Jerry Cutlip lives in a swamp and considers it Camelot. The natural order, the delicacy and complexity and quietly logical savagery, so bewitches him that the whole of it defies accounting. Corkscrew Swamp gathers a thousand small mysteries into a single big one. Only with imagination can you sense its magnitude.
Inside this sanctuary Cutlip and his wife have raised two children, and so steeped them in the priorities of nature that he sometimes wonders whether he has been wise. For the young Cutlips, Camelot has become the way life ought to be.
At sunset, Jerry and his 13-year-old son walk a mile along a boardwalk through the swamp to the observation tower. Coming back, they see huge flocks of white ibis flying just over their heads, maybe 500 of them. The boy gets so excited he runs to get his mother and sister.
Jerry takes the children fishing. The girl, 11, perfers to sit on the Jeep and study the scene around her. She watches an alligator slide across a pond, clamp his huge jaws on a turtle. She hears the crunching as the alligator eats.
The children see the wood storks' nest in bald cypress trees 500 years old, watch the new life hatch out. They see the young ones bumping and crowding each other in the nest, awkwardly learning to fly, struggling into the air, crashing into trees, falling back into the nest on top of each other.
They see alligators posted silently in the water under the nests, waiting for the little birds to fall. They see young ones test themselves, gain confidence and do crazy things, loops and rolls. Finally, they see the new skills combine with experience to produce the mature, graceful wood stork.
The children learn about the natural forces. They watch flocks of birds circle on the swamp, going up almost out of sight, and then gliding to their feeding places. They see a hawk eat a snake, a snake eat a frog, a frog eat an insect. They see the egret stalking through the black swamp water, freezing when it sees a twitch of life, knowing that if it is to eat, it must stab that twitch before it can escape.
They see their father pick up a diamondback rattler, swollen with a rabbit dinner, sluggish and vulnerable, and move it out of the parking lot safely back into the swamp. They see an otter playing on the boardwalk, raccoons scavenging through the garbage cans, and on rare occasions spot a bobcat sneaking through the edge of the yard.
They know about deer, bears, panthers. They know that the black swamp water, so mysterious and chilling to some, is a clear, harmless, weak leaf tea. But they know cottonmouths like it, too, and leeches.
From Cutlip, they hear about the 13 plant communities found in the 11,000 acres of swamp, the lettuce lakes, the pond apples, the ghost orchids, the incredibly huge virgin cypresses that were already 300 years old when the United States became a nation. They hear their father discuss the probabilities of what might be here in another 500 years.
Television does not entertain them as much as it does most kids their age. They rarely watch it. Besides their absorption with the life processes of the swamp, they talk a lot, read a lot, work at projects. The boy had read five Shakespearean plays. They go to school in Immokalee, where their mother teaches the first grade.
"I don't mean to suggest they are exceptional students, because I don't think they are," Cutlip said. "But their ideas about life might be exceptional."
Will these special beginnings nurture and strengthen them for the life outside, or so sensitize their appreciations and expectations that encountering a crazily disordered world might overwhelm them? That is a question the 41-year-old Cutlip ponders.
"I don't know. It concerns me a little bit, and I don't push it on them," Cutlip said. "But it's here and they're exposed to it and they appreciate it. It's something that happens. This environment is almost a Camelot. It has problems but it comes close. They're seeing things and understanding things every day that a lot of the people in the world do not have the vaguest idea even exist."
The National Audubon Society first became concerned with the swamp in 1912, when it posted wardens to stop hunters from killing the birds for their plumes. A quarter of a century ago, the society began to buy the 11,000 acres and now it maintains them as a sanctuary where the public (adult admission, $3) may sample the terrain (via a mile-long boardwalk and observation tower) that once was accessible only to the most intrepid. A small commune of National Audubon naturalists and their families, including superintendent Cutlip, live inside the sanctuary boundaries.
The swamp is located in South Florida between Immokalee and Bonita Springs, and opens daily. But only 36,000 visitors a year come here to see this marvel, the Cutlip children's Camelot. On most days, Disney World greets more than that by noon.
The Cutlips are from West Virginia. He went to Marshall University there, joined the National Audubon Society about the time his son was born. He first managed a small sanctuary in New Hampshire, then came here nine years ago while the children were still toddlers.
Among the fascinating things about the swamp sanctuary are the visitors. The mystery of the swamp awes them. Some have a deeply emotional reaction. "Sometimes they'll just lean their head up against one of those 500-year-old cypress trees, and tears'll come into their eyes," Cutlip said. Others are less impressed. One man dropped a note into the contribution box that said, "Donation, hell. You ought to pay people to walk through this slop."
Most of the visitors come from an urban environment. "They are absolutely lost. The whole experience is new. It is not meaningful until we tell them about it, show them how to look," Cutlip said. "They'll walk right by an alligator and not see it. They'll walk directly under the wood stork colony and ask where all the birds are.
"That is part of the natural order, too. In the city, they'd have to teach me. They'd see things I don't." He thought for a minute. "That's what I mean about the kids. I don't know whether this gets them ready for the disorder and the heartache they'll have to confront some day. I have argued with myself about it."
Cutlip resolved his argument by revising the definition of Camelot. He has decided it need not be just a fleeting bit of time passed in a place of near perfection; it also can be a way, a positive insight, that continues. He does not yet know whether he is right about this, but he is betting the best part of his life on it.