Sunday, January 31, 2010

Of Corndogs and Fieldwork

Me: “Hey Adam, do you want to come camping with me this weekend in the Glades?”

Adam: “Nah man, I don’t think so. I kinda hate nature right now.”

Me: “Yeah, I know what you mean. Do you have plans?”

Adam: “I’m not sure, but I feel like I need something pretentious; something really fake, like a corndog.”

In the last two weeks we logged 141 hours of fieldwork. Some days started at 3:00 in the morning and lasted until 7:30 in the evening. The unforgiving sun, freezing water, low tides, relentless mosquitoes, thousands of rotting fish, lightning storms, deep mud banks, mangrove tangles, howling winds, slippery boardwalks, and curious crocodiles are usually the elements of what I consider to be a successful day. However, throw in cumbersome gear and faulty equipment with the responsibility to bring reliable data back to the office, it’s no surprise we might need a break from nature.

My dilemma is a little more complicated than just simply turning my back and heading for the nearest corndog stand. I’m paid to be a biologist so while I’m on Audubon’s time, my camera (generally) stays in it’s waterproof case. When the weekends come, I haven’t satiated my creative urge to explore and create. I’m still struggling to find the right balance but it would be unfair to say that the fieldwork is an obstacle. In many ways it’s an enabler. Thanks to the long hours under the sun trudging through sawgrass and mangroves, I have a much thicker skin. I’ve realized that discomfort is relative. Plus, the Everglades seems so much less intimidating now that I know the scientific names of all the fish and aquatic vegetation. The uncomfortable “ew” that squeezes through my toes like muddy toothpaste is now just a harmless loose mat of periphyton. I now look at the living landscape and catalogue everything into small biospheres, each with their own rules and dynamics.

So ignoring my body’s urges to sleep in and soak up some artificial lighting, I left for the Everglades this weekend on a solo camping trip. Here are some images from the adventure.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Cold Snap

I did not prepare for the winter down in the Keys. From what I had been told, the temperature never consistently stays below 60.


I am living in Florida. I love humidity and sunshine. I am not a cold weather person. So when I returned from spending New Years in snowy Colorado to find that my tropical paradise had become a place for pea coats and toboggans I was unprepared and very disappointed. Yes, I am aware that 50 degrees is not cold by most people’s standards and I am also aware that this rant is like nails on a chalkboard to anyone living north of Georgia, but I’m going to do it anyway.

The last week I have been battling my alarm clock because I refuse to get out of bed and put my feet on the cold tiles any longer than I have to. Last night I slept with sweatpants, a sweater, socks, in a sleeping bag, under sheets, with a down comforter on top. A bit excessive, I know. It wouldn’t be an issue if the temperature outside didn’t match the temperature inside. Unfortunately for us, our wooden house has plenty of cracks and there is no central heating.

My roommate Adam and I have been desperately scrounging discarded 2 x 4s from the construction site next door for firewood. Without an axe to split them, we had to violently drive the claw end of a hammer into their edges to pick up the splinters for kindling. We even use old phone books as modified Duraflame logs.

It’s a sad state of affairs here in the keys. Two days ago, the southern most city Key West, hit a record low of 47 degrees since 1897. Old people are running around like madmen with achy joints buying up all of the space heaters and Snuggies available. I have yet to sink to such levels.

Aside from the hoards of people mildly inconvenienced by the recent cold snap, the drastic changes in temperature have far greater implications. More than likely, most of the young spoonbills we banded in December have not have survived the cold. My coworker Pete Frezza reported eleven species of fish washed up dead at his bayside house.

Just below the stairwell to our house a four-foot iguana remained frozen dead in its tracks, probably in route to find warmth. I know reptiles will go into torpor if exposed to harsh cold, but I'm almost positive he's climbed his last tree. I have brought him inside just in case he does wake up. To give some sense of scale, you can see my shoe (size 11) at the base of its tail.

In such a microclimate as the Keys, temperature change is an extremely relevant driving force for both people and nature. Fishing charters are losing crucial income as fish dive deeper, orange plantations are struggling to keep their crops alive, and nesting bird populations are left with a slim chance of survival. I’m not qualified or well-informed enough to assume that the drop in temperature comes from some kind of human folly. It does scare me to think, though, that if a four-foot iguana, eleven species of fish, or native Floridian birds cannot survive a transient temperature change, what sorts of collapse will we see when the change is more permanent and the scale is global? Our planet as a whole is shifting in the other direction towards a warmer climate and while I’m currently bundled up and praying for heat, I’m terrified of what’s to come.