Sunday, August 10, 2008

In Search of Ghosts (Orchids)


Recently I went on an Everglades Hike with the Florida Native Plant Society to look for a Ghost Orchid. I know nothing about plants and know nobody in the organization, but the prospect of a nature hike through the Everglades in search of a rare plant (the same elusive Orchid that was at the root of the film ADAPTATION) seemed like a neat thing to do on a sunny Saturday morning. The emailed instructions were clear: Bring a walking stick. Wear shoes you don't mind trudging through knee-deep mud (and bring back-up footwear for afterwards). Be aware that there will likely be snakes. Snakes???

So Sue and I drove west along Alligator Alley to the appointed meeting area. We gathered with the rest of the group and followed them down an unmarked dirt road driving five miles into the Everglades. Along the road we saw many alligators in the canal alongside, and at one point a few deer came charging out of the woods on the other side. Yep, it was going to be a nature hike!

After parking our cars by a trail entrance, we walked. Jack, our guide, wore a well-worn hand held GPS device from a lanyard around his neck, the modern day equivalent of the compass mounted on plastic I once carried as a Boy Scout. Before we were too far down the trail, away from our vehicles, Jack once again reminded us that the Everglades is a swamp, that we will be trudging through mud that could be knee deep in places... and that there will likely be snakes, so keep your eyes open and watch where you step before you step. He instructed us to use the walking sticks not so much for walking, but rather to poke the mud ahead of us to ward off unseen slithery friends.

I turned to Sue, "Who's idea was this, anyway???"

We trudged on. After walking ninety minutes or so, Jack informed us we were ready to head off the visible trail and into the swamp. At this point, we were to be relying on Jack's familiarity with the area, and his dangling GPS, upon which he had marked a few waypoints where he thought we'd have a good chance of spotting a ghost.


Ghost Orchids are apparently very rare indeed. They only bloom in optimal conditions, and then only during two weeks a year. Many seasoned botanists have never seen one in bloom in the wild. Perhaps many seasoned botanists are much smarter than I am and know better than to invade the murky habitat of cottonmouth water moccasins.

As we got to the point where the mud was calf deep, and every cautious step resulted in an audible "THWUP" as my foot was plucked from the muck, Jack started to call out the snakes as he saw them, and led us on a circuitous route through the swamp to avoid their path. At one point, we had to walk through the mud while about two yards away, two large cottonmouths lounged on some rocks amidst the winding root system of an old tree. As the sun dipped in and out between the tall vegetation of our jungle-like environ, it was hard to make out which bits of thick roundness were the snakes and which were the tree's tentacle like roots. Suddenly, it was easier to tell, as one of the snakes lithely slipped into the water, just a few feet away.

Now what? Do I concern myself with the snake(s) in the water that I cannot see, or do I remain focused on the snake I can see, and ensure that I do not disturb it and potentially provoke an attack. I chose the latter, slowly sludging by, keeping close tabs on even the slightest movements of it's slithery scales. We passed safely, our encounters with the snakes remaining only visual, and our adrenalin levels admittedly on the high side.

Eventually, we came across a beautiful Ghost in full bloom. Jack, and the budding botanists of the Native Plant Society were abuzz and in awe. They had found the holy grail they sought! I, on the other hand, was thinking about the snakes, and the lesson I had learned. Don't worry so much about the challenges you cannot see, and thus perhaps cannot control. Rather, stay focused on the challenges you can see, and focused, you can conquer them.

Which snakes/challenges are you focused on?

Here is an Animoto video from the pictures I took on my Quest For The Ghost Orchid:

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