Villagers

Winds of change:

Twenty-five years ago, owning a two-story town-home was not an issue. I saw the stairs as a physical challenge. Two steps at a time, opposite arms extended while carrying light hand weights. I looked forward to it. A good way to get a steady flow of oxygenated blood to the brain.

Being on a canal was a big plus. One of the first things I did was buy a fiberglass canoe. Depending on wind direction, I’d paddle to a nearby lake or fish the canals behind the homes.

I’ve worn the skin off my thumb more times than I can recall from landing peacock and large-mouth bass.

Our development was tucked in a corner bordered by I-75 to the north and State Road 27 on the west side. The Florida Everglades owned most of the real estate on the perimeters.

A section of the development was dedicated to remaining wild: the mitigation area. The only thing indicating humans had left their mark on the landscape was a sidewalk. A great place to take a stroll and see animals and birds.

Don’t look back:

Times change.

The physical challenge of stair climbing has evolved into low-impact navigating designed to avoid injury. Difficulty in launching my canoe and getting in and out has drawn a curtain on fishing. The sidewalk undulating across the mitigation area hurts my knees. Nature walks in the mitigation area are no longer an option.

We’re pulling up stakes and moving on to the Villages, a 55 plus community. For some reason—could be a recent news broadcast or a current book I’m reading—I want to be among fellow baby boomers.

Another thing I want to do is build a Japanese rock garden in my new backyard. It’s small so it looks doable. Exact measurements will be taken. The dimensions will be scaled. From this, a miniature tray will be built. The features will be added. The small garden will be the model for the main garden.

But wait, there’s more.

An overhead tripod is going to be set up over the small tray. Stop motion photographs will be shot showing the results of the rock raking. A drone will be used to photograph the same changes to the main garden. Sounds like Zen to me.

Sidewalk in Time

Mitigation Area

“I wonder were that sidewalk leads,” I said to my wife.

“Oh, that goes to the mitigation area. I told you about that when we moved in.”

It must’ve slipped my mind. There was so much else going on at the time. “What’s mitigation?”

“In this case, it’s a section of the property that’s been marked to remain as close to natural as possible.”

I thought about this. Instead of the usual boring walk around the neighborhood, we had our own nature preserve in our backyard. Time to check it out.

The sidewalk extended all the way across a wide open field to the next development. There were all kinds of birds: long-beaked wood storks wading in the flats, slinky blue herons stalking the banks like winged hipsters, anhingas sunning themselves or cruising the deep water, hawks perched in trees and taking off on fishing expeditions, and other types too numerous to mention.

A birdwatcher’s paradise.

Time Goes By

Every time we walked, we made sure to visit the mitigation area. Eventually, we spotted marsh hares, rooting around in the grass near some bushes. One morning, an unleashed dog spotted a rabbit and took off after it. The dog found only empty space. The hare darted into the bushes in a brown blur, entered the water like an Olympic swimmer, and took off.

My wife had names for the rabbits: stuff like Bugs or Roger or Jessica.

One day we heard a rustling in the bushes on the north side of the mitigation area, the side facing the highway. One of the biggest box turtles I’ve ever seen came sliding down the berm, carving a trail of small rocks and slivers of mulch. It had to be four feet long from the back of the shell to the front.

It was as if we had reached a stop sign. Once the turtle traffic cleared we moved on.

Almost every walk held something new.

It was during the summer, after 15 days of rain and after waiting five days for the streets to dry, I went for a walk to the mitigation area. The water had receded just enough to expose the sidewalk and make it passable. The small patch of grass adjacent was littered with flotsam and jetsam. Everything from plastic jugs to Styrofoam coolers to things I couldn’t recognize.

It was quiet. Almost apocalyptic. I got an inspiration to write a zombie story on that walk.

Years later, on a solo venture, I saw the sidewalk was covered with hundreds of black millipedes, each one averaging about three inches in length. They moved slow on their mass exodus. I had to kind of hunt for places to plant my feet.

A walk that averaged 30 minutes stretched into an hour that day.

It wasn’t all a return to nature kind of thing. The mitigation area turned out to be a great place to see the International Space Station when conditions were right.

Taking cues from Spot the Station, NASA’S official web site, I was able to get a fix on critical data, like visibility times, duration of visibility, and location in the sky.

When skies were clear, I stood by an access gate used by maintenance crews at the midway point on the sidewalk. The gap in the bushes provided an unobstructed view due north over the Everglades.

Reflected light from the rising sun lit up the station like a cosmic pinball.

Nice.

Time Goes Back

The mitigation area was responsible for getting me on a jag that went on for years and still sits in the back my mind.

At the midway point, a narrow strip of dry land stretched from the sidewalk all the way to the lake. It was covered with trees. A single pole with a metal plate attached at the top rose above the dense bush. My guess was it was some kind of marker left over from canal dredging.

The pole caught my attention. At the time, I was deep into motion and camera tracking. As I walked by this section of the mitigation area I could picture a Tyrannosaurus Rex lurking in the trees. The pole would be a perfect object for placing tracking markers.

After a series of unsuccessful attempts at modeling a dinosaur and setting up a texturing layout, I abandoned the project. There comes a time when you have to face the fact you are not a 3d artist.

The only graphics I work on now are family photos, book covers, blog post images, and animated gifs. The quicker and dirtier the better.

Weird Dream

The dinosaur obsession may have ignited a mental spark that still burns. Having lived in Florida most of my life, I became a fish head early on and remain one at this later stage.

I had a dream. I was in the backyard, lunching my canoe. The bait was in the bucket.

By the time I paddled down to lake and got into position, it would be first light. When the bow of the canoe came out of the canal and entered the lake, it was as if a big light switch had been turned off. Darkness all around. Not even the silhouettes of buildings on the horizon.

Nothing but water, trees, and sky.

This was a dream. I was here to fish. Fishing dreams were my favorite. The best ones stick in my head like a thumb tack.

The first wiggling shiner went on the hook.

The strike came in a fraction of a second, a silver streak blasted out of a submerged weed bank. The blur went into slow motion. This thing looked like a bull dolphin with the distinctive high forehead. A pattern of green spots dotted a thick body tapering to a point that merged with the tail fin. Jagged teeth packed the jaws.

I had time to think about the situation: would the monofilament line get cut in the initial hit? Did I have my long pliers on the tackle box if I had to get near that dental work?

Real time returned. A bigger flash, this one a bright gold, rose from the depths and got bigger. Slow motion came back. The fish coming up had the body of a giant tarpon and teeth like samurai swords.

It swallowed the first fish then turned and dove. The up welling of water from the beating tail lifted the canoe two feet off the surface. I held on tight, hoping to remain afloat.

The wave passed. The canoe didn’t capsize.

Dreams are weird. Fear won the toss. I decided to call it a day.

On the way back I heard a deep throated roar followed by a thud. Could that be a T-Rex lining up for the shot?

When the canoe entered the canal, things returned to normal. What was once a primeval swamp became a housing development.

When the rain lets up I’ll be walking again.

Shoreline

Cover art for Shoreline blog post.

Space Walk:

The things Mark Philipson hadn’t done were beginning to add up: sitting in the booth by the window, sipping hot coffee while waiting for breakfast, reclining in the padded chair and putting the 3d glasses on as the opening credits of the movie came on screen, walking from store to store in the mall, looking for the best deals on toaster ovens or boxer shorts.

The Covid-19 pandemic had altered his lifestyle.

In the PPE (Pre-Pandemic Era), Mark tried to walk every day. He recalled his last walk clearly. It was during his space station spotting phase. When the NASA web site announced the times and locations when the station would be visible, Mark checked the sighting coordinates. If they were in the good zone and the skies were clear, he planned the walk around the information.

Mark thought about the last time he saw the station. The memory reel rolled in the projection booth in his mind, pushing image sequences out of the stereoscopic lenses of his eyes.

He left his neighborhood behind and stepped into darkness. Mark was in the mitigation area, what he called The Land that Time Forgot. Being in the natural environment made him think about a quote by Edgar Rice Burroughs: “If you write one book, it will probably be bad, if you write a hundred, the odds are in your favor.”

Words to live by.

Mark stepped off the residential sidewalk and pulled his penlight off the clip hanging from his belt loop. Released from its magnetic holder, the twin LED bulbs cut a hole in the wall of night, bathing the sidewalk ahead in moving light.

There were no street lamps in the mitigation area.

Birds squawked in the dense tree line a few feet to the right. Gators grunted in the shallow water on the other side of the wide bank to the left.

Mark stopped when he reached the halfway point between his development and the one due west and stood at the access area used by county maintenance crews. They’d launch air boats here and spray herbicide along the banks of the canals. He thought about how he did it when he was a kid: Mark stood on the sea wall, hauling in clumps of weed on a stiff rake. It was a triple-win situation. He earned some cash, supplied his mom with compost for her rose garden, and picked the craw fish out for bait.

No clouds drifted by. Mark checked his phone. He’d timed it perfectly, two minutes left until the station appeared.

This morning, the international space station would come into view at 18° above true North for twelve seconds.

Mark waited. Using the compass app on his phone, he pointed the digital needle to zero and faced the dark expanse of the Everglades.

He didn’t need to do this. Crossing the Gulf stream—from Port Everglades to Bimini—then returning on a reciprocal heading had burned the cardinal points of the compass rose into his brain.

It killed time.

Then he saw it.

Light from the rising sun hit the space station. From the vantage point on the ground, a bright globe came out of nowhere and streaked across the sky.

Then it was gone.

Above the Water:

Mark’s mind rolled over countless walks until it homed in on one and brought it to the front.

He was in the parking lot at the beach, putting money in the meter. The first thing he saw when he crossed over the wooden sand dune bridge was a woman putting brush to canvas. She worked fast, roughing in the vertical pylons of Dania Pier.

Mark headed south; with each step, the sun climbed higher and a west wind increased until high swells offshore rippled across the horizon.

Ahead, a man entered the surf, a short board under one arm and a bar in his free hand. In one motion, he dropped the board into the shallow water at his feet and stepped on. On the beach, a woman let go of an elliptical sail. The onshore breeze inflated it in an instant, pulling the rigging attached to the handlebar tight.

The board cut a wake across the waves. What happened next took a few seconds to register: the board rose out of the water, the hydrofoil skegg slicing across the surface.

Mark watched the rider maneuver over the sandbars and then run parallel to the shore. The rider was out of sight in minutes. He tried to imagine what it felt like to be holding onto a sail and standing on a board flying over the water, but couldn’t come up with anything.

Marooned:

As Mark continued walking in the soft sand moistened by the cool surf, he saw something in the distance.

It looked like a telephone pole had toppled over. That couldn’t be, Florida Power & Light didn’t erect poles on the beach.

You know, that looks like a mast, he thought. With each step closer, the cylindrical shape, the metallic texture, and heavy rigging confirmed his suspicions.

Mark stood and stared at the sailboat. He figured it was a 30 footer. Somehow, it ended up halfway up Johnson Street beach in Hollywood.

He tried to picture what might’ve happened.

After polishing off half a fifth of dark rum, the captain passed out.

While he slept, bands of thunderstorms moved in from offshore. Lightning forked across the tall clouds. Wind whipped the waves. The sailboat’s single anchor came free of the rocks and the flukes dredged a trench across the sand.

The captain, still drunk, was woken by a grinding noise. He sobered up in a second when he was tossed out of his bunk. When he went on deck and saw he was on the beach, he vomited over the side.

Mark shot some photos with his phone. Walking around the port side to get a different perspective, he saw a sticker pasted to the hull. By order of the maritime commission, the sailboat had been declared condemned and would be removed in five days.

Using one of the photos, Mark attempted to build a composite image blending the beach scene with the Normandy invasion.

For reasons he couldn’t remember, the project never got past the initial layout stages.

Walk thoughts faded. Mark was back in pandemic real time.