Wednesday, April 21, 2010
The Big O
Lake Okeechobee is the headwaters of the Everglades, vast and much depleted (read: screwed with by the Army Engineer Corps). Florida is one of the wettest states in the country, and its rainfall keeps Okeechobee productive. Lake Okeechoee sits in the center of the state, and benefits in biodiversity from both two climactic zones in Florida, subtropical and temperate.
I went there on an airboat tour with my family a couple of weeks ago. Being on an airboat is a trip- it's nice to be able to glide over not only the water, but any plant or obstacle that might come into one's path (including alligators), but the noise is not a companion I typically like to take with me on adventures in wild places. Edie Widder says about deep sea subs that they are so loud and intrusive anything they see must be just the slow and the stupid. I had the same thought about airboating, but it was fun like the carnival, so I went along for the ride.
Our guide picked out Julia to use as an example in a little scenario he cooked up about what her life would have been like at the frontier of Florida at the turn of the century: "You're nineteen, you work in a general store, and you've just had a divorce. Some guy comes along and tells you you about this land he has so you go with him and you get here and see this! Pretty soon you have another divorce."
I'm going to bring you with me on a little guided tour of Lake Okeechobee as it was in mid-April. Our lovely guide Mike, a retired high school biology teacher who's grandfather came from Italy to Florida years ago and is a passionate Floridian, informed us that week to week a visit to The Lake can be entirely different, and its riches vary wildly with the seasons. This lucky man's life revolves around watching this lake in all its iterations.
Lake Okeechobee is home to panthers, the West Indian manatee, ibises, bald eagles, river otters, bobcats, black bears, red-winged blackbirds, the Everglade snail, the Blue Heron, to name but a few. It also is home to the federally protected alligator. We got to see some babies that are about a year old and shockingly small given their age- it seems so vulnerable to stay so small for a year! Their mother, after hatching them, doesn't feed her young, but stays with them until the next mating season, which typically begins each April.
These are some adults and a camouflaged baby I challenge you to amid the greenery.
This is bladderwort, a carnivorous plant:
They capture insects by means of bladder-like traps. An aquatic species like the one at right can prey on critters as large as small tadpoles or mosquito larvae. The traps are rather sophisticated. The bladder is "set" by the flower under negative pressure relative to the water surrounding it, so when a creature swims by and brushes up against trigger hairs, the trapdoor opens and the prey and water surrounding it are swept into the bladder trap! Once the bladder is full of water, the door closes. This process takes fifteen thousandths of a second. This is a docile looking killer on the loose.
Between my legs in this dashing shot are a lotus flower, the whiter flower closer to my own flower with a yellow center, and a water lily, the more yellow flower closer to my knees. Lotuses are aquatic perennials, and under favorable conditions their seeds can stay viable and productive for many years. The oldest recorded lotus germination is from a seed 1300 years old, in a dry lakebed in China. Lotuses are hot right now, literally, because a recent study by Dr. Roger S. Seymour and Dr. Paul Schultze-Motel, physiologists at the University of Adelaide in Australia, found that lotus flowers maintained a temperature of 86 degrees Fahrenheit even when surrounding temperatures were 50 degrees. They believe this is for the benefit of their cold-blooded pollinators, and is a breakthrough case in developing studies on heat-producing plants. In both Hindu and Buddhist iconography, the Lotus is an important flower, representing purity of the body, speech and mind, and non-attachment.
Rotten papaya in the tops of trees.
Papaya, also called Paw Paw or Big Melon, has leaves that grow in a spiral pattern. When green, papaya fruit and the tree's latex generate an enzyme useful in tenderizing meat. Its fruit is soft when ripe, like an avocado. It has been cultivated in Mexico since several centuries before the emergence of Mesoamerican classic cultures. It is the first fruit tree to have its genome deciphered.
The plants above are called Water Hemlock, one of the most toxic plants in America. Our guide told us that last year in Florida a young boy made a spit gun from the stem of a water hemlock, and was nearly immediately killed.
Our guide said this osprey had been hanging around this tree quite often, and if it was building a nest, it would be the first osprey nest he'd ever seen in Lake Okeechobee.
Quite a nice bird show: