CANAL DIARY: A Hymn to Urban Wilderness

By | March 20, 2011 at 12:46 pm | No comments

Photo by M. R. Wilson

Early morning is my spirit time. I see the world through poet’s eyes and my scars aren’t painful. All things are possible.

Two walked: a small woman and a large black dog on a leash and harness. They’d been together on the canal for years. The light changed. The dog was the shadow of the form leading it. The light changed again. Not a woman, but a great stalking bird, carefully stepped on stilt legs, turning its slender head on a long graceful neck.

A sinuous ribbon of wilder Florida winds along the Seminole Bypass Canal. Ten years ago, Bryan Dairy Road (once a cattle trail) became a casualty of development, transformed into a six-lane urban arterial roadway. Now, under a new bridge, beneath cars driven too fast, an ecosystem stubbornly holds sway. Above the fray of traffic, wild things triumph, too: a pair of turkey vultures gazes wisely from a towering lamp, anticipating a fallen starling; every spring baby sparrows twitter from a nest built just a little lower, in a tiny cave formed between cables of the same light fixture.

The rusty chirp of a grackle, the farting noise of a pig frog. Wax myrtle, cypress, American elm, pampas grass. A blue jay. A great blue heron, my spirit totem, flies up to greet me! We regard each other for a moment; it shifts its weight, then turns and flies over the canal. ANTS! I’ve stepped onto their pile, a consequence of that privileged moment. Female grackles. Dragonfly. An American coot, aka gallinule scoots to cover. Louisiana heron glides over the water, a beautiful reflection. A snowy egret, its breeding plumes sleeked back, scolds as I stop to make notes. A limpkin, fanning to the treetops—a striking silhouette against the pre-dawn palette. Mullet leap into the air! Little green-backed heron; I hear cardinals’ sharp calls in the Brazilian pepper trees across the water. A mullet double jumps! Ahead, another great blue heron and two scarlet-beaked, white ibises.

I pause at the burial site of the young great blue heron, adding more dry grass. “I honor you as the Earth reclaims your form.” A wood stork just beyond the great blue heron strolls into a little ditch, stops, then continues his jittery walk. The ibises following him disappear into the wax myrtles. The snowy flies a little south, squawking annoyance. I hate to bother them. The sound of big wings, a water landing. I crouch between the branches to see the white majesty of two wood storks. I love the sound of their legs and feet stepping delicately through the water and hyacinths. Another stork flies away to join the two, croaks disapproval, setting off the snowy egret. But the great blue heron holds its ground. A great American egret and the snowy move farther south. Another limpkin dodges and dips into the other side of the retention pond, then both the snowy and the great blue fly across the canal, scolding. A little blue heron complains, too, flapping into the ditch. An ibis scratches its cheek and gives a coughing call. Three wood storks pierce the mud for tidbits. I notice the little blue heron’s plumage is very dark for breeding season. The clattery buzz of dragonflies. Gulf fritillary. Anoles dart in the brush. The ratcheting cry of a kingfisher drifts, disappointed, from the south.

And the moon and stars were the gifts you gave…to the dark and empty sky, my love, to the dark and empty sky…”

The Harvest Moon, even more beautiful with its full peach face, graced the western sky this morning, hung against a cloud of lavender mist. It was a privilege to see. Coming home, it sank out of view, but I knew it would be there to see opposite the coming dawn: for Vicki in Kansas City, Chase in Idaho.

I claimed the clam shell that inspired me yesterday; it fits in a gently closed hand. On the sidewalk, a perfect pair of netted wings—a dragonfly’s, no doubt, one whose body nourished a bird, perhaps. I drew Scarlett back to capture these, too, placing them carefully, safely in the bivalve cradle. Another perfect fit.

Seeing a great blue heron on the wing completed the walk. I picked up a single, lovely gray feather. A seagull’s?

September 14, 2000

In search of coot. I startled one hidden in bank reeds; they skitter over water to take flight. This was a fat adult. It’s impossible for me to determine gender, as male and female wear black with a streak of white on the wingtips. The variety here is red-beaked. I can’t wait to see babies. They resemble charcoal briquettes on spindle legs, scurrying after their mother in perfectly straight lines, sometimes tumbling tail-over-bill, instantly recovering, diving to safety. Other denizens: a hovering osprey, nimble limpkin hunting apple snails, Louisiana heron, pelicans, gulls, redwing blackbirds calling out territory in the wax myrtles, a disgruntled anhinga. He craned his neck in agitation, wings spread to dry, much annoyed by my intrusion and the necessity of heavy flight back onto the water.

April 13, 2005

I’ve brought all manner of grief here over the past twenty years. The natural world is my best counselor, this narrow stretch of urban wilderness an unlikely therapist’s couch.

Behind me, Bryan Dairy Road hisses with traffic 24/7. I chose the western canal bank, setting down an aluminum yard chair toted over the bridge to a spot beneath a sturdy American elm. Across the canal is a stretch of land, mercifully undeveloped. Who knows how long, as an upscale community including the contemporary equivalent of white picket fences, belies civilization at the southernmost point.

The water is dark swamp green. Easy on myopic eyes. Sun blazes intermittently from strato-cirrus clouds against a cornflower blue east; a chaos of pepper trees, pine and oak breathe in the last rising mists.

Mockingbirds of October are a frantic, winter food territory-staking morph of their spring and summer selves, whose chief occupation is filling the air with their joy in hopes of attracting a strong mate to nest build and raise young. In the fall, the pursuit is anything but amorous. Gatlin-gun cries on the wing and  jump-dances (as I call them) mean only one thing: “My grub. Find your own.”

A turtle surfaces downstream. A wood stork stalks peacefully further south.

Across the water a bottlebrush tree dips its fronds in the water. Years ago I mistook it for a weeping willow. My grief. My willow. Cabbage palms; a brightly blooming poincianna fringes the adjacent oak with startling orange-red.

I’m sitting between two patches of pampas grass, long past their feathery flowering glory. Lots of it is planted along the retention ponds that stretch immediately to the east of the road. Oak, cypress, wax myrtle, hyacinth, and assorted reedy grasses create cozy cover and nesting grounds for gallinules, aka coots, aka mud hens.

A cloud occludes the sun and a freshening breeze drifts off the water. A cardinal pair exchanges alert calls. Human nearby. It might be the same two that forage in my back yard, enjoying the sorghum seeds that squirrels will not touch. (And you thought they ate everything.) More than one pair. Sharp calls to the left and right. Across the canal and in ‘the woods,’ as neighborhood children say.

Ibis and wood storks and one lone limpkin drill for insects; a small brown anole at my feet found a tasty morsel or perhaps a dot of water on a tiny green leaf.

Nothing is wasted here.

The sun glides through the clouds and it’s neat to watch the shadow of my hand and pen as I write. It’s probably time to head home.

This experimental writing has nurtured me.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

9:43 a.m

Drove the car over…too weary to carry camera and chair.

That’s a towhee behind me—letting me hear his song, but ever elusive. A catbird hisses. The canal is like green obsidian.  Sirens wail; fire truck speeds east on 102nd Avenue. “Get there!” my silent prayer.

I’m sitting under an oak. Warblers squeeze out their greetings/annoyance. I’ve photographed limpkins and got a lucky shot of an American egret gliding by. Forgot mosquito repellant. I wish I could catch a glimpse of the warblers. A fleeting dabble of light. That was a warbler.

Moving a bit south…

Friday, October 22, 2010

8:44 a.m.

East canal bank.

9:23 a.m.

Home. Took pictures; very little writing. Restless, but not energized. I walked the mini-urban wilderness off 92nd Street, behind the houses on 107th Avenue. I am in love with the purple-blue morning glories spilling over the fences. They know no boundaries. A bee sank deep into a cream center. I startled a snake, probably a black racer.

I want to write about a place of healing and renewal. For 20 years I’ve taken my grief and pain to the canal. Loss of pets, loss of parents, my own fragile health, my livelihood and profession. The Seminole Bypass Canal has seen me at my worst and it’s seen me in moments of joy.

One moment I can recall immediately is walking with my iPod, listening to “We Are the World” — the line about “turning stone to bread” — and feeling the miracle. These moments bring tears and goose bumps—the thrill response. I gathered back yard stones and wheat stalks (a friend’s gift for a home church meeting years ago) and a glass vase. I assembled a composition that yet graces my kitchen.

Sublime moments.

They happen in the Urban Wilderness.

Maybe it’s the water that heals. (I’ve thought about Jesus and the Sea of Galilee.) Its moods are as volatile as mine:  one day, a reflective clarity so intense it hurts my eyes; the next, nickel-gray, smug, unyielding. Most often, the water is lucid, swamp green, the color of my eyes upon close inspection. Somehow, in a very strange way, that’s comforting.

The Seminole Bypass Canal is a living entity. Tidal with Boca Ciega Bay. Protista to mammalians thrive here.

October 26, 2010

Tuesday, 3:35 p.m.

It’s Monday morning, shortly after 9 a.m, November 1, 2010, All Saints Day, and my best friend’s birthday. I’ve just gotten down onto the west canal banks, and I’m moving very, very slowly so as not to disturb a little marsh rabbit who is dining on the grasses, little weeds and other green growth; having silflay, as it would have been called in Watership Down. There’s also a single ibis a little closer to me, drilling for insects, drilling for breakfast. I just disturbed a coot, who went skittering across the water. The canal is just brilliant, glassy, clear; the sun is so bright it’s hurting my eyes if I look at it directly. I hate wearing sunglasses because I like to see things in their natural colors. The best I can do is hold up my hands to shade my eyes, which I do. There’s also a limpkin a little bit farther down and it looks like an anhinga maybe, drying its wings. I can’t quite tell. Nope, it’s the two black ducks. I’m not wearing my good new glasses this morning for fear of scratching them up on something. The little bunny knows that I’m here, very still. He probably hears my voice and feels the vibration of my steps on the ground. He’s  eating again, a perfect little silhouette. I think I’m going to stop and see if I can get a picture.

The rabbit actually allowed me to take several pictures, and they are so clever because—oh, there he is; he’s still there. He hasn’t scampered into the underbrush yet. They’re very clever; as soon as your attention is diverted, that’s when they’ll move; otherwise, they’re marble-still and blend in with the foliage. This one is getting used to me, but I know it won’t let me get very close. It’s alert, it hears my voice, it’s attending to me right now. Its little ears are lit up by the morning sun; they’re practically translucent. This is probably an adult, looks healthy. Nice and fat, beautiful brown coat, lovely fur. I’m gonna go ahead and walk by and I will let you know when he takes off. I’m just delighted that he’s letting me get this close…looking right at me now…taking another little bite. I could try walking a little closer to the water. I need to be careful and not fall in as I watch him. The limpkin and now two ibises are keeping a very close eye on me, also. But some of these individuals, I am sure, are ones that are becoming habituated to my presence. It’s okay, bunny. Don’t waste your energy, just stay still and I’ll be by you in a few seconds….There goes the limpkin—ooop—there goes the bunny. It was probably more the limpkin’s alarm call than my presence that made the rabbit hurry into the undergrowth here. I can’t see it; he’s perfectly hidden away. That’s the limpkin giving me a hard time, cursing me. The ibis are still here. Their beaks are wet with dew and dirt. I could try getting a photo of them; I’m not sure they’d tolerate the movement into my bag, though. So I think I’ll just try ignoring them. If you look away, turn your gaze away, and pretend not to be looking at them, they will sometimes stay put and preserve that precious, precious energy. It just takes so much energy for them to fly. I always try not to frighten them off if at all possible.

Turning my gaze away, I’m just parallel with the them now and I think, yes, they’re going to let me pass. If they had taken off, you might have heard their funny kazoo-like call. It always amuses me to hear them. A nice mullet just jumped. They look so pretty; they leap up into the sun and look like living aluminum/tinsel. There’s a monarch butterfly floating around ahead of me; another gallinule or coot floating off into the center of the canal.

I heard an anhinga scolding from somewhere. The sun is so bright, though, I can’t exactly see where it is, but that call was unmistakable. He actually could have been in the water, as I see the concentric circles drifting out from where something just dove under the surface. It could’ve very well been the anhinga. Up ahead, just to my left, near the edge of the banks are the two black ducks; they’re all settled down; they’re quiet. They’re probably gonna get up as soon as I walk by. They’re watching me intently, the nearest is on its feet. These ducks are often mistaken for female mallards, but these are probably the little black ducks. Hi guys. It’s all right. They’re just walking past me. They didn’t fly.

Morning traffic still teems on Bryan Dairy Road; it’s never really not busy on Bryan Dairy. It’s become a major east-west artery and becomes 102nd Avenue a mile farther west.

It’s very warm right now and I’m thinking I probably will turn around and get back. Looks like there’s a great American egret down at end of this segment, or it could  be another pair of ibises. Very beautiful and peaceful here. Life makes sense on the canal.

The wax myrtles have bloomed and produced their little seedpods, similar to the seedpods of a cypress. They’re brown, about a quarter of an inch across, very nubby surface, kind of a reddish golden brown. Lots of wax myrtles were planted along the retention ponds flanking the canal’s west side. The red-winged blackbirds like to colony nest in them. We’ve also got several American elms that were planted.

I’m turning around now and heading back north. The water is more of a sapphire blue this morning, as the skies are mostly clear cornflower blue with a few wispy clouds. Slight northerly breeze, probably over 70 degrees right now. Pleasant this morning. Four gallinules in sight right now. Beautiful adults. The mullet just jumped again. A blue jay. I heard a kingfisher a few moments ago; don’t think I had the recorder on. There’s the gallinule, singing out a greeting. They have a very chalky type of call; lots of different vocalizations, all throaty and ancient-sounding. The ducks are wary again. Ooops…When one takes flight, so does the other…The follower doesn’t want to miss anything. Red-winged black birds, females, atop the American elm. Gallinules making a light call. Of course, the blue jay, and flying above me is the pair of ducks. They’ve made a circle, hoping I’ll leave so they can sunbathe. There’s the anhinga peeking up. Sometimes called the snake bird. Ooops, down he goes. Came up to see who was making all the noise on the canal. I heard a gentle shuffling to my left; the ibis pair just took off. They look pretty flying over the canal, their reflection crystal clear. There’s the anhinga again. ‘bye, guy, gonna leave you alone now. You can come out and dry your wings.

Will be interesting to see how much the sound of the traffic picks up. Just taking a quick peek here into the undergrowth. I don’t see the bunny. He’s probably well out of range. It’s always nice to see them. It reminds me of little Fiver, who used to come and visit so much. I fear he was a casualty of the road. He sure did delight me for several weeks, coming to the front porch. I’d have carrots and raw  oat meal and romaine, all sorts of  things for him to eat. Of course, he was named after one of the Watership Down characters, I think immortalized by Paul Simon in “Bright Eyes,” from the animated feature’s sound track.

Well, I’m making the hike up the little hill toward the road. That’s it for now.                                                                                                            (Transcribed from a tape recording)

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