March Of The Gators
Central Florida is my least favorite part of the Sunshine State. It's home to crackers (native-born Floridians), redneck citrus farmers and irritable Yankee retirees who didn't find the kind of paradise they wanted. Also the region is too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. I always thought the northern half of the state should be ceded to Georgia where it belongs.
But there is one image from Central Florida that has haunted me ever since my mother told me about it.
For the last 15 years of her life she lived in the little burg of Dundee, an unincorporated township that had all the drawbacks and none of the benefits of small-town life. It wasn't the country -- people lived cheek-to-jowl with their neighbors -- and it had few municipal services.
Dundee was built around a collection of natural limestone ponds that were deep and contained alligators as well as fish. One such pond was located at the rear of my mother's property and a couple of the gators in it were as long as 8 or 9 feet. They hid during the day and their presence was rarely detectable, except for a pair of eyes that occasionally broke the surface of the pond and the neighbor's small dog who vanished after foolishly going for a swim.
Like most older people, my mother suffered from insomnia. She would wake up at 1 or 2 a.m. and, unable to get back to sleep, she would make herself a cup of coffee and sit in the living room staring out of the picture window into the darkness of her yard. Sometimes on moonlit nights she would see a very strange sight: a toothy prehistoric beast waddling slowly across her lawn.
This was the stuff that nighmares are made of and I once asked my mother if the roaming gators caused bad dreams whenever she managed to get back to sleep.
"I'm not afraid of them," she said. "They were here first."
Uneducated woman that she was, my mother occasionally surprised me with little gems of wisdom like that.
The gators had been performing the same ritual for literally millions of years. From time to time they would crawl out of one pond and make their way across land to the next pond, oblivious to the human presence, perhaps following some primordial instinct. No one understood exactly why they did it -- overcrowding, lack of food or searching for a mate. For some it was a permanent move while others wandered back to the original pond a few nights later. The night march of the gators was a mystery of nature.
My mother confided that she actually enjoyed watching the spectacle. I think it gave her a sense of the continuity of life -- that in a rapidly changing world, this one odd occurrence has continued unchanged for eons.
Indeed, alligators had survived the world-shattering asteroid impact that killed off the dinosaurs. They were the real owners of Central Florida, not the puny arrogant humans who had only arrived a few thousand years ago.
Geologically, the whole state of Florida is nothing but a huge sandbar a few feet above sea level. When global warming melts the polar ice caps, Florida will be underwater, but the gators will no doubt survive. As hardy as they are, they will simply adapt to the salt-water environment much as certain crocodile species did in the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean.
Gators will probably be around long after humans are extinct, even if the scaly beasts are so ugly only a mother gator could ever love them.
"The earth was made round so we can't see too far down the road and know what is coming." -- Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa