Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Big Pine Winter 2

In summer this dirt road on the north side of Big Pine Key looks more like a canal filled with brown water. As we transition to winter, which is the dry season, the waters recede and eventually Cheyenne and I can go for a walk without wading. I confess I feel rather guilty and self indulgent. Just lately I have been focused on enjoying our afternoon walks together in the woods. I have been working quite a bit and waking up tired around lunch time. Cheyenne greets me beady eyed with tail wagging and the obvious expectation that I won't even bother to put the kettle on for that first critical pot of tea. we stumble down to the car and she leaps cheerfully onto her back seat throne while I scoop up the paper and fumble for the ignition keys. Then as we head down Indies Road towards Highway One I have about two minutes to decide whether to turn south toward Summerland Key or north toward Big Pine Key. Lately Big Pine has been winning most of the time and by the time we reach the Overseas Highway at the ramrod Key Shell station the die is cast and I know which way I am turning. Such is the limitation of only having one road to turn on.Three miles gets us into the heart of the biggest island in the lower Keys and at that point I have to decide where our walk will take us. Cheyenne usually sprawls on the back seat happily chewing her rawhide leaving me to decide how to keep her happy. It's a heavy burden.We spend an hour, sometimes two wandering the back woods or the beach. After a while she flops in the shade and looks at me so I sit next to her and unfold the battered paper that I found in my driveway. She looks around and I read the Voice column, anonymous comments critiquing daily life in the Keys. These days the School District is in the news as two new school board members took their seats on the Board yesterday. I didn't vote for either of them but I don't think they need my validation. The paper has been rather critical of the new regime in the district after last year's superintendent drama and there has been some finger wagging at Superintendent Joe Burke for not being as accountable as the paper thinks he should have been. Locals have dubbed him "Super Joe" in the way Key Westers are notorious for giving everyone a nickname, but the Citizen doesn't seem to think he's too super. And then Cheyenne shakes herself to her feet and looks at me- time to move on.She walks nose to the ground and I know my choice of location was a good one if she goes at it like a bloodhound, following a scent back and forth from bush to bush and across the road, back and forth. Sometimes I stand there like a lost tourist studying a Key west street map, reading another article in the paper while my dog does her thing. Sometimes I point my camera at the trees or the sky and idly pass the time taking pictures and erasing them, playing with the shutter speed trying to gauge how much light is too little. I am aware that dark pictures are pissing off anonymous so I am losing the polarized effect I like so much in an effort to expose more detail.The skies have been lovely and wintry lately, though I do miss the puffy white clouds that are created by the summer moisture. these days the air has been dry and clear and the sky looks empty and vast, just like the void it actually is. the effect is to make everything sharp and finely etched in the crisp sunlight.As long as we are out of traffic zones Cheyenne enjoys her freedom, off leash and free to wander at will. The deal is that when I call her she has to come immediately but I promise not to call her unless there is a reason. I get the feeling her first eight years weren't spent like this because gives a strong impression of making up for lost time. I hate seeing dogs dragged along with no time to sniff and smell; the ability to pause and think is a privilege that not many humans seem to want and not many dogs seem to get.
My wife doesn't much like to go for these kinds of walks (she will protest to me that the contrary is the truth but sometimes she is full of shit) and I feel lucky that Cheyenne appreciates the time. My last Labrador stood around looking bored when we went out into the California redwoods and Emma only came alive when we walked the city streets. she was an urban dog and as a result I spent a great deal too much time walking city streets wherever we went.
Cheyenne by contrast is ambidextrous and will happily walk city or suburban streets or the back woods. I try to mix and match but lately I have been drawn more to the woods, not least because as the Fall progresses trails that have been underwater are becoming available again and the cooler air gives Cheyenne greater energy to explore them. Plus we are getting a dose of early winter residents which means the mean streets of Key West are getting cluttered with people again whereas out here we are blissfully, gloriously, alone. I tried smiling for this next exposure but I looked like a sickly dork, like a man with a guilty secret to hide so I trashed that picture. I wasn't really feeling as serious as I look here.
There is lots to be serious about, currency wars, foreclosure fiascos, Truman Waterfront development and an incoming governor elect who is a crook. Really, how on Earth could a majority of Florida voters think that a man responsible for the largest Medicare scam in history is good to govern the Sunshine State? We live in lawless times. Where's Wyatt Earp when we need him? Gary Cooper would do to give us a moral compass once again.
The gruesome Spottswood development machine has had a change of leadership at the top, owing to "illness" apparently. A different brother is now offering a gentler less commercially oriented view of how the waterfront might be developed. "For now" the much hated upscale marina, symbol of undemocratic wealth and privilege has been dropped from the plans, not least because it would boot the historic ships from the Truman Waterfront seawall and that caused a hornet's nest of opposition. I like the Commons idea that has been mooted in the newspaper, a third space with the possibility of a farmer's market. park space and greenery. On the other hand I quite like the space as it is right now but it won't stay that way. At least now there is a chance that city residents won't be kicked out completely from the waterfront plans. That's some good news in the paper.Someone appears to have dismembered what looks like a nurse shark out here in the bushes. there is a rank smell of fish for a second and Cheyenne perks up. The tail is drying in the sun like some Asian aphrodisiac delicacy. the head looks like the rounded snout of a nurse shark but there are what appear to be bones in the head. Perhaps it is gristle shaped like a bone, perhaps nurse sharks have bones of some kind? Perhaps it's not a shark at all.It sure looks like one, and Cheyenne is interested though happily she doesn't have a mad desire to eat this nasty stuff or even roll in it. A comprehensive sniff and she's on her way.A lung full of fresh air and a sweep of the horizon. Many of these Keys are criss crossed by these funny little canals dug out of the rock at what can only be imagined to be incredible effort. The idea was to put fish called Gambusia into the channels because they were known to eat mosquito larvae. I have no idea how the plan worked in reality but there is something quite touching about all these efforts to control the insects. Today we use chemicals and biology (bacillus thuringensis) and in those days they used smoke pots, kerosene rags burnt in paint cans that gave off tremendous clouds of noxious black smoke as well as bats or fish or whatever they could figure out to kill off the hordes of mosquitoes. I have read descriptions of how people took smoke pots in their open model T Fords to make driving bearable.If ever a Keys resident looks back to the "good old days" a glance at these Gambusia channels would remind them that life was tough in the pioneering days in the Florida Keys. And consider this: people used to die in droves from yellow fever, the disease carried by mosquitoes. Furthermore Key West was about the only city of any size south of St Augustine owing to the fact that it's island location made the mosquito problem somewhat bearable in the 19th century. These channels look quaint but the insects were a real issue to early Floridians.The elections have abated some of the furor over the Mosquito Control District which is run by a headstrong director who doesn't much like taking orders from elected Board members. they however, are taking grief from voters who are feeling the economic pinch and are slightly staggered by the lack of economic good sense exhibited by this stalwart band of spenders. A couple of new directors have joined the board and the hope is that the old time spenders are on the run and a sensible budget can be worked out. A lot has been made of the fact that the director earns (a term coined loosely here) $185,000 a year, more than any other public official in the county and more indeed than the Governor himself. The State Attorney is investigating a suspected case of illegal cell phone use that was swept under the carpet by his predecessor. The newspaper makes for interesting reading some days.As long as Cheyenne is perky we keep walking. The newly dry flats were a source of fun for a while. She sniffed and I took a picture of this red mangrove rising up out of the rock and mud. Mangroves are quite astonishing when you see how they take root in the most unpromising places and turn saltwater into freshwater for their use. their roots are pretty elaborate too.And so back to permanently dry land, a place where boring old pine trees used to flourish. They got a bit diseased and there has been a die-off on Big Pine in some areas. Not everywhere, and much though I admire mangroves pine trees are my favorites. smelling the resin from these trees on a hot summer afternoon with cicadas chirping in the background sends me straight back to the Italy of my youth.Then I open my eyes, put away the newspaper and find myself in a stand of pine trees that look more like saplings than umbrellas. It's amazing they do as well as they do in the arid oolite rocks of Big Pine Key.Then it's time to stump back to the car, puffing all the way as even the winter sun can get the air up to a toasty 80 degrees (28C) on a still and windless afternoon. A girl in a fur coat can get pretty hot and panting. Me? I'm panting for my long delayed pot of caffeine at home.