Saturday, January 31, 2009

Finding the sea in Key West

I have not migrated. I was in Key West attending a writers' seminar, of which more in a minute.

Two days after my frustrating search for the sea, I decided greater determination was needed. I asked for directions to the sea at my bed and breakfast place. "Fort Zachary Taylor," the young woman who presided over breakfast told me.

"Will I be able to touch the sea?" I asked. I wanted the sea up close and personal, complete with smell and sound. I did not want a distant vista.

"Sure," the young woman said, humouring me. "There's a beach and picnic tables and everything." Uh oh.

I set out, consulting my rudimentary map. It was a cold, grey day, particularly for Key West. The sun contract with the tourist had been broken. I walked though the streets of old town, noting places I might return to eat and after about twenty minutes, found myself at the entrance to a gated community. I hesitated. There was no barrier at the entrance, but there was a little sign explaining that this WAS a gated community, and while visitors were welcome, they were to behave themselves and be out by six. I checked my map. I looked at the sign for Fort Zachary Taylor beach - yes, it was definitely directing me into the gated community.

Expecting to be challenged by a security guard, I walked through the community. It was fake old town, but well done for all that. The houses ended in a kind of ruined industrial park. There was a chain link fence with plastic threaded through the chain link to obscure the view. There was a sign saying the site was the property of the US government, and no matter how mashed up anything looked, it was not to be taken! Words to that effect. There was some kind of navy-type ship moored on an unseen sea - so it was definitely there. The ship was painted in sea and sky camouflage. On my left another kind of industrial facility - perhaps water treatment or even sewage. I felt lost in concrete and the works of men.

I saw a rectangular, low, closed up building to my right. It had a nature mural on the outside, a large, empty car park and a big sign: "Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center." To discover the ecosystem you have to go inside?

I came to a ranger post which proclaimed the entrance to the Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park. There was a fee - US$1.50 for a walker. "What's that place over there?" I asked the ranger and pointed to the Eco-Discovery Center.

"Oh, it's the Eco-Discovery Center," he said.

"I see that," I said, "but what's inside?"

"Displays and stuff," he said. "A small aquarium. A theatre. You should go. It's free and air conditioned."

"So you have to pay to see the real thing but the fake thing is free?" I said. The young man shrugged, stopping just short of an eye roll.

The road curved through mangroves and big sea grape trees. A woman was weeding the beds around young trees. I came around a corner and saw the sea through a grove of casaurinas; the sea at eye level. The beach was almost empty - one couple waded in the shallows. There was a small restaurant to the right and to the left, a fence right into the sea and a military looking satellite dish.

I sat at one of the picnic tables and eased off my backpack. The public beach was clean and pleasant, the seascape was wintery, grey and white and grey. A sailboat heeled way over and a pelican battled the wind. Breakwaters of huge stones were striped with bird droppings. The brochure the ranger had given me said the sea was teeming with fish. I doubted it. It felt strange to feel cold while sitting on a beach.

After awhile, I got up and climbed out on the breakwater. And there I could hear and see and smell and touch the sea, which sucked and churned between the rocks. At close range, the sea turned acquamarine and I could believe I was in Florida. I saw no mobile life - no fish, no snails, no whelks. The only living thing I saw was algae.

Walking back, I went to the Eco Center. It was a well designed and informative facility and probably the only place many who visit the Keys will see a healthy coral reef - in a tank. There was a film feed of a an artificial reef in the sea, the blurb explained the scientists were trying to grow coral and encourage fish to come back. The film feed showed nothing but silt laden water. I asked the cost of the Center - US$6 million. I wondered what US$6 million might have been able to achieve for the real park.

The woman was still weeding as I left. I stopped to talk to her, under the oldest sea grape tree I had ever seen, with huge round maroon leaves, the veins orange and green. "They're replacing the exotic trees with natives," she told me. "Like the casaurinas. When the hurricanes blow them down, they don't put them back." I remembered the casuarinas out at Palisadoes, where my grand aunt had taken us for picnic lunches when we were children, how we had spread a cloth on the fallen needles and hunted for pine cones afterwards and listened to the shushing sound the trees made. I loved casaurinas then.

I told the woman goodbye and walked back through the industrial park and the gated community. At least I had found the sea.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Looking for the sea in Key West

I’m in Key West and I can’t find the sea. I have a rudimentary map, issued with the bed and breakfast place I’m staying, and according to the map there’s a historic marina and boardwalk and it’s also clear that the land part of Key West ends where the sea begins. I figure a place called Key West must be a good place to see a sunset and I can see the sun is beginning its descent in the sky. But I can’t find the sea, although I can smell it. I’ve been to the historic marina and boardwalk and while the city of boats does float on what is clearly the sea, this is not what I want. I want the sea to the horizon, the sea where a fish might jump, a pelican might dive and even a dolphin might frolic past. I do not want this forest of masts. And the marina faces east – no sunset. Still, not wanting to miss anything historic, I half jog, half walk along the boardwalk, past empty restaurants and fishing tackle shops and T-shirt kiosks and charter boat offerings. At the end of the boardwalk, I’m facing the setting sun. Surely if I just walk towards the sun, I will arrive at the sea?

I cross car parks and streets, I duck into plazas and malls, getting closer to the sun, but the sea is completely obscured by tourist trappery. There’s a big plaza area with small benches, most facing inwards so folks can watch street performers – jugglers and escape artists and a man who is threatening the crowd with a torch and pouring kerosene in a big square on the ground. He’s not getting any takers. There’s a cruise ship, Holland America’s Veendam, which I assume must be floating on the sea, but it’s huge and there’s no way to see around its hull. I do try, I walk to the bow but I can’t get close enough to peek through the triangle made by the rake of the ship’s bow and the pier. I ask a man in a charter boat place where I can go to see the sea and he gestures to the plaza with the performers – “Sunset celebrations,” he says.

“But you can’t see the sea,” I object. “There are too many people and shops and the cruise ship.”

Blasted tourists, I can see him thinking. Can’t please ‘em. Now they want the sea!? What next!

“Try the Westin,” he says, typing on his computer, clearly uninterested in anyone in Key West wanting to see the sea at sunset, as opposed to a man who appears to be threatening to set himself on fire.

I find the Westin Hotel. By now, the sun is nearing the horizon. I’m sure they’re not going to let me into the Westin, it’ll be like a Jamaican all-inclusive hotel with a security guard and a barrier. But there is a path beside the hotel and the sign only asks that you not ride your bicycle to the pier and there, finally, is the beaten plate of the sea and the sun just beginning to disappear behind a bank of cloud. People are gathered on the pier, taking photographs. I find a bench and sit next to a woman, who is soon joined by another woman and they both begin to complain about the way the railings are spoiling their view and their photographs. The sun sinks into the bank of cloud and suddenly the sunset is over – there are no wisps of colour left in the sky. No pelican dives, no fish jumps, certainly no dolphin arcs through the water. The people leave and you can see they’ve been disappointed by the entertainment. The sun, sea and sky as commodity. Perhaps folks will want a refund.

You really have to wonder about tourism. Flying here, deserted islands seemed to float in the air, so calm and shallow was the sea beneath. The sunset was a wide swath in the darkening sky. I was flying to Key West – where Earnest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams hung out, a tropical island right at the end of US 1, a place where the residents have to leave when hurricanes threaten. Somewhere different.

A big sign at the airport proclaimed arrival at the Conch Republic –naturally, I wondered about the health of their conch stocks. The smell of the sea was strong and although it was dark, I was sure the sea would be ever present. But it was tourist kitsch and Americana that were everywhere – men making coconut palm hats, sellers of personalized seashells, coconut carvings of the faces of monkeys, ankle bracelets and toe rings, Banana Republic and Starbucks, and a guided locomotive drawn tram car, full of bored looking older people wearing visors and baseball caps. I had come to the Nowhere In Particular Warm Tourist Destination.

I ate overpriced, half cooked conch fritters in a dark restaurant, staffed by youngsters distracted by their new work schedule. Did you see we have to work Saturday AND Sunday? they asked each other. I walked back to my town house – the only place I’ve ever encountered with a window air conditioner in the tiny bathroom. Fresh air is not tolerated indoors – and although large signs proclaim this to be a green hotel and I was given a cloth bag on check in – all the air conditioners and many of the lights are left on all day in empty rooms by the cleaning staff.

What I like about Key West – the old, wooden houses, their railings bleached in the sun, the chickens in the streets, the big trees, the patches of sand in gardens telling the hard-to-see truth about this place, the absence of traffic jams, the sunshine. I have a free day on Thursday – perhaps with a car, I might find a place where I can see the sea, and perhaps even walk into it, to find the promise of those floating islands I saw from the air.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

More on Jabbering Crows

According to ornithologist Dr. Susan Koenig of the Windsor Research Centre in Cockpit Country, Jabbering Crows are New Jamaican Men! Yes, despite the racket. They stay in stable partnerships year-round, eschew outside liaisons, and even bring home the occasional tasty lizard for the chicks. The female crow, nonetheless, is the one that has to sit on the eggs in the baking sun, right at the top of a tree on spindly branches, trying to prevent them from being fried sunnyside up, while the male hangs out in the cool forest, doing that jabbering thing. Why do they build their nests so high? To keep the chicks away from snakes…

AND when the chips are down, the male crow will join with the female to protect their offspring. Susan saw a chick fall out of the nest this summer, and the two parents were immediately on the scene, calling like mad. A mongoose got the chick, sadly, but the crows stayed on the ground for two days, looking for junior. And male crows do help females mob Jamaican boas, if they see one on the ground.

Susan is recommending a school for Jamaican men to learn the behaviours of Jabbering Crows – specifically, that men can be monogamous, look after the kids – and STILL make one whole heap of noise…

Snail Heaven

Having selected the name SnailWriter for this blog, I thought it important to say a few things about snails. Now pay attention...

Snails live in virtually every habitat on earth – rivers, the sea, deserts, mountains, forests, and, of course, our gardens. The biggest snail is an Australian marine snail, which can grow to over 30 inches in length and weigh up to 50 lbs. Snails are mathematically inclined and their shells are most often a right-handed logarithmic spiral – I’m not sure what this is, but I’m perfectly sure I could not make one.

The glistening trails they leave are lubrication for their “foot.”

Snail shells are made up mostly of calcium carbonate, so snails need calcium in their diet. They can repair a slightly damaged shell themselves. Most snails have two sets of tentacles on their heads – one with eyes and the other with noses.

Most land snails are hermaphrodites – they produce both sperm and eggs. Although they could presumably fertilize their own eggs, they choose not to. Prior to reproduction they have a slow dance – what folks my age used to call rent-a-tile – for two to six hours – including plenty rubbing up and biting and eye stalk waving. About one third of land snails file a “dart” at the object of their affections – thought to be the origin of the Cupid legend. I am not making this up.

Snails have been eaten by humans for thousands of years.

Due to their measured approach to life, snails have been used as symbols of laziness. Carl Jung said that a dream of a snail is representative of the self – the soft subconscious and the hard outer shell.

Jamaica is “snail heaven.” We have between 555 and 561 (depending on which scientist you consult) named species of land snails and of these 505 are found in Jamaica and nowhere else – an amazing level of diversity.

Naturally, Jamaican snails are sexual performers. Up to 75% of their body volume can consist of their…umm… reproductive organs, and their mating episodes last for hours even though they are often exposed to the dangers of the wild, such as salt-wielding gardeners…

For more fascinating Jamaican snail facts, see