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. Continue reading

Herons & Photogs & Poets, O My!

Confrontation, conflict and contentiousness have been dominating the news cycle of late, but that doesn’t mean cooperation and collaboration have disappeared from the face of the earth.

One of my favorite on-going collaborations has been with photographer Judy Lovell. In the days following the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, she graciously allowed me to use her portrait of Plato the Pelican to help send a message to British Petroleum.

Earlier this week, realizing that none of the blue, green, black-crowned or yellow-crowned herons perched in my photo files would do as an illustration for one of my poems, I got in touch with Judy again. Telling her I wasn’t certain I could scare up another bird to model for me on such short notice, I asked if I might use one of her lovely egrets. Amused, she said I was more than welcome to use the image, although the “egret” I’d chosen actually was a white heron. 

My confusion was understandable. Great white herons are a white color-phase of great blue herons, and they bear a remarkable resemblance to egrets. Beyond that, they’re found only in the Florida Keys, so I’ve probably never seen one in the wild.

After their population was decimated by fashionistas demanding their elegant feathers for hats and such, the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge was created to protect the population. Like the brown pelican in Texas, they’ve been brought back from the brink of extinction, and people like Judy have the privilege of observing and recording their lives. Continue reading

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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The Surprise of Tiny Purple Things


Texas beaches have their charm, but it can take time for Floridians, or Californians, or even nice people from Illinois or Montana to appreciate them.  Some never do.  Muddy waves and coarse brown sand aren’t as innately appealing as palm trees and turquoise lagoons.  Pickup trucks huddled at the water’s edge blaring an unearthly combination of Master P and Travis Tritt aren’t to everyone’s taste, and hundreds of people casting lines into the surf – or each other – can be a little unnerving.

But even on Memorial Day weekend, with the beaches packed, the coolers and propane cookers stacked three deep and children, dogs and drunkards running free, it’s still possible to find some enjoyment at the beach, a sense of a world that moves to its own rhythms beneath the cacophany of human life.  I don’t often travel to the beach on holiday weekends, but this year I took the opportunity to spend time with friends in Port Alto and Matagorda, two little towns close by one another on the Texas coast.

Matagorda was my second stop.  My friend and I spent most of our afternoon walking the water’s edge.  Passing through party-goers on our way to the pedestrian beach, we strolled down to the cut where the Colorado River flows into the Gulf.  Sometimes we stayed on the flat, hard sand.  Other times, we ventured like kids into swirling, spumy water that washed away our footing as waves pulled sand from beneath our toes before receding out to sea.

Walking along, we let our eyes skim the dunes, the tideline, the hard, reflective sand washed by the receding waves.  Like all Texas mid-coastal beaches, it was littered with Portuguese men of war, sargasso weed, a sea bean or two and the occasional bit of styrofoam.  There were shells everywhere: angel wings, bay scallops, lightening whelk, coquina, disk and duck clams.  Most were damaged from their tumbles along the shallow bars reaching out into the water.  But despite nipped edges, faded colors and the occasional hole, there were plenty of children ready to fill yellow, red and blue plastic buckets with their treasures from the sea.

Away from the water, little dunes had formed, with lovely sea-grasses anchoring them.  Pockets of fine white sand reflected the bright sunlight more brilliantly than the water, and strong south winds drifted the loose sand as it threw incoming waves against the granite jetty.  The tide was out, and the water so shallow sandbars were exposed nearly to the rocks.  As we edged our way toward the jetty and away from shore, my eye was caught by a bit of purple – a tiny dot of brilliant, intense color no larger than a pencil eraser.  I thought it must be plastic – perhaps a shard of child’s toy, or a broken fishing lure – but as I bent down to look, I saw it was a shell: a tiny, perfect snail shell. 

Whorled at the top, lightly ribbed around its sides and absolutely symmetrical, it was beautiful.  I’d never seen anything like it.  Calling to my friend, I said, “Look.  What is it?”  She’d never seen one either, and remarked on the deep, pure color.  Picking it up, we found  an equally tiny creature inside.  Neither of us is inclined to collect homes that still have residents, so after another moment of admiration, we put the shell back onto the beach, at the edge of the tide-washed sand.  Immediately, a tiny foot emerged and began to burrow.  Looking at the tiny purple speck trying to escape into the sand, there was nothing to do but laugh with delight at the huge determination of a creature so small it nearly wasn’t there.

Continuing down the beach, we speculated on what we’d just seen.  We remembered a shell had been used to make purple dye, but thought it was the whelk rather than a snail.  Besides, one tiny snail per lifetime didn’t seem enough to support the production of dye.  The discussion waned, and we’d begun to talk sailing when we suddenly saw another shell, caught at the edge of some sargasso weed.  This one was a bit lighter, and even smaller.  It seemed to have bubbles coming from its shell, and when you touched them, they didn’t break.

 It was only later, after I’d returned home and spent a bit of time with my friend Google, that I learned we had found Janthinas – common purple sea snails.  Finding them is unusual, because they have become pelagic, and live out their lives floating in deep ocean waters.  They can travel hundreds of miles, steered by the currents, but they make landfall only when they get washed onto beaches during storms or by especially strong, constant winds.  They range around the globe in temperate zones, and have been found in areas as widely separated as Australia and the Caribbean.  Near the US, they float on Gulf Stream currents, and have been found as far north as Massachusetts, but they are most common in southeast Florida and the Keys.  As my friend and I now know, they sometimes appear in the Gulf of Mexico.

Janthinas feed on Portuguese Man of War and Velella, or “By the Wind Sailor”, which has a floating sail which allows it to tack with the wind.  Some attach themselves to Velella, floating and feeding on the creature.  If Velella isn’t available, they float by building a raft of bubbles with air captured from the surface of the water with their foot.  The bubbles provide enough lift to keep the shell on the surface of the water, but if the raft is broken, the shell sinks and the animal dies.  Some species lay their eggs under bubble rafts, but the most common, Janthina janthina, broods its eggs inside its body until the tiny shells emerge and make their own rafts.  That’s what my friend and I found on the beach: a pair of baby Janthina janthina, “toddler” purple sea snails that had been forced to land by the winds and tides, separated forever from the sea which sustained their lives.

Colonies of Janthina as large as 200 nautical miles in length have been reported.  It may have been one of these rafts that grazed the beach at Key West in 1883 when Charles Torrey Simpson, Florida’s answer to John Muir, came upon a sea of violet-colored shells floating in on the tide and quite literally turning the sand purple.  Simpson, a wonderful naturalist and collector extraordinaire, filled his pockets, his hat, and his handkerchief with thousands of shells.  When he got back to his ship, he found he had 2,000 perfect specimens.

If I could have conjured Charles Torrey Simpson on the beach last weekend, I suspect he would have made the perfect companion for my friend and me.  His 1920 book, In Lower Florida Wilds, suggests that two thousand shells or two would have made no difference to him:

I do not want to investigate nature as though I were solving a problem in mathematics.  I want none of the elements of business to enter into any of my relations with it.  I am not and cannot be a scientific attorney. In my attempts to unravel its mysteries I have a sense of reverence and devotion. I feel as though I were on enchanted ground.  And whenever any of its mysteries are revealed to me, I have a feeling of elation.  I was about to say exaltation, just as though the birds or the trees had told me their secrets and I had understood their language – as though nature herself had made me a confidant.

But Simpson also understood one of the basic realities of life – mysteries are there for anyone to see, and nature reveals herself to those who take the time to look.  The shells that my friend and I discovered weren’t hidden.  They weren’t buried in sand, caught in driftwood, or tucked deep within piles of sargasso weed.  They were lying on the sand, in plain sight.  All we had to do was look.

 Annie Dillard, a keen observer in her own right, talks about the gift of sight in her wonderful Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises.  The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand.  But – and this is the point – who gets excited by a mere penny?  If you…crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded by the sight of a muskrat kit paddling from its den, will you count that sight a chip of copper only, and go your rueful way?

It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny.  But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.  It is that simple.  What you see is what you get.

Indeed.  More than computer jargon, WYSIWYG – “what you see is what you get” – is a naturalist’s rule of thumb, and a reminder to beachcombers, sightseers, and life-travelers in general that open eyes and an attentive spirit are prerequisites to the encounter with mystery.

The fact is that this very minute, on uncharted waters in uncounted oceans, great bubbling, purple colonies of sea snails are streaming and drifting their way through life, sent hither and yon by currents and winds.  Whether they’ll ever make land, as our little babes did last weekend, we have no way of knowing.  But something is coming, and I’m keeping my eyes open.





 © Text Copyright Linda Leinen, 2008
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