Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Transitioning from the Florida Keys to the Piedmont of NC

One of the last wildlife visits I made while still in in the Keys was to my favorite tourist attraction--the Key West Aquarium. With quaint charm like no other aquarium I know (it was built by the Works Project Administration of the federal government during the depression in the early 1930s), it is a not-to-be-missed destination for any tourist. The wall murals and architecture are reason enough to visit, but for such a small facility the collection of aquatic life is also remarkable. The aquarium's size allows visitors a personal experience. Patti, the enthusiastic and knowlegeable interpretor, makes certain the experience is a memorable one for all. On this cold February day, Patti wanted no visitor to miss the chance to interact with an alligator. So she walked around the aquarium speaking to her guests, carrying baby gator Chris (who wears a jacket in the cold because alligators cannot regulate their body temperature).

(Remember in most cases you can click the photos to enlarge them.)

The Keys, like the rest of the country, experienced extreme temperatures this winter resulting in the death of countless fish, turtles, and even coral. Birds suffered also, especially pelicans. Fortunately, many cold-stunned animals were rescued and saved through super-human efforts. These fortunate sea turtles were kept warm in kiddie pools under blankets or heat lamps at the Marathon Turtle Hospital .

In addition to mining the brains of naturalists and environmentalists, I visited with readers interested in Island Sting at many venues while I traveled. One super cold night I spoke with folks during outdoor movie night at the National Key Deer Refuge. All of us were bundled up in down coats. Unbelievable! Still, I received a warm reception as we ate popcorn, schmoozed, and enjoyed every image on the old fashioned folding screen while it buckled and flapped in the oh-so-un-Keysy bitter wind. It was the first time I'd seen film footage of the heroic Jack Watson, a determined cowboy-spirited ranger credited with saving the toy deer from extinction in the 1950s.

I also enjoyed visiting Florida Keys Community College and the Key West Public Library. Thanks to all the enthusiastic readers out there! When I reached the mainland, I met fellow author Alexandra Diaz (Of All the Stupid Things, Egmont, 2010) . What a lovely lady! We read and signed at one of my favorite independent bookstores, Books & Books, in Coral Gables, FL.

While I was in Coral Gables, I visited the canal where each winter the manatees congregate to wait out cold spells. During their winter migration to warm water, they are protected by enforcing lower speed limits on boats and in some cases, by banning boat traffic completely. When I arrived at this annual manatee hangout in the midst of one of the coldest winters on record, I witnessed an amazing sight--more manatees than I'd ever seen in one place before. It's a surprise to learn that such large marine mammals do not have the body fat that whales and seals have to protect them from the cold. In addition to all the other marine life that perished this season, the harsh winter of 2010 resulted in the death of many Florida manatees. But this herd was doing well in a canal warmed by groundwater seepage. Sadly, even in this lovely canal, trash found its way on top of one of these gentle creatures.

I'm home now in NC as the first signs of spring are popping. You must search for them, but the tips of daffodils and tulips are poking above ground. My sad, brown garden depresses me until I remember my visit to the community gardens in Key West on my last island day. In the archives of BonnieBlogsGreen (August, 2009, I posted about green teens who work in community gardens across the country. Was I ever thrilled to find one such amazing new garden in Key West! Please visit their Wicki for an inspirational video about building the garden.

This garden is an admirable example of how government and individuals young and old can work together to improve the lives and health of a community. In the photo, Jody Smith Williams prepares palm fronds for the garden's chipper. The fronds become one of many components in the compost gardeners use to grow organic food. You can learn much more about this wonderful project at

Today, as I stare out my window at brown grass and browner garden plots, I have two reasons to smile. While the gardens in Key West wind down, mine are ready to be prepared for the bounty to come. And I was blessed to have interacted with so many environmental champions while traveling to launch my novel Island Sting and research the next. There are many more hands caring for Mother Earth than we will ever know. They are too super-busy to tell their own stories. I'm super happy to do it for them.

May your spring be productive and green.