

Charles Torry Simpson was as respected in his field and well-known around Florida as John Muir ever was in California. But Muir’s name and reputation grew and became familiar throughout the country, while Simpson gradually faded, like an early morning mist in the Everglades he loved. “Most people don’t have the foggiest idea who Simpson was,” says Rick Ferrer, of the Miami-Dade County Office of Historic Preservation. “He’s sort of an unsung hero.”

Born in 1846, in Tiskilwa, Illinois, Simpson started collecting shells as a child. Encouraged by his mother, he continued collecting well into adulthood and by the 1880s was a well-known conchologist – an expert on various species of shelled animals. He wasn’t well educated and he wasn’t an academician. He was an asute observer with a love of detail, and by 1889, he could identify nearly 10,000 shells by sight, and give their Latin names. With barely a high school education, he was hired by the Smithsonian to help catalogue their collection, and began to connect with other collectors and specialists.

After quite literally falling in love with Florida, and moving there in 1905, Simpson wrote four important books about nature in South Florida: Ornamental Gardening in Florida, In Lower Florida Wilds, Out Doors in Florida, and Florida Wild Life. In 1923, at the age of 77, he received the Meyer Medal in botany, and The University of Miami gave him an honorary Doctorate of Science degree in 1927, the first awarded by the university. By that time, he was known quite commonly as “The Sage of Biscayne Bay”, and acknowledged as a legitimate researcher as well as a bit of an eccentric.

When he finally settled in Lemon City, a few miles north of Miami on Biscayne Bay, Simpson built his own home, using the carpentry skills that had supported his shell collecting habit for a few years. The landscaping was gorgeous, and the home, raised on stilts with galleries all around, apparently was quite a subject for conversation. There were two tall Caribbean pines at the front of the property, and the trees gave the estate its name: The Sentinels. Simpson loved the property as much as he loved the state, and made it a center for naturalists and those who would be known today as environmentalists.

The first meetings to discuss preservation of the Everglades were held at The Sentinels, as were intense explorations of the wisdom of incorporating exotic flora into the ecological systems of the state. According to Antolin G. Carbonell, a resident of Dade County who studied Simpson extensively, “You could say the whole environmentalist movement in South Florida began with him,” Michael Browning of the Palm Beach Post agrees. In his July 30, 2006 review of Michael Grunwald’s The Swamp, which he describes as “a brilliant work of research and reportage about the evolution of a reviled bog into America’s — if not the world’s — most valuable wetland”, Browning calls Simpson “a saint”. Like Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a former Miami Herald reporter who penned the classic Everglades: River of Grass in 1947, Simpson cannot be ignored. Browing suggests that “Douglas poses a figure much like that of Faulkner for Southern novelists: you can go around them or go through them, but one way or another you have to reckon with the crusty old warhorses.” The same can be said for Simpson.

Prior to moving to Florida, Simpson produced (1887-1889) the first effective Florida Keys checklist by including a separate column in his tabulation of Florida mollusks. This included 98 bivalve species names, 86 of which still are recognized as valid. Between 1910-1916, he joined John B. Henderson Jr.’s dredging expeditions off the Florida Keys. The annual cruises aboard Henderson’s motor yacht Eolis sound like a Parrothead’s dream, or a lost chapter from one of John MacDonald’s novels: Key Largo, Tavernier Key, Indian Key, Key Vaca, Hawk’s Channel, Sand Key Light, Key West, Loggerhead, Garden Key, Dry Tortugas – all were rich shelling grounds. By dredging or hand collecting, Henderson and his crew deposited tens of thousands of specimens into the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) collection, and contributed immeasurably to our understanding of that world.

Florida is more than mollusks, of course, and Simpson loved it all, especially the hardwood and palm hammocks. Non-Floridians may think of hammocks as those cozy woven things that swing on the sterns of boats or between tropical palms, but this picture of Simpson with his journal was taken in his “hammock” at the Sentinels, and it shows something quite different.

The Floridians will laugh, but in all my years I never have heard the word “hammock” used to mean anything more than a woven swing. Apparently the word was used by early inhabitants of the area to mean a cool and shady place. (In Texas, we have “motts”.) Later settlers of Florida used the word “hummock” to indicate areas that were slightly higher in elevation from the rest of the land. Today, “hammock” is used to describe forest habitats that are typically higher in elevation than surrounding areas and characterized by hardwood forests, broad-leaved evergreens and tropical plants. Tropical hardwood hammocks occur in south Florida and along the Florida coastlines where danger from frost is rare and tropical trees and shrubs common to the Caribbean islands are able to survive.

Between explorations and collecting forays, Simpson loved to be at home in his beloved corner of the world. Describing his retreat, he could become lyrical:

There were two magnificent Caribbean pines in front of the house, eighty feet high and in the full glory of robust life. I called them the Sentinels, and from them I named my house. I felt they would watch over and guard me and mine. But the glory of the place was a couple of acres of fine young hammock that lay within a few rods of my door containing a large variety of mostly tropical growth, a thing of joy and inspiration. Year in and year out its greenery, its peace and quiet have appealed to me and from it I have learned some of the most important lessons of my life.

I know of no greater pleasure than that of a naturalist or collector, in the woods, the swamps, along the streams of upon the open seashore. I pity those whose entire life and energies are devoted to money making, who have never revelled in the beauty and freedom of the great out-of-doors. Here is opened wide the great book of nature, the gleaming page filled with wonders. Here, too, is health, peace and contentment, and a new life for the soul cloyed with the artificialities of an overstimulated civilization.

Until I found the purple shells that led me to Simpson and his experience with Janthina janthina on that Key West beach, I knew nothing of conchologists, or hammocks, or Marjory Douglas and her “river of grass”. But like Simpson, I know a bit about the artificialities of an overstimulated civilization, and the ability of the natural world to counteract its effects on the human soul. Like John Muir, Roger Tory Peterson, John Burroughs, Loren Eiseley, and all the other collectors, observers, cataloguers and explorers through the American centuries, Charles Torrey Simpson still stands: a sentinel to guard against forgetfulness of the beauty and freedom we are called to preserve. Rick Ferrer was right. He’s “sort of an unsung hero.”




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