The Glades of Youth
I’m pleased to publish this piece about growing up in Homestead in the 1950s. The author, Paul McHugh, is the son of George and Delphine McHugh and he grew up in an oak hammock not far from South Dade High School. His father, George, was a general contractor, a member of the Homestead Power Squadron and a real estate assessor for Coral Gables Federal Savings and Loan. He was the brother of Julia McHugh Morton, a well-known authority on tropical fruits. Paul has written four books and many articles on the environment. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area. — Jeff Blakley
By Paul McHugh
Simply to recall the sounds that bled out of our woods at night is to summon a tiny hint of South Florida’s botanical and biological grandeur. I don’t mean now. I mean the way it was back then, in the Fifties, as I grew up in a rural area dubbed the Redlands. This region is located roughly midway between Miami and Key Largo.
On our full moon eves during summer, frogs would ratchet with abandon, insects whirr and click, night birds call, breezes sigh. Our entire biome seethed with a mingled panoply of “critter” music that soared beyond the symphonic in its delectable, sensual complexity.
Sometimes, moved by a mysterious prompt, one segment of that native orchestra would fall utterly silent. Thus signaled, all other parts also quit, whereupon a heavy stillness unrolled across the landscape, like a vast and humid caul. This suspenseful silence often lasted through more than a few of my heartbeats. Finally, faintly, off in the distance, some big boss frog would emit a bass rurp! And the whole whirligig calliope of swamp noises erupted, flooding in once more through the glass slats of an open jalousie window. This revived geyser of sound poured in with such vigor and vibrancy, it felt as though it could float me right up off my bed…
My family dwelt in a live oak hammock, a sort of grove or islet of higher terrain mainly peopled by moss-draped hardwoods. It was surrounded by pine forests, themselves bracketed by a few long, marshy arms of swamp. To say that we were just three or four miles away from the town of Homestead might render the level of wildness I describe seem ludicrous now, perhaps unbelievable.
I would remind a skeptic that back then Homestead was a mere pioneer village of just a few thousand souls. The dominant inhabitants of the region were its animals of air and grove, of slough and bay. The drive up to Miami required a lengthy run on a narrow road that wove through thirty miles of critter-thronged brush.
Our swampland cornucopia poured forth an abundance of bird life, with its overall character tailored to each season. In autumn, I recall a chorus of whippoorwills echoing through our woods. And in winter, we enjoyed the coo of doves by day, and the sonorous hoots of great horned owls by night. In early spring, migratory northern songbirds awakened with the dawn, then serenaded us also into wakefulness. Summer brought dense clouds of dragonflies, whereupon nighthawks made their roaring dives down through the sky to snatch them in their beaks and gobble ‘em up.
A major boyhood pastime for me was “conquering” all major oaks in our woods by seeking to climb to their upper branches – a project to which I applied the grit of a mountaineer intent on knocking off a menu of Himalayan peaks. That led to one of my major entertainments. I found that if I made my ascents just after sunrise or just before sunset, I could perch on thin branches jutting above the forest canopy and watch vast flocks of birds flying into and out of the Everglades. The most spectacular moments came when they flew right at me. I could see them coming in a dark feathered sheet that undulated just above the treetops. A seam ripped open in the flock’s fabric as the birds whizzed past my head, slightly altering flight paths no more than they would for a bark-rooted orchid. They didn’t expect to see a human being way up there, and consequently did not treat me as though I might be one. Exhilarating!
Other remarkable swampland denizens visited us on the forest floor; some a bit more welcome than others. I recall my father shotgunning a rattlesnake out in front of the house when I was four, and when I was six, I went into the bathroom to find a water moccasin coiled around the base of our toilet. He dispatched that intruder with a fireplace poker. When I was ten, I and my brothers opened the front door, and a highly venomous coral snake dropped down from its top jamb. A swiftly delivered boot heel solved that particular problem.
Far more benign were our giant blacksnakes. These serpent gods seemed ultimately regal, yet amazingly gentle. They writhed through the woods with authority and grace. Whenever I spotted them, it seemed they were journeying – focused on a far distant goal. We kids would caper around these immense, indigo snakes in a sort of dazed awe. They never really bothered us, nor we them. Instead, they’d pause in their travels while briefly fixing us with an obsidian eye.
For me, that glossy black bead staring back at me was an aperture to an alien world, one in which I thought I saw a tiny glint of amusement.
If I attempt to tell modern biologists how giant these blacksnakes were, they scoff. Yet I do vividly recall one individual who stretched all the way across a two-lane road, with both ends of it disappearing into the brush.
No portrait of wildlife in South Florida back in the day can be complete without a paean to our bugs. To explain how abundantly and persistently and avidly we got bugged, here’s my top metaphor. If you saw a person strolling down a pathway in summer, he’d always resemble an exclamation point or question mark. The small dot was the person, and all the rest of the symbol would be a cloud of bugs above and around him. Most of our outings were accompanied by gnats, sandflies, ants, spiders, ticks, wasps, native bees, flies, chiggers, scorpions, a near-infinite supply of mosquitoes, and yet more fellow-travelers also eager to bite, but far too numerous to cite. Back then, I leaked trickles of blood and lymph as if my lumped hide were as holed as a colander, both from the bug nips, and my attempts to apply first aid to them with the sole tools I had available – my fingernails.
However, now, perhaps I should try to extrude some gratitude. Throughout my boyhood, I got bitten, stung, scratched, soiled and muddied so extravagantly by my environment that today I seem to enjoy a rather robust immune system. (I hear kids today, interacting mainly with their smartphones while doing diddly-squat in the outdoors, fail to enjoy a similar advantage – hence their soaring rate of allergies.)
But the most important legacy from halcyon years in Florida’s then-lush biome was my durable veneration of nature’s beauty and her potency. That force has inspired and guided and instructed me throughout life.
Due to it, I’ve long made war – in the strongest yet most peaceful manner I’ve been able to devise – on those who poison, raze, exploit and pollute or otherwise proceed to heedlessly trash our precious natural home. A few times I did that in direct action campaigns. However, mostly I did so by wielding a pen, reporting for decades on ecological and resource issues. So as to avoid being a total scold, I also sought to celebrate vigorous sport activity and adventuring in what was left of our natural realm.
Did I make a difference? Hell, who knows! Perhaps a small, yet a measurable one. No matter the result, I feel all right about honoring and remaining true to my early and most profound sentiments – acquired at an early age in that live oak hammock.
Meanwhile, humanity races madly onward to its evolutionary bottleneck. And we drag countless other species along with us toward a time of rigorous accounting, and of potential calamity. To me, that moment of terrible reckoning now seems too close for comfort.
I seldom return to my home hammock (which my dad, in one of his rare fits of grace, named Acrux, after a star in the Southern Cross). When I do, each visit provides me with a vision of what once was, and what could be again. It also offers a swift and sobering reminder of how many natural wonders have already been subtracted with such ruthlessness from our world.
The rich wildlife zone I felt privileged to live within, today’s young can scarcely imagine.
On a visit back to Acrux, on an October night in the mid-1990s, I stood outside our old house, considering that far too many years had passed since I’d managed to hear even a single whippoorwill’s song. And as I pondered that, amazingly, one did call. (Most likely I’d heard it first subliminally, which is why I’d even gone outside and had begun meditating upon the topic.)
The night bird’s ritual trill seemed almost the cry of a ghost. It came from so far away, it was so isolated. No other whippoorwill answered, as they did in times past. Me, I didn’t hesitate to respond. I set out upon a shadowy forest path I still knew from my youth, left the hammock behind, went through one of the last belts of scrub pines and palmettos, came out onto a roadway, crossed a canal bridge. I walked for more than a mile in the darkness as the call waxed louder and louder.
Finally, I homed in on the bird itself. But I drew so near that it grew wary and ceased to call. Didn’t care, I felt I had a good and worthy plan. I sat, leaned my back against a scrub pine’s rough and scabby trunk and simply waited. Minutes ticked by, can’t say how many. But, no worries. All the world’s time lay cupped right there, at rest in the palm of my hand.
And the whippoorwill began again to sing. Its cry was so pure, so clear, so lovely and so close that shivers rippled along my spine. I could take its song into my mind and soul with the avidity of a wanderer who after a string of sweltering days crosses a shaded oasis and is able to gulp from a miraculous well of cool water.
This last, lost call of a solo night bird afflicted me with great sadness. I mourned the whippoorwill’s loneliness. Oddly, though, its cry also gave me hope. For I saw right then, and I also think now, that our wild world is far more durable and resilient than any one set of its forms. If humanity should vanish into a jumbled heap of ash and mendacity and greed and bone fragments, our earth will collect herself, brood for a bit, and then emit many new lives in fresh shapes.
One day in the future, something like panther tracks may again be found in the rain-softened marl of a swampland path. Or of an evening, galaxies of fireflies may drift again under dense beards of something that resembles Spanish moss. And once more, whippoorwills call to one another across a shaded landscape.
When that happens, I hope highly aware younglings of some other species will also be present, to hear and see and deeply value all of it.
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Thanks for sharing, one of the best things about living in this area is being able to still visit a hardwood hammock. Most hammocks have been lost to development – only small patches of habitats are left in South Florida.