A Naturalist in Florida
Edited by Marjorie Harris Carr
Yale University Press, $28.50
All of us who write about science and nature while lacking credentials have encountered the species Professorum elitistum obnoxia (scientific name approximate), the expert who disdains unlearned writers and takes refuge in the sanctuary of technical language and journals. Dealing with one another is a hazard of the trade, theirs and ours. I've often thought that this attitude was a comfortable, self-righteous way to shuck the responsibility of communication. Nature is too important to be left to such scientists, which is all the more reason to be thankful for Archie Carr.
Carr, a former zoologist at the University of Florida who died in 1987, should have taught a course in nature writing for PhDs. This collection of his pieces about the exotic, extravagant fauna and flora of Florida, edited by his widow, is such writing at its best. He described the wildlife and wild places of the state he loved with a combination of scientific savvy, poetic imagery and humor, cleverly shoehorning in the thematic points. Such deviousness was necessary, Carr believed, because of the reading public's impatience with what he called "garment-rending" and "tooth-gnashing" lamentations for The Way It Used To Be.
Carr could describe a spider trying to reel in a worm ("The second legs still shared the optimism of the first. . . . But the third legs quite clearly showed diminished verve") or a hound investigating a box turtle in language that deserves to be called literature: "Hounds often drop whatever business is at hand to attend to a box turtle. One dog may stop and lie quietly, muzzle between paws, to regard a disinterested tortoise with unaccountable emotion, or even raise his head from time to time to voice his feeling in the low, soft, eerie moan of a bereaved oboe." Sometimes, he recalls, a hound would "trot brightly up and show me a box turtle that he had found, confident of applause and pained when it failed."
And here he is on the stillness of night in the live oak, Spanish moss forest, where there is "a quiet so deep you could hear a wolf spider charge a cricket across the dry oak leaves. The rustle of a spadefoot foraging was like a buck in bushes; the repeated squeak of a flying squirrel, in lingering concern over a barred owl's bellow, seemed a strident noise. The moon blazed and faded . . . and one moment the vaulted rooms of the moss forest were flooded with silver light, and next the glow-worms down at the pond edge were torch-bright in the dark."
Florida is notably hospitable to this kind of writing and meditation. I remember working on a story about alligators and having the opportunity to census gators in a Florida lake by eye-counting with rangers who could tell a gator's size by estimating the distance between its bright, orange-red nocturnal eyes. A single swing of the spotlight would turn up three or four dozen pairs of implacable eyes. Carr could identify a dozen species at night by their eyes — spiders, moths, possums, swamp rabbits and, if a "pink, moonlike light holds steady in your beam, not moving about but only blinking a bit . . . obviously the eyes of some calm, contemplative animal," spadefoot toads.
Carr's charm may be his peculiar blend of the scientist and the good ol' boy. He was a zoologist who confessed that he had "Jekyll-and-Hyde compulsions both to learn about the natural history of animals and to eat them." He was unapologetic about being a Southerner, and he had no trace of the "redneck" or "cracker" attitudes some people assume belong to the South. He knew some of those stereotypical "boys," though, and often enjoyed their company. One piece in this collection, amid the essays on carnivorous plants, turtles and alligators, describes deer hunting with a pack of hounds and his cheerfully profane friend T. J.
"There is always something," Carr writes, always "bits of the old wild left around" despite the century-long devastation of the Florida wilderness. He notes the concern among some about the spread of the great toad, a baseless worry because "a toad can't hurt people unless they bite it, and few people bite toads; those that do can be considered expendable." He finds sturgeons in the Suwannee River with temperaments so placid that they "even remain calm when dogs lick them." (A big old live oak tree without moss, he writes, is "like a bishop in his underwear.")
Only rarely, and against what seem to be his natural impulses, does Carr rise to indignation, notably when he contemplates an insidious public relations drive to convince Floridians that tidy pine forests planted by lumber companies are the same as the wilderness forests they replaced, a campaign with the amazing slogan "If You Think It's Beautiful Now, Wait Until We Chop It All Down." "In the long run," he writes, "the most destructive enemy of the natural world will turn out to be the capacity of humans not just to change nature and environment but to be persuaded to like the changes, no matter how dismal they are." It is refreshing to see Carr angry, and regrettable that he's not still around to maintain a gentle, informed and passionate watch on what we're doing to nature in Florida.
Donald Dale Jackson writes from his home in Connecticut.