Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Appreciate Where You're At

Most of us have a tendency to think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. This makes us fail to see the beauty that exists all around us, here, where we stand, in the now. A similar tendency/failure goes by the name "not stopping to smell the roses."

I know I just used two cliches in one paragraph, but cliches become cliches because they are true, not because they are false... and I am positive that if we would stop falling prey to these two, the world would be a happier place.

Everyone who has spent more than the briefest period of time around me knows I would rather not live in Florida. That probably sounds insane to people from up North, but all I know is that I love mountains, and Florida (not Kansas) is literally the flattest of these fifty United States. I also know that while I love four seasons and enjoy snow, this state has but two seasons (one scorching, one mild) and it was 40 years ago when my home city last saw an accumulation of snow (it totaled a whole whopping half-inch!). This situation often makes me grumble, but then I see the yellow blossoms of our alamanda, or witness the flame red clouds of our sky at dawn, and I remember that God placed beauty everywhere on the globe, not just the bumpy parts.

Two Saturdays ago was one of those "chamber of commerce days" with baby blue sky, low 80's for temps, and little humidity. Erika and Sarah headed out to the Strawberry Festival to watch Maddie & Tae perform a concert in what used to be a high school football stadium, and Parker and I headed out to Philippe Park, where my parents use to take me when I was his age back in the 1970's.

Philippe Park occupies a slender, 122-acre slice of green on the northwest shore of Tampa Bay, right at the wide mouth where the outflow from Lake Tarpon empties into it. Unlike most waterfront property around here, it has some vertical relief and rises above the water rather than sitting right beside it at equal elevation. Old live oaks shade the grounds, large and arching and pleasing to the eye.

Seeing as how one of us is five years old, we hit the playground first:

Before long we made our way downhill (!) where Parker ran along the waterfront sidewalk and pointed to things he saw. I wasn't happy that the sidewalk has a railing that wasn't there in my youth (screw you, Safety Nazis) but at least he had fun:

The sidewalk took us to a burial mound that was used by the Tocobaga Indians in the 1500's and perhaps earlier. With centuries having passed since then, it is now a prominent oak-shaded hill rising more than two stories over its base, overlooking the water. A twin switchback stairway leads to the top. Not interested in paying respects to the dead, Parker hauled ass up the stairs like there was Olympic gold waiting for whoever "summitted" first:

But I can't criticize, for when I was a tyke I used to run to the top and then roll all the way down the grassy slope to the bottom. Boys will be boys. At least Parker paused his ascent and posed for a photo when asked:

However, the morning's big prize was awaiting when we descended the mound on the side opposite the water. There, smack dab in a parking area in front of the women's restroom, was a cluster of photographers lugging pricey cameras and powerful lenses, all of which looked larger than 800 mm. The object of their attention was a great horned owl perched on one of the upper branches of what appeared to be the park's biggest tree -- and, perched on a lower branch in another part of the tree, her fluffy, light gray chick.

Mama Owl was very, very high up (so high that pics from my cell phone aren't worth posting, even taken at maximum zoom and then cropped) but even so, she still looked insanely huge to the naked eye, easily the biggest owl I've ever seen. The baby's plumage made it obvious it was a baby, yet it too was no slouch and looked to be larger than an adult screech owl.

'Twas lunchtime when we returned to the car, and when I asked Parker what he wanted to do next, he said "go to the turtle tunnel," by which he meant go to Brooker Creek Preserve. When a kid wants to revel in the outdoors you don't say no, so we stopped by Wendy's for a carb load and then staked out for the afternoon leg of Daddy-Parker Day.

Brooker Creek Preserve can be called an "island of wilderness," meaning it is surrounded by civilization. That phrase is overused by enviro-religionists who mistakenly believe they know science, but in this case the phrase fits, for the preserve sits within Florida's most densely populated county, within America's 14th largest media market, yet it sprawls across 8,000 acres of diverse habitat. Though several miles of hiking trails wend through it, deer and coyotes and bobcats can conceivably live their entire lives here without ever seeing a human.

A short walk from the parking area is a nice nature center with a larger-than-life, man-made replica of a burrow dug by a gopher tortoise. Inside, the tunnel is complete with "subterranean" roots hanging from the ceiling and wall paintings of other animals, such as rattlesnakes, that are known to take up residence in abandoned tortoise burrows. Kids enter at one end and crawl through to exit the other. This attraction is why Parker refers to all of Brooker Creek as "the turtle tunnel," but he knows it's only a drop in the bucket, and after he crawled through it a few times (and played with a boar's skull and felt a raccoon pelt and examined some insects under a microscope and convinced me to buy four plastic bugs for a dollar) we returned outside to walk some of the paths and boardwalks.

Though the cypress remained barren, yet to awake from their winter slumber, many other trees were flaunting the bright foliage of early spring well before their northerly cousins could do the same:

One of Brooker Creek's shortest paths, the Birding Trail, led to a very fitting climax after branching off of another trail and traveling less than two-tenths of a mile. It ends at a power line break which cuts a swath through the forest, and there you will find a wooden bird blind. When we arrived a telescope was set up inside the blind, aimed south.

The power lines are of course strung between steel towers for as far as the eye can see. Glancing south along the route of the lines, there was nothing different about any of the towers to grab the attention of your naked eye, though it did look like there might be something small, perhaps a blackbird, sitting on one of them in the distance. Fortunately, the telescope revealed the reality that you otherwise would have missed: That spot which looked like it "might be something small, perhaps a blackbird," was not small at all and was actually a bald eagle.

Looking through the scope, we saw our nation's symbol up close in all her glory, perched on the steel beside her nest and surveying her domain. Her breast feathers flapped in the breeze. She turned and offered a perfect side profile. She turned back and gave a frontal view, then bent forward and dipped her head into a shallow walled area where the nest sits (according to the naturalist who was there). Her beak was not visible behind the wall when her head was dipped, but her shoulders seemed to be flexing and her head seemed to be moving up and down. It looked like she was feeding chicks, but who knows?

What I was struck by as the afternoon ended was that Florida, despite my complaints, has a lot going for it. Viewing wildlife is one of the main reasons I like being in the outdoors, and Florida, even within the metropolitan area where I live, happens to be one of Amerca's best places for doing that. I say this as someone who has been to Yellowstone and Jackson Hole and the Front Range, has hiked Washington's rain forests, has experienced California's bountiful Point Reyes, and been to Cades Cove countless times. I do not make the statement lightly.

I work in an office complex that is home to Fortune 500 companies, and the other week I saw a baby alligator in the pond that sits between my employer's two buildings. Gopher tortoises and sandhill cranes are thought of as threatened, but I encounter the former frequently and the latter every single flippin' day.

I am not exaggerating when I say I see at least a dozen ospreys per day (and sometimes way more than a dozen) simply driving to work and back. Pretty soon swallow-tailed kites, kings of all soaring birds, will return here from their wintering grounds in South America and I will see them riding our air waves until they depart before winter arrives.

South of Gainesville stetches Payne's Prairie, which is home to wild bison and wild horses.

Ocala National Forest is home to double the number of bears as Yosemite National Park, despite being only half the size.

Our waterfowl species are big and colorful and plentiful, from roseatte spoonbills to tricolored herons to ibis to gallinules.

And I've only been talking about our animals, and our non-marine ones at that. I have not said a word about our wide beaches or languid rivers... nor have I mentioned the sweet aroma of orange blossoms that scents our air in the spring, nor have I mentioned Lake Okeechobee, the second-largest of all lakes wholly within U.S. borders... or the delicious strawberries that ripen during winter, or the steepside ravines that border the Apalachicola River, or the moist woods and cascading waters which adorn the steep walls of that ancient sinkhole known as Devil's Millhopper.

If you are a Floridian who, like me, despises our inhumane summers and lack of vertical topography, please take a breath and count the multitude of blessings that our state does offer. The things I mentioned only scratch the surface.

If you live in the Big Apple and feel like nature is far away, be aware that peregrine falcons call Manhattan home and the Catskills are right around the corner.

If you live in Arizona and wish there were more trees, take a moment to appreciate how the sun paints your desert rocks in vivid hues every time it rises and sets.

If you live in Kansas and have fallen for Hollywood's "flat and gray" depiction of your state, take some time to explore the rolling splendor of the Flint Hills.

Wherever you are, there sights to behold and outdoor fun to be had. Go have that fun and do so with your spouse, kids, grandkids, whomever.

God-given beauty surrounds mankind at every turn, in every place. Failing to notice and appreciate it is a major human problem, one that causes our souls to die a little bit each day.

The good news is this: It's a problem that can easily be avoided and reversed, merely by stepping outside with searching eyes and an open heart.

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