Rose and I returned home from Sanibel, Florida, a few weeks ago. I couldn’t stir up a bingo game there but found plenty of other subtropical diversions for old people. I was homesick the whole time but the beach was good to us.
Glimpses of spring arrived in Kentucky while we were away, with record warm temperatures taunting me: I should be transplanting, slender whips of basswoods and oaks. I’ve got a funny feeling that winter has not gone away for good. But go ahead and throw whatever nagging, cold curve ball at me you want. I know, with beach sand still stuck between my toes, I can make it to the spring equinox.
We were joined on Sanibel by a scattered portion of what is left of Woodstock Nation. (You can interpret scattered any way you want.) A beachcombing boomer wore a t-shirt that identified him as a “Shell Ambassador.” On the back of his t-shirt, it said, “I Talk Shells. Ask Me!” The ambassador told me he’d once found a rare junonia. Spotting a junonia seashell, washed up on the beach after a Gulf of Mexico storm, is as hard as it would have been to find a bag of ice at Woodstock.
I finally came to grips with my current reality. I have become what I never could have imagined in 1969. I am now a Snowbird.
Here is the Urban Dictionary’s definition of snowbirds.
Irritating old people who come down to Florida from Northern states, drive like maniacs, and should be illegal.
I was with my people, then, on Sanibel.
I saw my first, liquid (pyschedelic) light show at San Francisco’s Fillmore during the 1967 Summer of Love. We were on a family vacation. I was sixteen. My younger sister and I were escorted to the show by our wonderful, hippie cousin. He looked the part; I didn’t. I wore a blue Oxford cloth shirt, chinos and Bass Weejuns.
These days, a colorful sunset over the Gulf of Mexico—shifting shades of blue, orange, gray, red with the rare green flash—would be my “Cool, man!” moment. Seashells and birds fascinate me, too—more than standing eyeball to elbow at a crowded concert. There are lots of oldsters on Sanibel with these same, quieter interests.
Those of us with diminishing dopamines sift through beach sand looking for pretty shells. And then we migrate to the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge to look for birds. I carry a set of binoculars that make me look like I know birds, but I’m hopeless with birds. Each year Rose and I go out with Aunt Rose, who knows birds. She teaches us a dozen birds. I return home and forget the bird names within weeks. How can I learn the Latin names of hundreds of plants and not remember the common names of a dozen overwintering Florida birds?
I suppose it was bound to happen. I returned to plants. I am a one-trick pony.
But I did become a mangrove fan on this trip to Sanibel.
Mangroves are essential to life on Sanibel Island and elsewhere in the sub-tropics and tropics. You might not notice this by looking at Sanibel’s residential and commercial landscapes of colorful bromeliads, philodendrons, strangler figs and palms, but it’s the unassuming mangroves that are doing the island’s heavy ecological lifting. They are “natural carbon scrubbers.” One acre of healthy mangroves can deposit an estimated 7,000 pounds of leaf litter, on average, per year. The leaves generally do not rot in the saline soils, and an estimated 10% of carbon from the leaf litter is sequestered in the soil. Mangroves are second only to tropical rainforests for carbon sequestration.
I’ve paid attention to mangroves over several years on these winter getaways. Three years ago I collected seeds of the red mangrove. The slender seedpods are heavier at one end and drop from the trees and, with a little luck, get stuck upright in the brackish muck. Precious new life begins slowly. Patience is required. Germination began a year later on a windowsill in Kentucky. I had little to do in the meantime but keep the soil soggy and add a pinch of table salt to the watering can once or twice.
We took a guided kayak tour through the Tarpon Bay Estuary on our visit last month. Wendy Schnapp, an Environmental Biologist and General Manager of Tarpon Bay Explorers, shared her passion for the island’s birds, fish, and especially three native mangroves. Mangroves should not be thought of as just a creepy dark canopy and tangled mess of roots. The thick, green leaves feel like a 60-millimeter roof liner.
Biologists take mangroves very seriously. Some Florida property developers consider them an impediment. Remove one at your peril in Florida. Without permission, you risk a fine, jail time and mitigation obligations—reestablishing mangroves (which may be the best instance ever of the punishment fitting the crime). That hasn’t stopped the loss of mangroves in Biscayne Bay in South Florida.
The author and journalist Carl Hiaasen has witnessed a lifetime of environmental abuse in his native Florida. At the Ocean Reef Club, developers took out several thousand mangrove trees to give the development a “better view.” Hiassen spoke to the Daily Telegraph in 2002: “This is in my own backyard and the man responsible will get away with it. Maybe he gets fined but he’ll make millions. That’s what Florida’s all about—money.” An estimated 82% of Biscayne Bay’s mangroves had been lost by 2015.
Residents of Sanibel and neighboring Captiva Island are considerably more protective of mangroves and their environment. The 6,400-acre J.N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge represents one third of island’s total acreage. And the Sanibel-Capitva Conservation Foundation (SCCF) manages more than 1200 acres on Sanibel and 600 acres on Captiva.
Mangroves are vital to coastal estuaries. They buffer the wind, withstand storm surges and are tolerant of brackish waters. Wendy Schnapp explained how mangroves provide a valuable habitat for other wildlife. This sounded to me a little like code for man-eating, venomous snakes. Wendy assured us the non-venomous, reclusive, persimmon-orange colored mangrove tree snake is the only snake slithering around these mangroves. Crabs and raccoons make their homes here among these “walking trees,” too. So do fish and birds.
The red, white and black mangroves are the three Florida native species. None is cold hardy. The red mangrove, Rhizophora mangle, the “wettest” of the three native mangrove species dominates the shoreline of southwest Florida bays.
We paddled our kayaks along the rising tide “lazy river” on the way out into the estuary and through a tunnel of mangroves. We saw white ibis, yellow-crowned night heron, osprey and anhinga.
I took notes on these birds. I’ll try to remember them for another month or two. I won’t forget the mangroves.