Maybe we're all exotic creatures
By Scott Turner
On the drive in from Fort Lauderdale airport, we visited an old-time Florida stand that sold grapefruits, oranges and alligator meat. My younger brother Paul parked the SUV in front of a mango tree that was drooping under the weight of its maroon, tear-shaped fruit. Paul's mission was to pick up the house specialty, key lime pie.
We were short on time, so I stayed in the air-conditioned vehicle with his 4-year-old daughter, Hanna, and the two of us giggled about filling Paul's hat with mangoes.
Hanna has dark blue eyes and thick, brown, curly hair that falls down her back. She is an energetic and quick cookie. When she asked how much the SUV cost, Paul replied 25 Gs. "Are you kidding me?" she replied.
In a few minutes, we would arrive at their home, and catch up with Paul's wife, Melissa, and their 8-day-old son, Jacob. My role that afternoon was to sit with Jacob during the Jewish covenant of circumcision, called a bris. This visit was extra important, given that major illness prevented my parents from attending.
The next morning, on the way back to the airport, we stopped briefly at Flamingo Gardens, where Hanna led me to the shade of the nation's largest Champion tree, a wide-based, soaring species. Flamingo Gardens harbors more than 3,000 tropical and subtropical plant species, plus a hammock of 200-year-old oaks, one of the last remnants of original fauna.
The Everglades is the poster child for drainage and disruption. Outside of it, there is little left of the wetlands and subtropical wilderness that once defined what we call South Florida.
A regional map reflects this history ― it looks like graphing paper, with lines defined by canals and roads as straight as arrows.
Flamingo Gardens sits off one such gridded thoroughfare, appearing just after a fence with a sign for land-clearing services.
We ambled ― this was Jacob's first nature adventure ― past wampi and star fruit trees and through an understory of lustrous green, naturally Swiss cheese-patterned leaves the size of baby strollers.
The foliage holes, I was told, let sunlight and water reach the surface.
Several locals dropped in on the walk ― three white ibis descended from the skies to probe the grounds alongside us. White ibis feature red, down-curved bills. The birds uttered subtle croaks that reminded me of the subdued growls of a dog.
I watched a wood stork land, with many flaps, atop a snag in the distance. The stork is a large, bald, white creature, with a long, thick, down-curved bill. As it settled in, I noticed that the tree also held four black vultures. Even from afar, I could see their bald gray heads.
Flamingo Gardens contains Everglades Wildlife Sanctuary, home to "permanently injured and non-releasable wildlife." Large cages hold a who's who of native raptors, for example, from burrowing owl to crested caracara, almost all car-collision victims. So far, folks at the sanctuary have bred and released almost 2,000 offspring of injured wildlife.
A breeze filtered through the sultry shade of a towering ficus, which is a Middle East native. Below it was a thicket of Philippine-native tagbak trees and a ground cover of Brazilian Finger-of-God bromeliads.
Much of Flamingo Gardens may be artificial but it is also an outpost of life. Holding on to that core is something we owe ourselves, and the next generation.
I thought about how we're all exotics in some way ― mixed and matched via all sorts of circumstances. Paul, for instance, grew up in the Bronx, and Melissa in South Africa.
At their home, I had my first adult conversation with a cousin, Mitchell, whom I last saw in 1984. Mitchell lives in the Florida Keys, having moved there from Colorado. He was born and raised on Long Island.
Whomever you call family, it's human to find a way to honor them. And it is extra special to get outside with loved ones.
Experiencing nature also multiplied the spark of life, which we received from each other during my 22-hour trip to South Florida, as well as what we like to call "the gift of life."
Scott Turner is an editorial writer for the Providence Journal.