Wednesday, January 26, 2011

World of the Great White Heron!

Our book today is Marjory Bartlett Sanger's lovely, poetic 1967 classic World of the Great White Heron, which is very aptly subtitled "A Saga of the Florida Keys." The story she starts out telling, a relatively straightforward natural history of the most arresting resident of the Florida Keys, Ardea occidentalis, the great white heron, quickly broadens to a natural - and human - history of the Keys themselves, with the herons serving as a graceful, eternal counterpoint to all the tumultuous changes going on around them. The book is beautifully illustrated in black-and-white drawings by John Henry Dick, whose A Gathering of Shorebirds will get its own post here as soon as I can find my copy. Together, these two creators produce a book of a type that's rarer and rarer in these days of Wiki-harvested info and digital photography; I worry that passionate, entirely personal works of natural history like this one are slowly becoming extinct. Even David Carroll confessed a few too many times in his last book that he was feeling a bit old ...

Still, this book is here, and although it's not in print, copies can certainly be found - and oh! are they worth finding! The main joy of this book isn't necessarily its celebration of the great white heron itself (although anybody who's experienced the joyful shock of watching one leap into the air and languidly unfurl those enormous wings will be glad enough of that celebration) but of all the wildlife of the Keys - and forty years ago, just like now, there was a lot of wildlife to celebrate. These little islands stretch from Key Largo to Key West, and the biosphere of which they're a part, protected on the ocean-side by coral reefs and the tangled currents of the Sargasso Sea, wanders on south to the Marquesas and the Dry Tortugas. Tourists often comment on the crystal-clear water of the open stretches, but as Sanger accurately relates (and as can be found gorgeously described in many of the novels of Tom McGuane), the real gems of these islands are often hidden deep in the back-channels and mangrove thickets where Ardea makes its home.

The bird was named by John James Audobon when he visited the Keys in 1832 (he also referred to it as "the Angel of the Swamp"), and he also noticed the profusion of life in this part of the New World: alligators, crocodiles, egrets, deer, raccoons, turtles of all sizes, innumerable kinds of birds and noisy amphibians, sharks, busy crabs, and insistent insects. Sanger is as adept at capturing this world in words as her illustrator is at capturing it in pen-and-ink:
The world of the largest white heron on earth is the world of the crowding mangroves where the bird binds its platform nest and lays its blue-green "olivine" eggs. Now and then two or three pairs of herons will nest on the same island; less often a dozen may nest together. In its unchanneled wilderness Ardea movies in the kind of semi-isolation that has always typified this country of swamp and shoal, and made life there so unpredictable and perilous

This can be a very changeable place, a serene green paradise one day and a churning chaos the next, and its history reflects this - the Keys look idyllic, and like most places that look idyllic, their history is hip-deep in the tragic miseries humans bring with them everywhere they go:
The placid, tranquil-appearing world that Ardea surveyed this April morning had actually known a turbulent past. The dazzling light once bleached piles of human bones; the sea-green bay, banded in blue, maize, and purple, had also been banded with blood. Coral reefs at one time pierced the keel of galleons, and where the terns cry there had been human cries. Audubon's "lovely islets that border the southeast shores" were also called "The Martyrs."

The main difference in the Keys between Sanger's time and the present is the state of the coral reefs that are the protector and life-blood of the whole region. When Sanger wrote her book, they were a bursting, thriving underwater wilderness of infinite color and variety. Today, they're endangered like all reefs are, but warming currents and rising sea-levels. You can't help but wonder, reading this book, how much longer descriptions like this one will apply at all:
The reef that caused so much anguish was built by flowerlike corals. Anthozoa, or "flower animals," are living organisms resembling the sea anemones to which they are related, breathing, feeding, multiplying, and secreting a hard lime substance. It is of this substance that the reef is formed. Receiving nourishment from the current-borne plankton, the corals bud or branch out like calcium trees, and their surfaces are studded with starry patterns. In a vast variety of shapes and colors, they create forests of stone beneath the warm waters.

I spent some time nosing around the Keys many, many years ago, in a dented little sailboat with the company of five beagles (one of whom was my best friend, another of whom had been born blind, and the rest of whom could find trouble just about anywhere), and although what I should remember was the rampant heat and suffocating humidity, it's not - I recall instead the peril and profusion of wandering in a kind of paradise, the fun of wading in those clear waters with my antic dogs, even the beauty of racing for shelter from the rather respectable hurricane that struck a glancing blow while I was there. Even the light seemed different, and there are no words for how gorgeous the night-time was.

Sanger quotes the master:
William Beebe said: "Until we have found our way to some other planet the bottom of the sea will have to remain the loveliest and strangest place we can imagine." Lovely and anxious, striving and strange, it is all a part of the white heron's domain.

Lovely and strange - that does indeed sum up the Florida Keys for me - and it's not a bad description of this wonderful book, either.


Rohan said...

Lovely post, and wonderful pictures.

Lisa Peet said...

And I love the image of you and your beagle pack. What fun.