Don’t get me wrong:
I love the artwork in museums.
Photos plus an audio tour
But that doesn’t mean I know what I’m looking at. That’s why the audio tour is so essential. Remember when they used to hand you a handheld device or a headset. I’m pretty sure today you just sign up with a code on your iPhone or equivalent. What I like most about the audio tour is that it makes me feel like I’m an insider, and that I’m getting secrets and being clued into little details that I would have otherwise missed.
I‘m not saying my photos are on par with the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art or even Clyde Butcher’s galleries, but every photographer has a story to tell about every photo they take that’s lost with only a simple caption or no explanation at all.
With that being said, if perchance you listen, please drop off your audio devices in the basket before exiting the website. And don’t forget to stop at the museum shop on your way out. Hint: There is no museum site, you’ll have to pretend.
Among the many mysteries of the swamp:
Cypress domes are usually not named.
That’s unusual because cypress domes are the swamp’s most iconic (or shall we say, trademark) feature by many accounts. They number in the hundreds of thousands, maybe more. But unlike lakes and bays, they remain nameless to this day. Think about it, even stars — however faint — get labeled with a number or a common name of some sort. In particularly, I’m thinking of Betelgeuse, Orion’s upper right shoulder, an orange-glowing red giant located 642 light years from earth.
Then there’s the case of the cypress strands. These are linear groves of cypress that carry the bulk of the swamp’s sheet flow. All of them are named, or all the major ones at least. In a landscape otherwise lacking geologic or topographic landmarks, strands stand out as major physiographic features that jump off the map. Major ones include Roberts Lakes, Gator Hook, Deep Lake, Cowbell, Barnes, Dayhoff and Garnett to name a few.
As good fortune would have it, the cartographers didn’t see them all, or see all of them fit to name. Or maybe in the years since the cartographers first drew up the maps the cypress grew back.
Whatever the case, it’s good to know there’s still some unnamed real estate out there in the swamp, that nobody’s ever named, and possibly never explored. A frontier then and a frontier now, the swamp is a boundless expanse that has interior regions still waiting to be defined.
Here’s to hoping they never are.
In the summer swamp, everything is green.
That gradually gives way in fall to a study in black and white.
Well, probably green and gray is a better way to describe it. Slash pine and cypress comprise the majority of the swamp, and in some places are pretty much all you see. While a connoisseur of the Big Cypress landscape can easily differentiate the cypress from the pines during the spring and summer half of the year (and for the more botanically inclined, all the other green-leafed trees, i.e. gumbo limbo, pop ash, willow and pond apple to name a few): It isn’t until mid October with the browning and then falling of the cypress needles that the boundary lines between cypress, pinelands, prairie and hammocks really start to pop.
While I may be biased, and don’t get me wrong I love the summer clouds — There’s just something super scenic about the cypress losing their needles and turning gray. Partly it’s the contrast to the perpetually green pines, but it also has something to do with the abundance of water still on the ground. October is high water season in the swamp.
Everyone raves about the fall foliage in the deciduous forest of the Northeast, but we can’t forget that cypress is a deciduous (albeit also a conifer) tree, too. South Florida may not have your traditional “leaf changing” season of multitudinous orange, yellows and reds. However, the cypress needles – by browning and falling – put on an autumnal show all their own. Better yet, it lasts quite a bit longer, too — for four months all the way to February.
But to see it in its most glorious form, you need to see it when the water is still up. Disclaimer: This may involve getting your feet wet. Water is shin to knee deep depending on where you walk in the swamp.
In sum, for me, if I had to chose: When it comes to the autumnal foliage event, I’d take the swamp’s “falling of the needles” over the continent’s “changing of the leaves” every time.
Full disclosure: My proximity to the swamp probably sways my opinion (to a degree).
My old philosophy was …
It either rained or it didn’t.
That changed when a local meteorologist introduced me to the idea of Big Rain Days (BRDs). Basically, a BRD is any day when an inch or more of rain, on average, falls across all of south Florida. If that doesn’t sound like a lot, that’s because you’re thinking “locally.” Regionally for all of south Florida, a day that produces over an inch of rain is a big event. The result: The water table usually jumps up an octave or two, using the guitar scale, and from cypress to pinelands if we’re talking specifically in the Big Cypress Swamp. On average (as shown above by the big black drops) south Florida averages 5 BRDs per year. This year is trending on the low side with just 3.
But back to my point: It’s now been many a year that I’ve classified south Florida’s rain into three tiers: (1) no rain, (2) moderate rain and (3) BRDs. Then struck my brainstorm. What about the days that just fall short, but over a consecutive 2-day period meet the “one or more inch” mark?
That’s where the new “almost BRDs (ABRDs)” come in handy. They’re shown on the graph above as the larger blue dots with the dark-blue outline. In my book, they’re as good as a low-order single-day BRD.
The new fourth category also adds an important wrinkle of detail to the above chart. Water’s peaked in September thanks to a short string of ABRDs followed immediately by a good week of no rain at all, thus leading us to the believe the summer rainy season was done. That changed in mid October with a return of summer humidity and another short string of “almost BRDs.”
That goes to show: Like a game of horseshoes, “almost” counts in hydrology, too.
How do you best describe …
Every shade of green on the swamp?
The term is called the swamp mosaic. Bright green are slash pine and palmetto. Dark green is a hardwood hammock. Brownish green are senescing cypress. It’s a bit of an optical illusion looking at the photo above. The highest ground is actually the hardwood hammock, even though it looks recessed. And the lowest ground is the cypress strand despite its appearance that it is higher up. Actually, I take that back: Even lower than the cypress is the open pond to the right. I would venture a guess that’s about 4 feet deep, about half the depth of the water in the adjacent cypress and the hammock being completely dry. And I almost forgot. About mid photo, a little to the right, is a marl prairie. It’s flooded shin deep with water.
Yes, Florida has a panhandle …
But usually its peninsula comes to mind first.
Christopher Columbus never stepped foot in Florida, (c. 1451 – 1506), let alone anywhere on the North American mainland. He got close in the Bahamas, and then sailed down to Cuba and Hispaniola which he promptly mistook for India, thus giving the natives a name that still sticks: Indians; even if the name “New India” never took hold.
In steps Amerigo Vespucci (c. 1454 – 1512). He took sail seven years after Columbus, was only a visitor (not a captain), and only saw the south American coast yet somehow it’s his name that made it on the map for the two continents that formed the “new found lands.”
Newfoundland, of course, was discovered Leif Ericson (c. 970 – c. 1020) who outflanked both Columbus and Vespucci by 500 years where he set up a Viking camp in Vinland to (among other things) grow grapes. Had only he landed in Florida he could have grown oranges instead. Although that’s not a hundred (or even fifty) percent true: Florida conspicuously devoid of oranges when Juan Ponce De Leon (c. 1474 – 1521) first set eyes on it in 1512, the same year that Vespucci died. The Puerto Rican governors interests lay not in citrus, but water -– and the “Fountain of Youth” to be exact.
He never found it, but he was looking in the right place given the bounty of Florida’s first order magnitude springs. And he also gave Florida its name, with the important caveat (as mapped above) that he wasn’t thinking “just about the peninsula” — he had the greater continental landmass in mind. It has a nice ring to it, and had a cartographer so long ago only penned the map differently, it may very well have been …
The United States of Florida!
What’s the right speed …
When you’re driving through nature?
Getting there fast is overrated
Answer: Somewhere between the velocity of the Tortoise and the Hare. And if we’ve learned anything from that fable: Going slower actually gets you there first. (Just ask the poor hare – he’s never won once! Once of these days the Hare is going to wisen up and challenge the Tortoise to a sprint.)
Reminder: Wherever you drive, forget to to keep a vigilant eye out for both, especially in roads that traverse conservation lands. Rabbits and turtles call those places home, and both too frequently are common roadkill.
Other advantages of going slow?
- It increases your time to think and decompress.
- More quality radio and audio book listening time.
- You lead by example by showing other people how to drive.
- Driving the speed limit is safer.
- You probably save on gas.
P.S. And if run across any litter, pick it up. It does a place well to see it litter free.
Have you ever started on a topic …
Only to get distracted on a different path?
Brought to you by Firelight Radio
I started off trying to talk about geology, but the next thing I knew I was rambling on about a tree. But not just any tree! And that’s when it suddenly dawned on me: cypress trees first took root in south Florida in the footprint of the Lake Okeechobee some six thousand years ago. None of those trees are still living today, but there is one special cypress tree on the outskirts of Lake Okeechobee that may very well be the most famous tree of all. The only problem: it got stuck on the wrong side of the levee. In this podcast, I explore the options for connecting the “lone cypress” with the larger ecosystem. And BTW: the Firelight Radio podcast is hosted by a guitar, i.e. you can’t have a nature-folk movement without a guitar by a campfire … that’s just obvious.
South Florida has one wet season …
But the final tallies vary geographically.
For example, Lake Okeechobee usually gets the lowest amount of wet season rain, around 33 inches. Compare that to the Lower East Coast (Miami), Big Cypress and Southwest Coast that averages 43 inches of wet season rain. South Florida Wide, the number falls somewhere in between at around 38 inches. For water drop counting purposes, we compute wet season rain for the six-month period from the start of May to the end of October. Thus, it’s too early to call the final tally yet, but we are pretty close so it’s worth taking a look. As stands, we’re a little below the typical average. That could still yet change, as the clouds have until Halloween to get their final drops in.
BTW: October is better understood as a transition month between the wet and dry season, but we lump its entirety into the wet season rainfall tally for book keeping purposes, and to be consistent from year to year.
October is a “hit or miss” rainfall month.
It alternates between bountiful and barely any rain at all.
The reason? Blame it on tropical moisture. With the rain machine shutting down in the first week or so of the month, the remainder depends on the last gasp of whatever the tropics have left. Over the long-haul, October falls right in the middle with four inches of rain. That’s half as much as a core summer month and twice as much as a typical 30-day dry season span. But don’t let the long-term average confuse you. It’s an imaginary number. Yes, some years we get about 4 inches on the nose. But usually October picks a side. All it takes is one big rain to give the wet season new life. Or a run of dry weeks to slide the dry season into an early start.
So will this October be a trick or a treat? Answer: We won’t know for sure until October 31st, Halloween.
Tides are highly predictable …
But also confusing on Naples Beach, Florida.
The reason: Blame the moon and sun and the position of the shoreline. The tidal cycle is semi diurnal – giving us 2 high tides and two low tides per day. But sometimes the highs are really high (i.e. high-highs) and the lows are really low (i.e. low-lows) and other times the lows and highs are in between (i.e. low-highs and high-lows) which look like a camel’s back (see above). In a nutshell, I still can’t figure it out other than tides are higher and lower during full and new moons. Even more confusing than the tides is the longshore current. Unlike where I grew up in Maryland where the longshore current always flowed south, on Naples Beach it reverses from one day to the next.
It’s a long summer in south Florida …
And then suddenly like a flip of a switch the rains stop.
At least that’s how it seemed a week ago.
The late September slug of air had us convinced the summer rain machine had shut down for the year. Ten days later more humid air has returned, and the rain machine has even shown some signs of life. But the bigger picture is it’s starting to sputter off. Usually by Columbus Day (early-mid October), the winter dry season has begun even if from a monthly book-keeping sense we wait until November 1st to start the official dry season clock.