Saturday, September 26, 2015

Lettuce Lake an Urban Wetland prolific in Nature

View of Lettuce Lake from Observation Tower, Photo by Bruce G. Smith
We enter the boardwalk behind the Audubon Center. The path splits, and we take the left fork that eventually leads us to the observation tower. At this point the Hillsborough River widens to form a slow moving expanse of water known as Lettuce Lake.

In 1982 Hillsborough County created Lettuce Lake Park. It is an urban wetland nestled close to the University of South Florida campus. It forms part of the flood plain for the Hillsborough River, and provides an excellent habitat for wildlife.

It is a great place for bird watching and observing alligators. On this day we saw several alligators and turtles. We also observed ibis, egrets, herons and many other birds. During the migratory season the boardwalk provides an astounding array of waterfowl. We often see snakes hiding in the foliage.

Alligator Lettuce Lake, Photo by Bruce G. Smith
 As we near the tower an alligator suns itself on a log. It’s a rare day that visitors don’t see a gator or two around this log. After taking several pictures of the young gator and a few turtles, we continue on to the observation deck.

From the top of the observation deck, most of the park’s 240 acres are visible. In front of the deck is the largest portion of open water. The canoe and kayak launch is not far from here, and it is entertaining to watch novices honing their skills.

Banded Water Snake along Boardwalk, Photo by Bruce G. Smith
We’ve been visiting the park for the last ten years. Initially, it had very few visitors, and its pristine beauty in the middle of Tampa amazed me. These days it gets many visitors, and trash has become a problem. Unfortunately plastic water bottles float around the alligators. Please remember to recycle your water bottles or better yet use refillable containers.

We climb down from the tower, and walk back towards the Audubon Center. The boardwalk covers about 3500 feet. Except in the driest years the boardwalk is over water with open water on one side and cypress trees on the other. One end terminates as a dock on the Hillsborough River, and the other end provides a canoe and kayak launch.

Wolf Spider on Boardwalk, Photo by Bruce G. Smith
On this excursion it is not too crowded, and we walk the length of it several times taking pictures and chatting with other people. The park has become a favorite location for photographers to practice their skills, but today most of the visitors are locals enjoying a break from the summer rains.

A large family group is a head of us, and we choose to skip the dock. Instead we take a spur that leads to the parking lot and playground. Usually connecting spurs don’t provide much in the way of wildlife, but at Lettuce Lake this is not true.

Bull Frog at Corner of Spur and Main Trail, Photo by Bruce G. Smith
We see as much wildlife along the spur as we see along the main boardwalk. Birds, baby alligators, snakes and spiders abound along the walkway. Once I encountered otters swimming under the spur’s boardwalk. That was a pleasant surprise.

Lettuce Lake is a great place to spend a couple of hours outside enjoying wildlife and nature. On some weekends it gets crowded especially if all the picnic pavilions are rented and in use.

This trip occurred on a Saturday afternoon in late summer. We received lots of rain this season, and the water levels were high with some parts of the park flooded. It was not crowded, and very relaxing. It’s a great place for visitors with a busy schedule to get a taste of Florida wetlands and wildlife. 

Saturday, September 19, 2015

A Look Back at the Prince of Tides

Low Country Beaufort South Carolina
“Deep, dark depression, excessive misery. If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all. Gloom, despair and agony on me.”  This Buck Owens and Roy Clark tune could be the mantra for the Wingo clan in Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides.

Published in 1986, it follows the Wingo family’s desperate attempt to survive the South Carolina low country, each other and their rural community. They are a family of shrimpers dependent on the whims of nature. The twins Tom and Savannah were born in a hurricane. In the company of their older brother Luke, we learn to enjoy the beauty and solitude of the low country in spite of its difficult conditions.

The story flashes back and forth between New York City and South Carolina. Savannah has physically escaped her family and the low country by fleeing to New York, but mentally she is still imprisoned. The City and the world have embraced her poetry. Tom is a former high school football coach that can’t find a job. Tom travels to New York City to assist his sister recover from slitting her wrists. Prior to leaving South Carolina his wife, Salley informs him she is having an affair, and she’s not sure she wants Tom to come back home from New York.

Tom meets Savannah’s psychiatrist, Susan Lowenstein. She rich, she’s married to a famous violinist, and she is completely unhappy. Tom dumps his family’s tragic history on her in an attempt to heal Savannah, and possibly help himself. In a perfect example of misery loves company, Tom and Susan become extremely close friends, and end up dancing in the sheets.

Conroy uses the location as an antagonist in the story. Like the other characters the low country has tremendous superficial beauty, but the personality is mean. The low country symbolizes Conroy’s construct of people; pretty on the outside but cruel on the inside.

Conroy not only destroys the people in the story, he also destroys the low country.  Based on a true event, the government builds a plutonium factory in the middle of the salt marsh destroying the town, the Wingo’s home, the shrimp industry and ultimately their family. 

Conroy wrote a masterpiece. He writes very descriptive prose that helps the reader visualize the low country. At times he seems to drift breaking up the flow of the story, but it fits the literary style of the day. Prince of Tides received rave reviews, and Hollywood made a movie of it. Jimmy Buffett wrote a song about it. The story was written thirty years ago, but has anything changed?

The story epitomizes the sentiments of today. The characters have little respect for other people, and treat each other badly. The story contains a high degree of greed, and little respect for the environment and conversation. The plutonium though highly regulated still exists today. The plant is in the process of being upgraded to convert weapons grade plutonium to fuel for nuclear power plants and waste.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Getting to Know A Salt Marsh, Robinson Preserve

Brackish Pond Spoonbill Trail, Photo by The Quiet Image
A couple of weeks ago, we hiked the Spoonbill Trail at Robinson Preserve in Bradenton, Florida. We had planned on following the Osprey Loop on around, but we arrived during the hottest part of the day in the hottest month, August. The heat index spiked over 100 degrees. The afternoon clouds didn’t form, and there was no breeze off the Gulf of Mexico. We didn’t carry enough water, and we decided to turn back before climbing the forty foot observation tower.

We visited Palma Sola Botanical Garden in the morning, and decided to try Robinson Preserve in the afternoon. It was our first time to explore both of these destinations.  As I climbed out of the car at Robinson, the smell of salt marsh smacked me in the face. It brought back many fond memories of Eastern Shore, Virginia and St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge, Florida. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time exploring both of these locations.

I prefer swamps and salt marshes to the beach. Wildlife is much more abundant around these locations. I never grew out of playing in the mud, and photographing birds and reptiles. These days I rather walk on a well marked elevated trail than trudging through knee-deep mud. I’ve graduated from a VW bug with a rusted out floorboard to a Honda Civic with carpeting. Also, my wife gets upset if I come home covered in mud.

In high school, I was lucky enough to attend marine biology camp at Chincoteague Bay Field Station, Virginia each year. I loved it. I got to play on the beach and inter-coastal for a week, while everyone else was stuck in a classroom studying for exams. I learned about the plants and animals of the salt marsh, and its importance to the ecosystem. The salt marsh smell became ingrained in my brain.

Some people don’t like the smell of the salt marsh. It smells like the anaerobic degradation of dead grass and animals mixed with a little bit of sulfur and salt water. To me it smells like renewal and life. The marsh provides an abundance of nutrients for animals to grow and thrive. Fish spawn in the pools, and fingerlings hide among the grasses. Without the salt marsh the oceans and seas would become barren wastelands.

The marsh provides fertile nesting grounds for birds. At Robinson Preserve we saw roseate spoonbills, ibis, great blue herons and ospreys. We even spotted a bald eagle. Thanks to marsh restoration programs like Robinson Preserve bald eagles are becoming more numerous.

We enjoyed our brief jaunt through the salt marsh in Bradenton. We plan on returning later in the year and spending more time once the weather becomes cooler in October. We look forward to doing the Osprey Loop, and walking on the boardwalk through the mangrove swamps.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Reality Is a Figment of Your Imagination

Phillip K. Dick liked to say reality is a forgery. His stories challenged reality. They challenged the norm. He fully embraced the drugs and counterculture of the sixties. At one point, it is said, he was taking 1,000 amphetamines a week, but I can’t verify this statistic. He suffered many mental breaks from reality, and his writing portrayed his strangeness. In the end, P. K. Dick was insane, and spent some time institutionalized after an attempted suicide in 1972. Dick lived in a different reality than the rest of the world, but that is what makes his books interesting.

Some say his identity crisis derives from the death of his twin sister. She died six weeks after their birth. His paranoia and schizophrenia come from the part of him that went missing when she died. He spent his entire life trying to find himself through the use of religion and drugs, and he shared the search through his stories.

Dick published 44 extremely strange novels and over 121 short stories. He worked in the science fiction genre telling stories of metaphysics, alternative history, religion, drug abuse, paranoia and schizophrenia. His writing voice screamed of an alternative reality, and his lifelong search for wholeness.

The books are not well written. Dick is not famous for his prose. He is famous for his uniqueness. When you finish one of his books, you sit back, and go WTF. The story does not draw in the reader rather its oddness hooks the reader. You find yourself trying to figure out where the story is going, and what is Dick trying to say.

At least eleven of his books have been turned into movies, Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau are just a few. Only Matheson may have more stories converted to movies.

Recently I read The Man in the High Castle. He won his only Hugo Award in 1962 for this book. Japan and Germany won World War II. Germany controls the east coast of the former United States and Japan runs the West Coast. The middle part of the country including Denver is technically free.

We don’t meet the protagonist, Juliana, until half way through the book. We are introduced to her earlier in a scene about her ex-husband, but we don’t actually meet her until much later. Are we getting the story from her point of view; I’m really not sure.

I tried to stop reading the story a couple of times, but it strangeness kept me intrigued. After finishing, I still think about it. What did I actually read? What was the story about? I’ve come to the conclusion it is a schizophrenic’s view of post World War II, but I haven’t figured out what is reality and what isn’t in the book. Possibly, you should give it a try.

Be warned it is not an easy read. On a number of occasions, you will ask yourself, why I’m a wasting my time with this? It is also very non-politically correct, and many may find it offensive, but then it is a world ruled by the Nazis.

What makes a good book? Certainly a book should be well written. It should entertain. But shouldn’t it also cause us to question our beliefs and our values? After reading a book are we content to throw it on the floor, and walk away. I think, a good book is one that causes us to think about long after we have finished reading it.

Monday, August 17, 2015

An Analysis of Lois Lowry's The Giver

The Giver begins a tale that takes Lois Lowry nine years to tell, and four short books. Written in 1993, It tells us of a dystopian society in which mediocrity and sameness are celebrated. 

Individuality and success no longer exist. Everyone eats the same food, wears the same style of clothes, and every house is an exact replica. There is no color. Talk about sensory deprivation. Blandness and complete boredom for the people living there.

This society prevents anyone from being better than anyone else. Pride is not allowed. No one wins the game, and everyone receives a prize. It sounds a bit like Communism, maybe a lot like Communism. Maybe a little bit like education in the United States these days.

Maybe their society needed a little bit of Pittsburgh Steeler James Harrison’s philosophy. He made his sons give back their participation awards. He wants his sons to get awards for winning, not for doing their best – Kudos to James Harrison.

The protagonist, Jonas, no last names in this society, has felt no emotions. He has felt no pain. These are not allowed. There is no love, compassion, or physical contact. Everyone is chemically neutered except for a few breeders. This society uses artificial insemination. His parents were assigned.

On the other hand there is also no violence, hatred or envy. No wants or desires anything, and if they do they are reprogrammed or “released.”  Would anyone want to live in such a society?

The Giver won the Newberry Medal in 1994. Over 10 million copies have been sold, and it has been made into a movie. It is on middle school reading lists as well as challenged book lists.

It is one of the most controversial books of our time. The Giver was definitely written for middle school students, but the subject matter is a bit complicated. Many parents find the content a bit mature for their children. Some religions find it offensive. I wonder how many students will catch the deeper meaning underlying the story.

I like dystopian or apocalyptic books. They challenge the norms. They say this is where we’ll end up if society doesn’t change. But I have to wonder, does Lowry want a society like this or does she wish to avoid this kind of society? I think many people might want to live in such a society as long as they feel safe and secure.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Field of Fantasies a Collection of Baseball Short Stories

Picture by Stephanie Maatta, The Quiet Image
We are well into the baseball season, and the boys of summer have worked loose their winter kinks. I usually have a baseball blog or two by this point, but his year I’ve been remiss. I recently finished reading a baseball anthology pulled together by Rick Wilber and Night Shade Books.

Wilber has written a number of short stories and books. His two main themes concentrate on science fiction and baseball. This made him an excellent choice as editor for this anthology, Field of Fantasies: Baseball Stories of the Strange and Supernatural.

It is a collection of short stories fusing baseball, fantasy and the supernatural. Authors on the fantasy and supernatural side include Ray Bradbury, Rod Serling and Harry Turtledove. Among the baseball notables assembled are Cecilia Tan and W.P. Kinsella.

The book opens with a story from Stephen King and Stewart O’Nan. They pen a supernatural story based at Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays. The protagonist, Dean Evers witnesses specters from his past sitting in the stands behind home plate as he watches games on television. Dean does not remember the good things about his life only the bad. It’s a combination of Charles Dickens, Twilight Zone and baseball.

In John Kessel’s “The Franchise,” he asks us to consider what if Fidel Castro and George H.W. Bush never went into politics. Instead they played baseball, and played against each other in the World Series. It’s an interesting mix of baseball and politics. Two other stories “Understanding Alvarado” and “The South Paw” also take a look at Fidel Castro playing baseball.

David Sandner and Jacob Weisman take us back in time with “Lost October.” A San Francisco earthquake causes a rent in time. Old, tired baseball fan DeRosa and his young friend, Eugene watch DiMaggio playing in old Seal Stadium of the Pacific Coast League.

My favorite story is by Cecilia Tan, “Pitchers and Catchers.” Spring training has always been a magical time. Dreams are made and lost during the month of March in Florida. She tells us a story of spring training in the Boston Red Sox camp. A rookie catcher hopes to make the Boston Red Soxs. He is teamed up with Roger Clemons. She does a good job of capturing the antics of spring training and the chemistry between pitchers and catchers before the rest of the team shows up.

Baseball has been around for at least 170 years. In 1845 The New York Knickerbocker Base Ball Club published their rules and regulations. Since then the rules have changed, and it’s had many controversies and surprises. It is an integral part of our society and local communities. The short stories contained in the anthology try to capture that emotion and history as well as entertain. I used the ebook version for this review.