Saturday, August 10, 2013

Walking: Big Cypress Swamp

     Yes, we hiked in this stuff:                                                                  

      FLORIDA'S TAMIAMI TRAIL-STATE Highway 41-runs west from Miami across a damp green universe of confusing light and shadow, seeming to cleave Everglades National Park from its less renowned northern neighbor, Big Cypress National Preserve. This is an illusion. The roughly two million wild acres are interdependent, according to the man who lives in the middle of them, "with Big Cypress providing a gradual flow of waterit travels about a mile every 24 hours-that is cleaned for the Everglades and in the process makes a thriving ecosystem."
      Clyde Butcher, a large man with a white corona of beard and hair that almost swallows his glasses and baseball cap, is standing in a foot of water less than a mile from his house, just north of the official park/ preserve boundary. He's wearing running shoes without socks, long pants, and a longsleeved shirt, as I am, and leaning on a staff. It makes walking easier and can also be used to ward off creatures, in the unlikelihood that this is necessary.
      Though the swamp is populated by alligators, two kinds of poisonous snakes, various spiders, stinging ants, bears, and a subspecies of panther, and harbors the aptly named sawgrass, mosquitoes ("They're wimpy"), and pockets of mud 30 feet deep-and though during electrical storms Clyde's copious hair stands on end and blue flashes have shot out of his fingers-it isn't dangerous. Not a bit. "If you get into the mud you just walk on your knees," he says. "The snowshoe effect" And if lightning strikes? "Well, don't get close to a single tree. Particularly if you're holding a tripod."
      Neither of us knows exactly where we are, but we're not lost; we're "misplaced." White ibis clatter in the upper branches of cypress trees festooned with little ferns and bromeliads, some of them in bloom. Orchids lurk in the shadows. Swamp apples-"edible, but only after they fall"-dangle, and coco plums shine like fat blueberries in the sunny spots. Pale lichens abound, a sign of clean air, and carnivorous fish-gambusia-nose about in the muck we've disturbed, looking for mosquito larvae. All around, slimy periphyton sponges up the phosphates and nitrates, but the air is surprisingly fresh and fragrant.
      It's August, and the water's both cool and as clear as a trout stream, the second surprise. The third is the firm bottom that makes walking easy. Clyde, a professional photographer known for big, black-andwhite, beautiful and vaguely disturbing shots of primordial nature, is talking about working in such a place. "The equipment weighs 65 pounds, and there's no place to put it once you get here. Setting up the tripod, assembling the camera, everything has to be done over water." This universal element can be a problem in other ways. "Water picks up the slightest movement. Sometimes I set up a shot and then have to lie down, to keep from disturbing the surface reflection. Even then, my heartbeats send out little ripples."
      On occasion his wife, Niki, a slim, elegant woman and a painter, comes along to help. But often he's alone. "The only real danger here is breaking a. leg or something and not being able to walk out. There's no way they'd find you." To rest, we go down on our knees, since there's nothing to sit on but cypress knobs. Meanwhile there are the stories, full of alligators: sunning on the Butchers' lawn where clueless tourists try to pose their kids next to them; lurking underwater where one had to be struck in the nose with a paddle to prevent its attacking baby gators moved in the mouth of a mother that then dissuades the father from eating them; alligators hauling dead things into their holes so the decomposing bodies can keep them warm in winter (before they eat them).
      Cottonmouths are another consideration. "One bit me in the foot while I was getting into the car. My own fault," he quickly adds. "I forgot the flashlight" Another big one was caught by a red-shouldered hawk that had to call in its mate to help carry its writhing, venomous, thoroughly annoyed neighbor. Then there were the concerns of the secret Service detail accompanying Jimmy Carter, when he brought his entire clan to the Butchers' for a stroll in the swamp. "The agents were ahead of us. I took Carter off on a different trail, and they came splashing through the water after us, furious."
I ask what Clyde looks for in the swamp while photographing. "A space," he says. "Something you can feel you're in. Biological order in visual chaos."
      The death of their teenage son in a car accident in 1986, when they were living up in Fort Myers, led to momentous changes in the Butchers' lives, including Clyde's choice of this relatively unprofitable medium. "I decided I was going to do what I wanted to do-use only black-and-white film-and not what I had to do to make money." Color he considers duplication, black-andwhite interpretation. "When you look at a color photograph, you focus on a particular color. With black-and-white, everything is equally important. To put in the color imaginatively you have to participate."
      Similarly, looking at the large format photographs he favors-some are as big as eightby-five feet-is "the same as being there. You have to scan it, just like you're doing now. You have to re-create it yourself. It's not a picture, but an experience."
      He and Niki raised their two children on a sailboat in southern California and have generally lived what she describes as "an adventurous, spiritually aggressive life." They bought their 13 acres here in the literal middle of nowhere in 1992 from an eccentric orchid grower and built a house with the word "Rejoice!" written in the concrete at the foot of the front steps. They opened a gallery on the highway the next year. To their surprise, customers came-and keep on coming. "Even Floridians thought my photographs had been taken in Belize, or Africa. I would say, 'They're taken in your own backyard.'"
      Most of the swamp lore he learned from a friend, a former alligator poacher who had lived with the Seminole Indians and who took him onto Big Cypress' back roads and trails until, "after a couple of years, without saying anything, one day he just walked off into the swamp, and I followed."
      In addition to producing art, the Butchers founded the Loose Screw Sanctuary that, among other things, helps fund environmental causes by conducting the annual Big Cypress Muckabout, a swamp walk that brought 12 people in 2000-and some 3,000 last year. They left behind hundreds of pairs of new running shoes that the Butchers gave to a charity in Miami.
      Clyde and I set off again, determining directions from the sun, listening for sounds from the highway but fooled by the wind in the cypress, the twang of a bullfrog, a pileated woodpecker's mocking shriek We're still misplaced, have been out for three hours, and our drinking water's almost gone. The vastness of this public domain is daunting to even drive across, but to stand in the middle of it, uncertain of the way out, is to easily imagine the worst. "I've been walking out here since 1986," Clyde says, "and have never seen another person."
      We approach his house, still knee-deep in Big Cypress. "Now here's where we have to watch out for that mama gator. She likes to lie up in the sun there. This is the trickiest part because the water moccasins hang out on the grass, where the hunting's good."
Safely on dry land, past the alligator nest and the snakes' killing field, he pauses and asks with obvious satisfaction, "Isn't this a wonderful spot? There's nothing quite like it anywhere."
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