Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Waterlogged: The Magic Toilet

One of the differences between Vermont and Florida other than the sun, the heat, the traffic, the development, the flat land, the beaches, the alligators and Walgreens on every corner is the fact you have to pay for water. Pardon my naivete if anyone pays for water in Vermont. I never did in the 10 years I lived there...

I'm fine with it. I think we should pay more for it. I think there will be a day when we have wars over fresh water as we already have annual droughts and severe water restrictions. But I figure the more people have to pay for it, the more likely they will conserve it.
  • You can turn the water off when you brush your teeth
  • You can wash the dishes by hand instead of running the dishwasher
  • You can get in the shower and then turn the water on. (Don't try this in Vermont. or with clothes on)
  • You can do as Ash & Kate do and not flush the toilet every time - "If it's yellow, let it mellow". Why flush three gallons every time you pee? Be grateful the famous credo of native Montanans has not left the outhouse state - "If it's brown, keep it around."

I've taken to the Mellow Yellow idea and when I moved here in January, I noticed that I had a magic toilet. Pee in it and it disappears after a few minutes. Magic! I tightened all of the valves. Checked for leaks. All was well. My water bill seemed normal until the second bill when the consumption had jumped from 40 gallons a day to 70! 40 seemed outrageous. I blamed my sister for a few of those gallons from when she came to visit (and I still do so, especially since she no longer reads the blog due to her impending childbirth. What is up with pregnant women....can't go to the Everglades at night, can't read my blog). So I checked with maintenance who said - no leak...I'm apparently just wasting water. So when the next bill arrived at it was 84 gallons a day I said no way. Come check the magic toilet again.

They came out again and apparently had not noticed the leaky flap. The maintenance guy told me most apartments have the faulty flap. No big deal. It's a huge deal! I made him change it and asked how many other apartments needed to be changed.

The landlords were still skeptical and had me wait 2 more months to see how the water bill would change. What do you know, I'm back down to 42 gallons a day. They made maintenance change hundreds of toilet flaps.

By my crude calculations, my apartment was responsible for the waste of 9600 gallons of water in 4 months time. If 200 people had the same issue (and there are 2000 people in this complex), than that is 1,920,000 gallons of water wasted during one of Florida's worst droughts. I can't say they would not have fixed the issue if I had not complained, but I'd like to think a little credit can be given to the magic toilet.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Anteater: A Hallucination Agreed Upon

If a lie agreed upon becomes the truth, than a shared hallucination must be reality. I know what I saw. It was 1 am. It was the middle of the Everglades on the famous Loop Road and Ash and I both saw a 5-foot, arch-bodied anteater scamper across the dirt road, illuminated only by the bouncing headlights of the truck as we raced down the road towards it.

Let me back up here. Ash is a Terrestrial Ecologist, on vacation from frog research in Maryland. I don't have a current photo, which is not true, so I had to go back to this picture from December 31st. Ash is the Giant Mr. T Smurf pictured with wife and Smurfette Kate, also on vacation. He's certainly qualified to verify our late-night and completely sober sighting.

The previous day we had an Everglades appetizer adventure; a quick trip into the National Park, stopping at the famous fruit stand "Robert is Here" for Key Lime and Guanaba Shakes and an up close Emu experience. Hardly worth it!

The plan had been to explore a bit more, but a nasty lightning storm rolled across the sawgrass prairie,

truncating our trip, but not before seeing a few sights including this gator, resting peacefully within biting range on the Anhinga Trail.

I was as close as it would appear, but took a cell call seconds later and did not hear someone yell "it's moving". Ash ran and jumped into his pregnant wife's arms just out of the picture. The gator moved all of 2 inches and I was not eaten.

The next evening, the plan was to venture out to the Loop Road with Ash, Kate and family. But they went to see Harry Potter and the Chamber of Commerce first...and then we would go after that. But Kate's father Larry made a fantastic antipasto,

so we would eat and go after that. But someone brought an all-berry pie and by the time food was consumed, it was very late. But if we had not gone, we would have always wondered what we had missed.

Attrition plagued our crew and eventually just Ash and I headed out at 12 am. Pregnancy gets Kate off the hook....

As far as wildlife goes, sightings were slim, but the chorus of frogs, including Bull Frogs, Pig Frogs, Barking Tree Frogs, Green Tree Frogs, Narrow-mouthed Toads, Cricket Frogs and Chorus Frogs was like window shopping for the blind with every patch of grass or cypress revealing a new song from a new species. We saw maybe 5 frogs but heard thousands.

As we bounced down the remote dirt road, our eyes growing weary and desperately needing sleep, we both noticed something in the headlights hundreds of feet ahead. Dark, long, slender and arch-backed, it scrambled from the cypress, onto the road and slowed as it slunk into the grass on the other side. As we approached, both of us had the initial, nonsensical, farout thought....Anteater!

But it was an alligator. Standing up high on 4 legs, back arched, and in a hurry to avoid our intrusion. Funny what lack of sleep does. Odd we both considered an animal found thousands of miles away.

It may not have been an anteater, but to see a fast moving alligator out in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night was well worth being worn out the next morning. Thanks Ash and Kate for another fun adventure.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Ghost Orchid: The Epiphyte of Your Life

Chances are you will never see a Ghost Orchid in the wild. Rare in nature and often growing in difficult to access places, this seemingly ethereal and ephemeral epiphyte can be found in the Everglades and most specifically in the Fakahatchee Strand State Park where I take my tours. Epiphytes are plants that grow on other plants without being parasitic. They essentially use a host tree for support as the swampy soils and thick canopy make life on the forest floor tough.

The 20,000 acre park has the highest diversity of orchids in North America, but the Ghost Orchid is one of the most rare and in fact we rarely see orchids at all. Sadly, orchid thieves poach the plants from their host tree and sell them on the black market. You may have heard of the 1994 book the Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean based on the true story of a flower poacher in the Fakahatchee. Hollywood made an adaptation loosely based on the book with Nicholas Cage. It was called Adaptation.

Anyway. The orchids are few and far between, but 3 weeks ago, birders at Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples, (just north of the Fakahatchee), were searching for Owls when they noticed a 6-blossomed flower growing 60 feet up on the trunk of Bald Cypress! This was a first in that Ghost Orchids had not been found in this sizable sanctuary and no Ghost Orchid had ever been found above 26 feet from the forest floor or on a cypress! That deserves one more!! They've had experts definitively say this is a Ghost Orchid, but who knows, maybe it's a whole new species not known to us.

I've not bothered to be concerned about ever seeing a Ghost Orchid. I just assumed I would never see one, but I headed out to Corkscrew and had the luck to see the most rare flower in North America.

The Sanctuary had spotting scopes to see the flowers which were blooming 100 feet from the boardwalk. My photos will pale in comparison to anyone with a telephoto, but I got a picture nonetheless through the scope.

The flowers bloom from June to August, with 1-10 flowers arising from nothing but roots attached to the cypress. Each flower blooms one after the other and they only last three weeks, so I arrived just in time. Once they go to seed, they drop bell pepper-sized seeds into the wind in the hope that one may land in an appropriate spot and begin to grow. It doesn't happen often.

They're called Ghost Orchid because they look like little dancing ghosts or jumping frogs which is why they have the less then stellar and less used name of Frog Orchid.

The flowers are so prized by orchid thieves, that the sanctuary has had to set up motion-sensing cameras and trip wires around the perimeter of the tree to protect it. There are already rumors of poachers plotting to steal them. Imagine getting caught and going to jail? What are you in for? "Stealing flowers".

I'll stick to photographs. This is one of those once in a lifetime experiences. Couldn't be more elated.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

General Ization and the Battle of Red vs Blue States

How long does it take to read this? You can do it in 3 minutes or less! (Kid warning - this may not make sense to some kids)

I'm getting more and more readers, but I had one disgruntled reader unsubscribe because I got "political". I think I may have made some comment suggesting George Bush was not quite qualified for a Nobel Peace Prize. Is he? It was assumed from that comment that I'm a pinko communist radical liberal. I thought I was being funny. I find it interesting that if someone assumes my political views diverge from theirs that they would simply rather not listen to what I have to say. Can't we just get along?

One of the beautiful things about human nature is that we can be similar in many ways while enjoying infinite individuality. We have a billion points of perspective on this planet and I would rather share them than group up based on our commonalities.

This got me thinking about a few other comments I've heard lately.

Someone recently said to me that they knew I was a liberal. Oh? How do you know that without knowing me? "Because you are an environmentalist". To which I replied, "And you being a conservative Republican are therefore anti-environment". To which they became flustered and changed the subject. Shouldn't everyone be pro-environment? Why is that a bad word?

Someone also asked me how I can stand to be in a "Red State" here in Florida, suggesting the political viewpoints of all people living in the sunshine state must, by default be right-leaning because Tim Russert used the red crayon to signify that the majority of voters (52%-47%) voted for George Bush in 2004. The "Blue" voters may have been in the minority, but I choose to think of state colors as shades of purple. We have a Republican governor - Charlie Christ, who has taken a strong stance and an active one at that to protect not only the Everglades, but the environment in general. Everglades restoration has been bi-partisan for the most part.

I'd also like to think that we have not digressed to thinking of our political parties as our teams. A friend said to me the other day that they were Republican. Always have been, always will be. (I've never heard a Democrat say that...) Their parents are Republican and their kids will be too. Millard Fillmore's kids probably said the same thing about the Whig Party. Parties should be dynamic and ever evolving. Issues should be discussed and debated with civility (and the occasional fisticuffs on the House floor) and yet people still people root for their party as if it were a sports team.

I have no political team. Political parties serve to support candidates. Politicians serve the people. Somehow we have turned the whole thing around and the people now serve the parties.

I tried to explain this to someone (and I'm being coy so as not to call out my boss), that I am not a conservative nor a liberal. I'm not a Democrat or a Republican. I don't take a stand based on what a party stands for. I listen to the argument, make my decision and chose a candidate based on who best fits my beliefs. It's far more principled than letting a candidate tell me what to believe. I'd have to say I'm moderate, leading the aforementioned "someone" to call me a flip flopper with no convictions. Not having extreme points of view, be they left or right is seen as a negative. I can't win.

If someone wishes not to read this, that is their prerogative. This is my fun way at looking at my world around me, learning a bit, teaching a bit and hopefully laughing a whole lot more.

I'll climb down off my soapbox and step up to the spotting scope. Tomorrow...Ghost Orchids!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Air Conditioned Response

There's a new trend in the consumer world that seems aimed at assisting global warming. As temperatures rise the most obvious response would be to help lower temperatures with air conditioning. A walk along South Beach proves this is all the rage. It's not cool to sweat. In fact it's disgusting and unnatural. (Thank God for Aluminum Zirconium!). Businesses can kill two birds or more with one proverbial stone. They want to sell something consumers probably don't need and consumers want to be blasted with arctic air as they shop for bikinis. So businesses have taken to lowering the thermostat to 65, opening their storefront doors and enticing passers by with dry, icy air. All day. If everyone does it, it's sure to cool the environment.

When I was a kid we had an air conditioner. I don't remember it ever working. I think the outdoor unit was jammed with frog skeletons and ragweed. They were hard to keep out. It was bearable most of the year, but during the hot summer months we'd travel north from sub-tropical Florida to spend the school break in New York. There were years where we'd stay in Florida and I distinctly remember the siblings and I all sleeping in one room on the floor in front of one fan trying to keep cool. I firmly believe my love for air conditioning comes from that experience. It's my guilty pleasure, but I keep the AC in my apartment at 81 degrees. Freezing for Ecuadorians, sweltering for Floridians. It's all conditioning certainly but perfect for me. We don't need 75 degrees but when you go from the 95 degree car to the 75 degree store, you get used to something that is probably unnecessary. The funny thing is watching the Latinos wear sweaters inside when it's a heat wave outside. Actually it's not funny. We're wasting energy.

I had a full day Everglades trip today with 12 people. It was 95 and the air compressor on my vehicle broke during the trip. One man in the back, very politely came forward, drenched in sweat and said "I think the heater is on back here". It wasn't but the AC died at 10 am and was blowing engine heat. I felt terribly. We rolled the only 2 windows down that we could and did 2x60 through the Everglades. The 12 people were divided into 5 groups and I never expected them all to be as polite as they were. They understood the position I was in, they sucked it up, sweated off a few lbs and said amazingly nice things about the trip despite the sweat stains they'll have to have dry cleaned out of their clothes. Air conditioning would have made the trip more comfortable, but respect and 12 positive attitudes (including 4 kids!) made for a great day in the hot and sweaty swamp.

Try turning your AC up a degree and see if you notice.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Sounds Like a Hematoma to Me

To call this blog entry an "Everglades Adventure" might be a stretch, but to conform as best as I can, let me ask this question. Can a snake that does not bite cause you to bleed?

I went to the Neurologist today because it seemed at the time, preferable to working. I was referred to a Neurologist because my primary physician was "not sure" why I was having pain in my arm. I can't imagine someone asking me what bird that is and me telling them to go to another tour to find out. But my theory is that the medical profession is the world's oldest pyramid scheme.

So I became a human guinea pig for 45 minutes; enduring electric shocks and sharp pointy things on my bare feet. Much like Pavlov's dogs who salivated when he would ring the dinner bell, I would begin to shake when the doctor would ask me questions. I knew he was distracting me and if he asked a work related question, the zapper was coming, so I would shake. Bzzzt and we'd do it again. The doctor apologized for the discomfort and said the worst was over. Just a few needle pokes and I was done. I hate needles. I'm a baby, and when the intense fire coursed through my arm, I did my best to be tough. No whimpers. No winces. Deal with it! After 5 jabs I was beginning to understand what a dog endures after it attacks a porcupine. This really hurts! The doctor finished his testing and went for the results. I sat up, looked at my pin cushion of an arm and not only saw a stream of blood pouring down my arm, but there was an egg-sized bump on the back of it.

I peeked out of the room and requested some help from the nurse who was nice enough to say "that's the worst hematoma I've seen in years!". I felt proud as I continued to bleed. Apparently the jamming, and I use that word with little exaggeration, of the needle into my arm struck a vein and caused internal bleeding. Really gross. It's still swollen hours later.

Ultimately, I have a pinched nerve in my neck which is causing tightness in my arm. I also have a nasty bruise caused by the doctor. The cause of the pinched nerve? I whacked my head a few weeks ago in the snake pit. It's about 6 feet from floor to ceiling and when I reached for a Crocodile, a Rat Snake, basking on the limb of a tree, lunged out to bite me. It missed. I jumped and whacked my head and four weeks later I'm suffering with a hematoma thanks to the snake.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Ants in Your Pants

The Red Imported Fire Ant (Solenopsis invicta) was accidentally introduced to the United States in either Mobile, Alabama or Pensacola, FL between 1933-1945. They inadvertently hitchhiked along with imported goods from Brazil and have since spread across many of the southern states, including Florida. They often create large nest mounds of soil, inhabited by thousands of the insects. When disrupted, the first ant to encounter a threat to their home emits a pheromone, alarming the rest of the colony which then defend the nest by all stinging the intruder with vengeance.

Before MaLe's return to Ecuador, we visited the Florida Keys, driving the length of the Overseas Highway from Key Largo down to Key West where we enjoyed the Southernmost point in the Continental US (marked by this black/yellow/red thing),

the 57 "Hemingway Cats" occupying the late writer's historic if not tragically dumpy home

the over hyped Mallory Square and a fantastic sunset over Florida Bay.

But no sendoff sunset is complete without sitting on a mound of fire ants. With only a glowing segment of sun remaining as it submerged into the sea, a frantic MaLe began hoping around, swatting at her back and cursing in Spanish (several words that I am familiar with). I helped brush as many off as I could and pleaded with her to move, but regretfully she was only listening in Spanish at this point and continued to stand in the mound of ants while peeling off clothing. Eventually she understood and moved, but not before being bitten literally from head to toe but the rotten little ormegas.

Fire ant bites are nasty and leave a zit-like swelling for a few days. It's not pleasant. She was calmed by sundown and you'd never know by this picture what she had just endured.

This afternoon it was back to work for me with a trip into the sweltering 98 degree Everglades. As always, I joined my adventurers on the airboat and as we cruised along the well-populated alligator lake, I realized I was being peppered with tiny insects. I looked towards the bow and realized a raft of fire ants had made their way on board and were now being blown on me! I signaled to the airboat captain to stop the boat, which he misinterpreted as go faster, and more and more ants began to fleck my khaki shirt. ANTS! I yelled, but my full-on-freakout fell on deaf ears as the Cadillac engine continued to power the airboats airplane propeller and create just enough noise to drown out what I assumed would soon turn to my panicked sobs.

Fire Ants have the amazing ability to create a mass of ants, or a raft to protect them during floods. Water comes up, they gather in a ball and are magically transported to a new home. In this case - the airboat and eventually on to me. I survived with amazingly only one bite. Maybe the speed in which we traveled carried away the pheromone message to attack. Either way, MaLe and I both survived our ant encounters. Now that the rainy season is here, you gotta watch out for the ants who are constantly shifting their homes to drier ground.
(because it was requested...the MaLe Meez)

Thursday, July 5, 2007

I.N.S. and Outs (or E.T. go home)

We have a strange relationship with foreigners in this country. Just ask any pre-Columbian tribes of North America. How must native Americans today think of the US government's attitude towards the rest of the world today? The Calusa, Creeks, Iroquois, Cherokee....they were here for centuries until Europeans discovered a continent full of people, yet many contemporary Americans have the audacity to look eagle-eyed at our borders and say no more to the swelling number of legal and illegal immigrants that come to the U.S. when they know that they or their ancestors came to this country legally or illegally and probably very much against the wishes of those that were here before they were. But it's understandable to be upset. I mean the number of undocumented illegal immigrants has grown from 11 million just 4 months ago, to 13 million during the first 2008 presidential debates to a staggering 20 million on the Rush Limbaugh radio program. 7 million people have apparently illegally immigrated in the last 4 months! Who wouldn't be terrified of the tsunami of humans eroding "our" shores! Now I am all for legal immigration. It's a complicated issue which I won't get into here. But I firmly believe in following the proper channels for becoming a U.S. citizen or resident alien.

I just have a problem with how we treat aliens. Take for example the dichotomy of alien themed rides at Universal's theme park in Orlando. On the one hand you have E.T. the ride where you affectionately harbor a stranded alien (and a botanist at that) and help him escape the authorities despite his ability to assist our planet's global warming issue. He can grow our plants, heal our sickness, fly us across an impossibly large full moon...but stay in the closet where we can conveniently ignore your presence.

Then there is Men in Black: Alien Attack where aliens have infiltrated our planet. Some are good, some are naughty and as you ride through a darkened and sinister landscape, you destroy every single living alien with your laser. The more casualties the better. If a few "good aliens" get blasted, it was all for the betterment of the planet. or for freedom. whatever. At the end of the ride, regardless of your success, you are blasted with a neuralizer where the truth is wiped from your mind and you go on living a blissful and unaware life with no knowledge of your slaughter of Iraqis. I mean aliens.

I thought I would get sympathy from MaLe regarding this analogy. E.T. - although chased, is still cherished and we root for him. The Men in Black aliens are persecuted mercilessly. She told me she "liked blasting the aliens".

My point is many Americans and our government including INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) have such a xenophobic attitude.... And MaLe's visa is expiring. She must return to Ecuador on Monday. It's made me extra cranky these last few weeks and explains the lack of reading material here.

She could stay. Illegally. But she has a conscience and fears the consequence of ignoring U.S. laws. She's doing the right thing and returning home. She could turn around and return in a short time, but she will return in 6 months. I may not like it, but I understand. And while I am separated from her by a thousand miles of sea, I will be inundated here in SW Florida with a wave of aliens who right or wrong came her for the same reason we did or our ancestors did. To find something better. I shall treat them like Drew Barrymore and kiss them all on the forehead.

Sigh...See you in 6 months Malenita.....

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Jungle MaLe's Everglades Adventure

MaLe learned more about Florida Panthers than she ever wanted to know. The oft repeated morning question from me - "Guess what got run over?"....."Another Panther?"
MaLe chases down an Endangered Gopher Tortoise

Enjoying the spiky-legged Lubber Grasshopper

At the beach with Brian, Tara and Peytee

MaLe, Pia, Patricio, Juan Jose and MaLe's aunt

Don't waste water in Florida!

A rare cockatoo from Papua searches for food....

The Garcias and an American Crocodile

The typical pose

What can I say?