I grew up in a place many people might consider a paradise. It was a land of mind blowing sunsets, heavenly beaches, and lush tropical wetlands. Wide varieties of wildlife could be found everywhere. This was a land where tidal estuaries and steams extended inland for mies. It still remains a truly beautiful land. Unfortunately, many people have never had the opportunity to experience its beauty.
A deep respect and love for mother earth was instilled within me at a very young age. I remember when we still lived up north, and my mother would take me for walks in the woods. “walk quietly,” she would say. “You must try to make as little sound as possible.” She taught me how not to step on twigs or dry leaves. By the age of eight, I could walk through the woods more quietly than many of the animals that dwelt there. My happiest childhood days were often spent playing with friends in secret green places.
When I was about ten, we moved to south Florida to live near my grandparents. At first, I was quite discouraged by the move. The woods here were so different. How could I possibly walk quietly through palmetto scrub? It was also much more dangerous playground The woods here were prime rattlesnake territory, rife with wild pigs and alligators. However, through perseverance and practice, I eventually became as one with the land here, also.
Before long, I no longer feared the wide variety of poisonous insects and animals that called this country their home. As I grew older and started to mature, I learned a lot about the world, and the more I learned about our present society, the more I didn’t like it. I was a quite teenager and kept mostly to myself. If I wasn’t at work or school, I found myself retreating more and more into the forests of south Florida. I would take my grandfather’s canoe and, for hours at a time, explore rivers and the tidal creeks of the area. This was the only place I felt at peace, completely unattached to the hustle and bustle of the frightening world of modern society. I saw things that many people would never see in their lifetime. I saw alligators lunching on a variety of waterfowl that inhabited the area . Through the instruction of my grandfather and uncle, I was able to learn how to guide a canoe with less sound than a soft wind makes rustling through pine trees. On some days, when the wind was right, I was able to sneak up on many animals without them smelling me first. I’ve gotten so close to owls roosting in the shade that I could have touched them. From a slight bend in the creek, I’ve watched young otters playing in the water. I was able to watch them for fifteen minutes before they scrambled up a hill and out of sight. I’ve sneaked up on raccoons fishing from the banks of the stream.They eventually saw me, and quickly charged through the bush away from me, while chattering their protest at my intrusion. One day, I even saw a wild pig standing high up on the bank. He eyed me suspiciously as I drifted by.
One day in particular will always stick out in my mind. It was hot and wet, typical for a summer day in the middle of June. I headed up-river around ten o’clock. It was one of those days when I could smell the sweet, pungent odor of the alkaline earth with every breath. It filled me with mild euphoria, knowing that this was a real smell, not a man-made one that bothered my nose or gave me a headache. Just about five minutes after I had gone beyond the point where I could no longer hear the highway, I was approaching the little pond where the raccoons often fished. Today, there was a slight wind blowing in the opposite direction that I was traveling. I decided to be extra careful trying not to make a sound. As I approached the spot, I was sure that i would see some raccoons. Slowly rounding the bend, I suddenly froze.
The canoe came to a stop, and there she stood in the shade lapping up water in huge thirsty gulps. She must have sensed me watching her, since she looked up and our eyes met. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. My arms tingled and my flesh crawled with goosebumps. There, in the lush tropical shade stood a Florida panther. We looked into each other’s eyes for what seemed like an eternity. Then she bent down drinking more water. She stood back up and stretched with her forepaws out. Her ears perked at some sound that only she could hear. She turned smoothly and trotted off into the dark undergrowth. I sat there for at least a half hour, “How could this be?” I asked myself. Supposedly, there are only thirty six panthers left in all of Florida and they live farther south in the Everglades region. After all, I had seen the wildlife special on T.V. could I have been hallucinating? No, this was real. I knew the experts would say this was impossible.
So, I never told anyone. It was just my secret. Years later while driving down a road in the same area with my mother, wife, and daughter in the car, we saw something crossing the road. We had to stop. The oncoming cars also stopped. In front of us stood a baby panther. It slowly walked across the road. We were amazed as the long bushy tail sleekly moved into the bushes on the other side of the road. This time, at least, a dozen people had seen it.
Seeing that baby panther, and remembering my time in the canoe, I learned a valuable lesson. Experts and scientists do not know everything, and they aren’t always correct, no matter how much some of us may want to believe them. Most importantly, seeing that baby panther showed me that there is hope. There is hope for the Florida panther, and maybe, hope for all of us.