Two squeals and a grunt. This was unmistakable pig talk -- not barnyard dialect, but in accents of the wild, the subtropical wilds of southern Florida. I heard them, but not a blade of grass stirred in the red-brown prairie sweeping before me, not a leaf shivered on the shrubs that made a green island in the middle.
Wild pigs are wily creatures. One of the few living things to escape the clutches of Spanish conquistadors, domestic pigs merged into the flat, watery savannas that defeated the Spanish, French, English and, until recent decades, even the Americans. Tasty and remarkably fertile, wild pigs became one of the main reasons that the panther, also known as the American mountain lion, continued to exist here in southern Florida and nowhere else in the eastern United States.
Now if I was a panther that lived on deer and hogs, I would slink upwind toward the pigs, beneath the cabbage palms and pines along the prairie edge. My tawny coat would be dappled into invisibility by green and brown shadows. Where the grassland meets the pine flatwoods -- the level timberland characteristic of the Florida peninsula -- saw palmettos like sharp green fans would arch over me. The wind that sounds like small animals rustling would cover any noise of my approach.
It was easy to pretend, sitting beside a large puddle that reflected a streaky March dusk in Big Cypress National Preserve. At that height -- the level of a panther's eye -- strands of a million spider webs floated like a gossamer carpet across the grasses. Exotic, guttural cries of birds filled the air. The last rays of sun glanced off the saw palmettos like knives.
Above the saw palmettos, sparse and stately pines had trunks pruned clear by frequent fire. Their bushy, contorted crowns along the horizon lent the ambiance of an African savanna. Against the softly darkening sky the tree canopies were surreal, images from deep in my mind, ancient echoes of something too deeply buried for understanding to reach. I was sheltered behind trees, watching for animals. But who was watching me? This went beyond the primitive to the primeval. Helpless in the grip of a primordial impulse, I had to, I simply had to turn around to look behind me.
There was, of course, nobody back there, except my husband swatting mosquitoes with one hand and trying to set up the tent with the other. With only 30 to 50 wild panthers in an area of more than 3,000 square miles, chances are slim for seeing one. For watching other wildlife, however, particularly birds, southern Florida is still a mecca, in spite of droughts compounded by drastic mismanagement of the natural sloughs of water flowing south from Lake Okeechobee.
If you're attuned to wildlife, one of the first things you're likely to notice about southern Florida is the lack of road-killed animals. This is a pleasant change from the usual carnage. The next thing you might notice is the frequent congregations of buzzards beside the road. Perhaps these two things are related. At any rate, the life and death of animals is an appropriate introduction to southern Florida, where even in the winter dry season, even in drought, a sense of complex, hidden, mysterious life suffuses the landscape.
Big Cypress National Preserve is a great place to go looking for Florida wildlife because it is far less crowded and less restrictive than Everglades National Park, which adjoins it to the south. Owned and managed by the National Park Service, the 500,000 or so acres of Big Cypress are nevertheless not a park but a preserve.
The difference lies mainly in the fact that hunting and trapping, prohibited in parks, are permitted in Big Cypress under state regulations. Camping is not restricted to established campgrounds, which are so undeveloped they don't offer potable water, much less flush toilets.
You can camp anywhere in Big Cypress, as long as you are one-half mile away from an established road. This sounds more inviting than it actually is, because most roads in southern Florida are lined on one side by a drainage canal, and on both sides by impenetrable tangles of jungle growth. But in the drier areas of Big Cypress, like the Bear Island section where I played at being a panther, it is possible to find the kind of faint, anonymous tire tracks that are so enticing to car campers. It is perfectly permissible to follow these, as long as you have plenty of water and bug spray.
We had both, so we simply wandered down one that looked promising. By promising I mean puddles that weren't deep enough to sink the car, and occasional plots of ground clear of tent-slashing plants. We ended up on the edge of a prairie, a site that offered the most view available in a terrain whose elevation is measured in inches of slope per mile.
The world was two-dimensional; all perspective was lost in the flatness. The urge to climb a tree was overwhelming but not easily satisfied; because fire is naturally so frequent through the Florida landscape, trees have no lower limbs.
The mosquitoes were just bad enough to make us think of early pioneers with wonderment. Another source of wonder was the armadillo that came down the road, poking his nose into the ground and leaving little holes. To describe their skin as armorlike is to neglect the more tender aspects of their physique, like that sensitive snout and those dainty feet.
The aforementioned drainage ditches that line every road make birding easy, and the drought conspired to concentrate birds even more at the deeper pools. Anhingas clustered in treetops. Great blue and little blue herons, egrets, common moorhens, coots, cormorants, green herons and ibis stalked the banks or glided through the water. Kingfishers perched on wires punctually every half mile.
In the willows and maples along the water's edge rang the familiar songs of flycatchers, chipping sparrows, catbirds, phoebes and vireos. Perhaps some of these very birds summered last year at home with us in Virginia.
Alligators slithered with amazing speed down the bank and into the water at our approach. There they hung with equally amazing quietude, their disconcerting grins half-hidden below the water line.
The roads in southern Florida are absolutely flat and stunningly straight. To say that the landscape of Florida is not spectacular is to be kind. Unless you happen to know that you're seeing at least a dozen different vegetative communities, each with its own distinct array of plants and animals, it all looks like soggy fields. Epiphytes sprout from seemingly inappropriate places along tree trunks, like ear tufts or nose hairs. Occasional stands of trees appear without rhyme or reason.
One of the best places to educate your eye to the subtleties of the landscape is Corkscrew Swamp, about an hour's drive north of Big Cypress. On the way you'll pass through Immokalee, a small town of streets lined with low, squat, pastel-colored buildings. Those windows not boarded up sport cat's cradles of wash lines. This glimpse of classic rural Florida is counterpointed by a large sign on the edge of town announcing a Seminole Indian complex of bingo, shopping center, rentals and festival grounds -- coming soon.
Corkscrew Swamp is a National Audubon Society sanctuary containing the country's largest remaining stand of virgin bald cypress, thought to be the oldest trees in eastern North America.
It is always humbling to be in the presence of large trees. Some reached more than 100 feet high and 25 feet around. People taking self-guided tours on the boardwalk spoke softly and carried binoculars. There were gasps followed by hurried clicks when a white ibis landed on a limb within perfect photo range. Necks craned when the odd call of wood storks floated overhead. Strangers helped each other find the roosting barred owl hinted at by a cryptic message chalked on the railing. By the end of the walk, gossip about the rumored arrival of swallow-tailed kites had made neighbors of us all.
What is spectacular about the Florida landscape is not looking at it but being in it, specifically in one of those sections of subtropical forest called a hardwood hammock.The word "hammock" is thought to be Native American in origin, meaning a shady place.Hardwood hammocks develop where slight increases in elevation -- virtually undetectable by human senses -- offer roots some protection from waterlogging.
Given the usual rampantly uninviting tangle along hammock edges, the easiest way to enjoy one is to walk an established trail, for example the Otter Cave trail just east of Big Cypress in the Shark Valley area of Everglades National Park.
Hammocks are another world, an ancient world, and they're arousing in an indefinable way. The smell is rich and dense. This was dry season, with a drought to boot, so there was a shadowed spaciousness beneath the canopy. Brown leaves that still clung from winter made a sound like monkeys chattering. The air was moister and cooler than it was "outside." A lizard raced up a giant strangler fig and it was as if eons fell away from me in layers, uncovering some core of being that pulsed with the life of the hammock.
There are other things to do around Big Cypress besides indulging atavistic impulses. Swamp buggy rides are available at the nearby Miccosukee and Seminole Indian reservations. A swamp buggy is a cross between a tank and a chariot, with a battleship deck thrown in for good measure. Able to maneuver through mud and water several feet deep, swamp buggies have become extremely popular in recent decades as the population of Florida has exploded, doubling since 1960.
It is largely due to swamp buggies that the inaccessibility that once protected the wet, wide open spaces of southern Florida is disappearing. They are not new, however; the west coast city of Naples has staged an annual swamp buggy race, mudholes and all, since 1949.
There is also shopping to be done, wherever a sign with green letters on a white background announces "Indian village." I wanted to stop at one of the thatched tourist traps -- built, one supposes, in native style -- to look for a reproduction of the Marco Island panther, but my husband wouldn't stop.
The original is a wooden figurine, carved more than five centuries ago by a Calusa Indian in southwestern Florida, of a panther kneeling in a human posture. Its sinuous lines and supplicating grace have a haunting quality that, for me, embodies the ancient tension in the human mind between beauty and terror in nature.
I later found a reproduction in a new age shop in northern Florida. It was made in New Jersey.
Chris Bolgiano is a freelancer from Virginia who writes frequently about wildlife. WAYS & MEANS
GETTING THERE: Big Cypress National Preserve is about an hour's drive west of Miami on U.S. Route 41, the Tamiami Trail. From Naples, take Route 41 east. I-75 (Alligator Alley) also crosses the northern part of the preserve.Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is an hour's drive north of the preserve on Route 29 to Immokalee, then west on Route 846 to Sanctuary Road.
WHERE TO STAY: If you don't plan on camping, there is a wide variety of motels on the outskirts of Miami or Naples. There also are motels in Everglades City, just outside the western border of the preserve.
CAMPING: A few private campgrounds are located on the western fringe of the preserve, and there are two public campgrounds at Everglades National Park (305-247-6211). In the preserve itself are several primitive-camping areas, two of which have drinking water.
Back-country camping is allowed 1/2 mile or more away from established roads. Take plenty of water and insect repellent, and a shovel to dig a latrine. Users of off-road vehicles must obtain a permit for travel in the preserve.
INFORMATION: "The Everglades: River of Grass" by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, first published in 1947, is still the best overall guide to the region; there are several current editions.
For more information, contact:
Big Cypress National Preserve, Star Route Box 110, Ochopee, Fla. 33943, 813-695-2000 or 813-695-4111 (Oasis Ranger Station). Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary Visitors Center, Route 6, Box 1875A, Sanctuary Road, Naples, Fla. 33964, 813-657-3771. Florida Division of Tourism, 126 Van Buren St., Tallahassee, Fla. 32399-2000, 904-487-1462. -- Chris Bolgiano