Friday, February 6, 2009

The wilderness behind the Walgreens

This is a very long entry, but I think you will enjoy it.

©2008 by Anne Younger

The Wilderness Behind the Walgreens.

Near my house, in the heart of Pinellas County, Ulmerton Road crosses US 19. Running north and south, US 19 is a road that acts like a freeway. This primary route runs along the spine of the entire peninsula from Pinellas Point to Pasco County. Ulmerton Road bisects the county west to east, from the gulf beaches to the I-275 on-ramp and the bay. Over fifty-thousand motorists pass through this intersection each day. It would be hard to find a spot less like a wilderness than this, the very epitome of a hostile urban space, a car-culture gone mad. Yet, nature abides here—even thrives.

I was sitting one afternoon in the drive-thru of the pharmacy on this very busy corner, waiting­­ for my mother’s prescription. Behind the Walgreens on Ulmerton stands a wooded area of about one hundred acres. A small pond immediately in front of the car holds a tangle of cattail and other marsh plants. The late spring sun set behind me, casting a golden light on everything, silhouetting each leaf in sharp focus against dark storm-threatened sky. I heard the metal-on-metal sound of a bird song, “conk-a-lee?” I recognized the sound from my youth in the Southwest. It is a song I rarely get to hear but that I love. Looking around, I see him—a red-winged blackbird perched on a cattail head. His shoulders look like red and yellow sergeant stripes; he is claiming this little piece of Eden behind the Walgreens as his own territory. While watching this bold fellow, I notice a young raccoon shyly peek out from the reeds and tiptoe past to the dumpster around the corner. What gives? How can there be blackbirds and raccoons living on Ulmerton Road?

How does one define wilderness? I have debated this question with my friends, back-to-the-land tree huggers and environmentalists, eco-hippies. They say wilderness is pure state, it is defined by the absences—no motors, no trash, no permanent residents, no humans. My friends think highflying jets and satellites should be forbidden from passing over wilderness areas. To them, wilderness is an ever-advancing boundary that cannot be crossed. Once you are in a wilderness, it is no longer wild. I think wilderness is defined by the word “wild,” as in “not tamed.” In our culture, we have the fanciful notion that we can control the places where we live. We collectively think that we can dump chemicals on our lawns to control what grows there and how well. We move plants and animals around on the landscape, get rid of some pests while inviting the attractive, entertaining or useful species. But no matter how many gators are taken out of a pond, there will always be more that can come back. The animals that live around here don’t know that they live in a city; they simply live where they can find food, shelter and mates. This is just like the rest of us.

I live with and take care of my elderly parents in the Ranchero Village Mobile Home Park in Largo—one of the largest parks in the county with roughly one thousand homes. Ranchero Village was built in 1978 on Ulmerton Road just a mile from that Walgreens. The original owner of this park retired in 2005 and wanted to sell his business. Developers salivated at the prospect of this huge tract of centrally located land. They could build many postage-stamp sized town homes, each selling for over a quarter of a million.

But, Florida law says that the owner of a mobile home park must offer the land for sale to the tenants and that they have a limited time to make an offer. If the tenants refuse to buy the property or are unable to meet the owner’s price, the owner can then sell it to whomever he wishes. He must pay the residents $1,500 for each mobile home on the property. A doublewide home counts as two, so my parents stood to get $3,000 for the $34,000 home they had just purchased two years before. Of course, they could have used that cash to relocate the home, but doublewides are virtually impossible to move. Happily, the residents were able to get together on the deal and come up with a price that we could all afford and that the owner would accept. We were saved from having to move.

The house is actually a two-bedroom home with an added sunroom. In Arizona, they called this kind of enclosure an “Arizona Room,” here in Largo it is a “Florida Room.” I wonder, what would this be called in Alaska? They call it a lanai in Hawaii, and I like this word. This conjures up images of palm-thatched teak structures on a beach somewhere, open to the elements, connected to the landscape. I connect to the landscape in this room, the walls on two sides are single-paned glass windows and the roof is channeled hollow aluminum. Every raindrop drums on the roof, the rising sun streams in, the wind slaps the tree against the house. It is very much like living in a tent or a plywood campground cabins. My mom calls my room, "the garage."
The lot we purchased is across the street from a lozenge shaped artificial pond. If we had been overlooking the pond, we would have paid a premium price for our land, an additional $3,000. As it is, we have our own version of waterfront, a tiny creek, or what I call a creek. Really, it is a storm-water drain with a few inches of water. I take my parents out to look at the creek at every opportunity. Someday, I will build a deck under our orange trees overlooking that creek. There, they can sit and listen to the doves on the power lines and watch the egrets hunting frogs.

My mom is eighty-four and my dad is eighty-six. They have many health problems. My mom—always sharp as a razor—now suffers from serious short-term memory loss. She has a difficult time remembering when she took her pills and even what she was talking about only a few seconds before. The worst part is, she doesn’t fully realize the seriousness of this condition. She forgets that she is forgetful. She doesn’t realize that she just told that story or asked that question. It hurts me to see the cloud of uncertainty pass over her face, when she can’t comprehend something.

My mom has no high-school diploma, a fact that she has expressed shame over, yet she is a woman of letters. About the time she went through menopause, she began to write. She mostly wrote poetry, sonnets. She also wrote short stories about her childhood. She was a consummate storyteller; she loves an audience. She often told about the wild places of Kentucky and Washington where she grew up. She developed an early love of nature that she passed on to me. She painted landscapes from memory and still-life pictures of flowers from her garden. She told of the creek by her grandmother’s house and about the wildlife she saw there. I was happy that we had a creek in our backyard. Maybe this would keep her interested in the world; maybe we could control the advancing dementia.

This park and the creek in the back yard are wonderful for spotting wildlife. The raccoon at the Walgreens was just the beginning. Many times, I wake to the sounds of bird song— some familiar, some not. One morning, came the sound of a flute or whistle. Five white ibises probed the grass along the creek. I have seen wood storks, herons and egrets; every night, heard the call of a chuck-will’s widow. There are more than just birds around here. Possums in the park and possibly raccoons tear into the trash if left out at night. Rabbits are all over, fruit rats raid the orange tree and squirrels are daredevils around the cars as they run from one oak tree to another. Feral cats slink by in the twilight.

One morning there was an odd tall bird standing in the middle of the street. It was brown with white spots and shaped differently from the other wading birds. It didn’t seem to be very afraid of the cars that were coming up to it and it looked impassively at a guy honking his horn. I walked out into the street and coaxed it over to the sidewalk. Its beak was shorter and blunter than an ibis and its legs were dark brown, but clearly, it was a wading bird. It seemed taller than an ibis and had a shorter neck than an egret or heron. It was a limpkin. Mom and Dad were just getting up, so I hustled them out to look at this wonder. The morning breeze was cool and felt good to me after the stuffy house, but Mom complained that it was cold and she went back inside. I waited while Dad made his slow painful way back into the house, up the three steps into the kitchen. The field guide said limpkins eat apple snails, but there don't seem to be any of those around here. The limpkin didn't stay long; our lozenge-shaped pond was a momentary oasis.

A dumpster area is on the west side of the park, bordered by Belcher road. One bright day, as I drove at the requisite twenty miles per hour, a sinuous black animal bounded across the street in front of the car. It was low to the ground and very long. How odd, it looked like an otter. At the zoo, otters swim up against the glass a few inches away—I know what an otter looks like. I also know what a weasel looks like, and a ferret. Ferrets are about twenty inches long, generally light in color with short tails. This animal was at least three feet long and dark. Weasels are smaller than ferrets, darker, and have longer tails. By process of elimination, this was an otter.
I sped up my car to where the otter disappeared between the houses and tried to spot it again. It was there, just about fifty feet away; just a glimpse as its long muscular tail disappeared around a corner. It was now running parallel to the car. I tracked it between the houses; and finally lost sight of it by the tennis courts. It seemed to be headed south.

When I got home, I checked on Google Earth to see the surrounding area. Where could it have come from and where was it going? Otters live near water, and it would need a pond or bayou with fish and shellfish to survive. Across Belcher Road is a small lake ringed on three sides by houses. Maybe that was where it came from. To the south, a slough connected to the Cross Bayou Canal, a series of waterways running diagonally across the county, from the Largo Inlet to Lake Seminole and out into the Gulf. I hoped that this otter would end up somewhere nice, like the lake or the inlet.

Pinellas County appears green when viewed from the air. The US Census reports that is has the highest population density of any county in the state. From Google Earth, you can see many areas of the county with no buildings. A few acres here and there, then long tracts of waterways, ponds, lakes, groves of trees. Parks and golf courses make up much of this green space. Bardmore Country Club is to the south of Ranchero Village. This is nature at its most controlled, not even gators venture there. The Feather Sound Country Club is east, where Ulmerton meets I-275. Mangroves and the bay beyond border this exclusive gated golf course; this is the edge of wilderness. It is the ibis Eden I had in mind. Driving past Feather Sound on my way to the Howard Franklin Bridge, I've seen rare roseate spoonbills flying overhead. Surely, this would be a better place to live than Ranchero Village.

Every time my mother goes over the Howard Franklin Bridge, she says, “There’s the dead sea,” or something to that effect. To her, a body of water this large should have surging waves, lots of boats and activity, maybe a few whales or seals, rocks pounded by surf, people flying kites and surfing. The Tampa Bay she sees is usually calm, blue and serene.

She grew up in Kentucky and lived her adult life in Arizona, so the idea of a freeway bridge over open water is frightening and confusing to her. She looks for the edges, the shore; the places where there is action. The bay reminds her of the desert, vast and empty. We rarely drive over the Courtney Campbell Causeway, but I am that sure she would find it more in-line with her image of a proper sea; the water is close to the road and there is lots of human activity. Nevertheless, I know that the action happening in the bay around the freeway bridge is hidden from view. There are pelicans perched on the bridge piers below deck, goliath groupers lurking in the shadows, rough patches of water where schools of mullet and tarpon are feeding, the occasional dolphin surfacing. To see the life in Tampa bay near the freeway, you have to know where and when to look. Moving at seventy miles an hour is a bad time to watch for dolphins or gaze at schools of fish. You need to have quick sharp eyes to see things happening.

The view of the bay from the freeway is a metaphor for my mom’s mind. What is happening on the surface seems calm, and somehow insignificant—subtle. Below the surface, there are currents of memory, surges of emotion, darting schools of slippery thoughts. And there is murkiness. Ten years ago, my mother started losing her memory. It was happening gradually, a fumbled word, a momentary argument, “No one ever told me that.” Then there was an increase in confusion, forgotten details, missed dates. By 2003, her eightieth birthday, anything beyond her usual routine completely confused her. She now has only a two-minute memory. Even the big events and important details are lost to her two minutes after hearing them. Now, Mom forgets that this is her home, forgets sometimes that she has been married to Dad for sixty-two years. She asks, “Who is that old guy and where is your dad?” She doesn’t know that I live here with her, that this is Florida, that she is eighty-four.

My mother was always interested in nature. She always had a garden, always watched birds, and walked in the world to see what she could see. I got this from her—my love of stories and nature, my curiosity about the world. Of the nearly one-hundred poems that my mother wrote, many are about nature, some about death and madness. I learned to live in the world from my mother. It makes me sad to see the world slipping away from her. I want to share what I see with her, the way she shared with me as a child. The stories I tell are momentary delights to her, but fleeting and then gone. The stories she told me are gone from her as well, as slippery as the schools of fish flickering through the shallow waters of Tampa Bay.

Some nights, Mom is restless. She and Dad are both incontinent. Every few hours, one or the other is in the bathroom. Waking from a sound sleep and not recognizing her surroundings, Mom often turns on the overhead light in my room. She always says, "Oh, Annie, are you out here? I didn't know where you were." Some nights, she takes all the pictures off the walls, collecting the family photos and paintings and stacking them in a pile. When asked why, she says she wants to be sure to take these with her when she leaves. But she is never sure of where she is going. Her only answer is, "Well, when we go home again." Dad gets upset with her. He tries to control her, make her go to bed, go to sleep, make her remember. He argues with her reality. On the best nights, they both go to bed early and sleep the whole night. In some ways, caring for my parents reminds me of when my son was a baby. There were sleepless nights, messes to clean, vulnerability to protect, diapers to change. Old age is like infancy in reverse. The sleepless nights will only become more frequent.

Our next animal encounter was just a few weeks ago. There was a horrible noise amplified by the hollow metal roof at three in the morning. There was a yowling snarl and another sound like the whooping of a guinea pig. Cast in moonlight on the wall was the Herculean struggle between two animals, roughly of the same size and shape—roundish and much too big to be cats. They were fighting and the whoop-whoop sounded plaintive and pleading. Then it was quiet.
Something scrambled over the metal mansard trim on the house. A large raccoon climbed down the Norfolk pine overhanging the roof. The animal that remained above cast his shadow on the wall, then continued to walk around and hoot softly. He was up there for the rest of the day, pacing, guarding his hard won territory. We still don’t know what that was—maybe a possum. Armadillos and otters can’t climb, cats don’t sound like that, and it sounded different from the raccoon that climbed down. Can nutria climb? What else could it be? Whatever mammals are living around here, we hear them running on the roof at all hours. Some are heavy enough to make the metal flex under foot, too heavy to be rats or squirrels.

The neighbors say we should call a trapper or exterminator. But, here's the problem: wilderness is a state of wildness, something beyond the control of humans. Even though it is annoying and perhaps inconvenient to have raccoons, possums, and rats on the roof, or ducks and limpkins in the street, this isn't something I need to control. Besides, what would a trapper do with a raccoon from Largo? Would the trapper move him to a new area? Would he have to compete with an existing population? He’d have to learn a new landscape, find food and a way to live. That doesn’t seem fair. This was almost what the owner of this park was going to do to us—relocate us to a new habitat. We would rather have this wildness as a neighbor than not. For all the bother, it is charming to have wild animals living so close by. We opted to live and let live.

Maybe the idea of wilderness comes from a biblical point of view. Wilderness is virginal, the desire for a perfect state, an Eden—a human presence despoils that perfection. Human = sin and corruption. I walk along my creek and wonder about the animals I find there. I wonder, why have they chosen to live here? Don’t they know that a few miles along this slough they can find a place with no traffic? A few miles over there and the ibises can find their Eden. Obviously, something attracts them—perhaps they recognize a kindred spirit in me. Wilderness surrounds us; it never went anywhere. Human civilization is just a thin veneer resting on the world, like a crust—easily swept away. This is not to say that we should do whatever we want, with no fear of the consequences. But maybe we should be less afraid for the birds and more afraid for ourselves.

The idea of controlled nature is an important part of life in Ranchero Village. More than half the residents are snowbirds who travel thousands of miles each year to avoid the bad winter weather of the north. There are daily trips to doctors, frequent visits from EMTs—all to control the advance of the natural aging process. Every spring and fall, the park pays to have the palms trimmed, leaving two or three pale green branches sticking up. I always argue with the trimming crew—it isn't healthy to cut the tree to only a few inches in diameter. Every Thursday, at 7:30 am, the lawn crew starts mowing, edging, blowing and vacuuming the tiny amount of grass that may have dared to grow in the previous week. Even when there has been no rain for a while, they mow. Noise and gas fumes envelope my glass room where I try to write.

I would be just as content to let the grass grow, make oxygen, go to seed, feed birds and bugs. Our house does not comply with the aesthetic of the homeowners association. I get complaints in writing about it. I like wildflowers, they like plastic flowers. As you drive through the park, every house has trimmed hedges, painted shutters, pink and red plastic roses sprouting from the flowerbeds. If wilderness is defined as uncontrolled nature, maybe I am another wild thing here in this park. I don't want to have my habitat controlled, trimmed and poisoned. I want to go to seed. My yard is a wilderness; my flowerbeds are weedy, my bushes overgrown.
Every spring, mallards nest in our bushes and dabble there in the creek, munching duckweed and the other green stuff choking the spot. For five weeks, a mallard drake loitered in our driveway. He stood near the end of the car, not quite on the narrow sidewalk, not quite under the bumper. The metal-flake green of his head was exactly the color of my Saturn.
He stood guard over a nest, deep in the bushes under our front bay window. Though only a few feet from the walkway, the nest seemed like a good location, dry and well hidden. It must have been nerve-wracking for the father-to-be, having cars and people so near. Some mornings, he stood in the street—impervious to the honking horns and concerned elder folk on three-wheeled bikes. My instinct was to protect him and his incubating brood. I fretted about this duck everyday, after I left for school. Would they be okay? Should I try to move them? Was there someone I could call?

I felt this same worry mirrored in leaving my parents alone. Would they fall down? Would they wander off? Would they eat and take their meds? Would they be safe? Each day, I entertained my mom and dad with duck stories. One day, daring a peek at the nest while the drake was on his break, I saw the hen, the color of her feathers blended with the leaf litter under the bushes—there were four eggs.

Finally, the ducklings hatched and the family moved to dabble in the creek. The four tiny baby ducklings had dark stripes and were not much bigger than the eggs they came from. I kept a close watch over them, and checked on them every day. One morning, while watching this little family, I was joined by my mom. She was tickled at the sight of these ducklings. She stood there leaning on her cane, the breeze stirring her hair and she looked more alive than I had seen in weeks.

As we watched the duck family, Mom became concerned, for the babies were getting farther and farther from the parents. It was still the same body of water, but the parents were on the other side of the small bridge. Mom asked me to shoo the babies back toward their parents. They were fast little buggers; I couldn't get ahead of them. I told Mom we should leave them alone, the parents would find them.

A few hours later, on the way to the grocery store, I saw the four ducklings running in a line down the middle of the street. I felt horrified and responsible. After having chased them further from their parents, they were now a quarter mile away and lost. I parked my car, grabbed the lunch cooler from the backseat and a pair of gloves from the glove box. I figured it would be easy to catch them and return them to the creek, they were so small.

All my life, I have heard the expression, “Get your ducks in a row.” Well, ducks like to walk in a row, but if you try to make them stay in a row, they won’t. The babies scattered and if they could swim faster than I could walk, they could run faster than I could run. I was beaten by four-inch high creatures! I finally managed to get two of them into the cooler. The third ran under someone’s house. The fourth went down to the pond and was attacked by older ducklings from another brood.

This was a disaster, just worse and worse. I was near tears with frustration, the two captured ducklings huddled and jostled in the cooler; it must have been very traumatic for them as well. I spent the next half an hour trying to round-up the other two ducklings. By this time, they were swimming in the pond, well out of my reach, and I still had to do something with my two captives. Carrying the cooler, I looked for the parents. Nowhere to be found! Damn! I was stumped.

I walked up and down the creek, looking for the drake and his mate. Finally, I returned to the pond. Thinking the babies would be safer in the pond, and that they could regroup with their siblings, I let them scramble out. They ran down the slope like kids out of school, (or like small animals running from a predator.) The other two ducklings were across the pond on the other side. My two captives battled a head wind and the spray from the fountain. So now, on top of everything else, they were in danger of drowning. Helplessly, I sat on the edge of the pond and watched until they were finally reunited with the other two babies. The four siblings together had a better chance at survival than one or two. Not knowing what else to do, I went back to my car and went to the grocery store.

The next morning, we saw the mother duck walking from the creek toward the pond, leading her four babies. They had all reunited during the night.

So what did I learn? Sometimes, when you think you have control, you don’t. Good intentions aren’t enough. Sometimes, you can’t get your ducks in a row, because they are ducks and will do what they want. Aging doesn't go in reverse. Memories fade, joints tighten, and hearts fail. I can't prevent my parents from falling down, forgetting their pills, losing memories. The closer I hover, the further they run—maybe better to let nature take its course.

Taking care of my parents is often an exercise in futility and brings into focus how little control I really have over circumstances. The best medical care in the world will not bring back my mother's memories. There is no pill or surgery that will heal my dad's back knees and failing heart. Some think aging is a slow slide to entropy. I think it is a daily battle, requiring constant vigilance. It is not a wilderness, but maybe more like a garden.

When I lived in Oregon, I had a beautiful garden. There were fruit trees, a large strawberry patch, tomatoes, lettuce, broccoli, carrots, potatoes, beans, peas, spinach, radishes and kale. It was easy there to grow such a garden, the soil was loamy and there was plenty of water. There was still work to do. Tilling, planting and harvesting all year around but also weeds to pull and pests to guard against. More than once, I lost entire crops of lettuce to deer, cherries to flocks of birds. Even in such a benign place, gardening was hard work. So I try to balance my worry about my parents and my desire to control nature with an understanding that everything ages and dies, entropy envelopes us all. I will let the ducks find their own way home and let the possums settle their own differences. Maybe Mom can just be confused and take the pictures off the walls. I don't need to interfere. She can be wild.

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