Fun things to do with a broken back!

Faithful readers may remember that in June of this year the Weazel broke his back in a remote part of Tennessee while searching for Beelzebub’s bodacious bunghole.

One might reasonably suppose that such a disaster at age 71 would bring an end to a lifetime of lunatic adventures, but no. In fact, it didn’t even hurt, and after  the accident I continued to camp for eight more days, chopped firewood, lifted heavy stones to look for salamanders, and undertook numerous arduous hikes and swims. I knew something was wrong, but it was only after my return and a subsequent X-ray that I learned my back was really broken.

The knowledge that I was badly injured was worse than the injury itself. I was under doctor’s orders to cool my heels for a minimum of two months lest I risk further injury, or perhaps even become a paraplegic. That meant no real exercise, especially dangerous activities like caving or mountain biking.

Worst of all, I had to discontinue the therapeutic exercises necessary to fully recover from my left rotator cuff surgery earlier in the year. My spine didn’t hurt, but everything around it did. My left shoulder went south, and my right unoperated shoulder went straight to Hell.

A subsequent MRI revealed that my right rotator cuff was a gaping wound, the tendons were shredded, the affected muscles had retreated by an inch, and my biceps was completely detached. Only will power allowed me to raise my right arm, but will power is useless against an inability to sleep.

The days were a drag, but the nights were pure agony. The pain would begin the moment I lay down, then peak toward dawn after a sleepless night. Despite the fact that rotator cuff surgery is considered to be one of the most painful possible operations, worse than knee or hip surgery, I was eager to go under the knife one more time, anything to get this anno horribilis behind me! (Note to non Latin speakers: Anno horribilis means “horrible year”, not “horrible asshole”!)

But my surgeon would hear none of it. I had to be fully recovered from my broken back before he would touch me. That meant that I had three months to kill while waiting to be whacked at the beginning of October.

What should a fellow awaiting the gallows to do? Why have fun of course! So, here are a few of the many things I did with a broken back.

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On those summer days when the temperature was somewhere south of 100 degree in the shade I went on long walks all over north Florida. It pleases me to reflect that I am now, even in my dotage, walking further and more often than I ever walked when I was young and strong.

Among other adventures I was pleased to rediscover the Florida trail. Before my broken back and ruined shoulders I had only explored the trail by mountain bike (which is technically against the rules). One of my favorite stretches is the section along the Suwannee river downstream of White springs.

The Suwannee river near White Springs, FL

Much of north Florida has been blessed with abundant rain, so I was dismayed to see that the river had been reduced to a trickle, all because the weather is so damned fickle! I couldn’t even find a proper swimming hole until I saw a sign proclaiming, “Danger no swimming, alligators”, so needless to say I took a dip.

Later in the season Dr. Ann and I snuck into the Suwannee from the north by following a small creek reputed to have karst features including a disappearing stream and a window into the underworld. We followed the scenic stream into an ever deepening canyon.

Camp branch

The forest was beautiful, more Appalachian than Floridian, there were even beautiful beech trees. After about a mile we turned a corner to discover that the stream had disappeared!

It goes!

Dr. Ann is famous for wedging herself into nasty wet holes smaller than herself, but in this instance she declined the honor. A few hundred yards away we found another window into the underworld.

A typical karst window

And shortly beyond that the Suwannee itself, which in this area features vertical limestone cliffs and snowy sandbars perfect for camping!

How I love ya , how I love ya, my dear old Suwanneeeeee!

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The Weazel is well known for never getting lost, and it is true that thus far I have gotten home every time, but there have been some “temporary” exceptions.

One late afternoon I decided to hike part of a seven mile loop trail north of Crystal river, a place I had been before. It is my usual habit to attempt to remain alert and observant while walking, but this time I was walking purely for exercise, so I poked a toke, plugged in my earphones, and bopped on down the trail oblivious to where I was going.

Between Crystal river and the nuke plant

The way was wet, and along the way I was pleased to find a blue garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis similis), the first I had seen in years.

A Florida blue garter snake

The sun was ready to set, but I had yet to pass any of several known landmarks, so I turned around. Long after the sun had set I came to a sign clearly pointing to the parking lot, but I ignored it because I thought I knew where I was. Wrong! So I continued on into the night, aided only by a failing light. Eleven miles later I actually arrived back at my car.

So, the moral of the story is that you are only lost when you think you are lost, and you are never lost if you eventually find your way back!

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Most summer days were so hot that floods of sweat would drown the mosquitoes. Nothing crawls when it is like that, so there weren’t many snakes to be seen except for moccasins.

As previously reported in Brokeback mountain Part 1: The toy town of Juliette, a monstrous moccasin has moved to Weazelworld. I had supposed that he would gobble up a few frogs and continue on his way, but it seems he has decided to stay. Like many wild things he feels welcome here.

Mighty Moc, my yard moccasin

I have found more than a dozen moccasins this summer, but Mighty Moc is the biggest and baddest by far. We have become old friends, and now he won’t even bother to show me his toothy grin. He lives in my front yard so I can say hello anytime.

Mighty Moc might be mighty big, but he is not huge. Those with a morbid interest in huge deadly monsters may wish to wallow in the mud with the fat fellow below.

Another notable monster was the Velociraptor that I found prowling the grounds of a vegetarian restaurant. As we all know, vegetarian food is tasteless pablum, but vegetarians themselves taste great!

Velociraptor seen at Curia on the Drag

Peregrinations in the panhandle revealed a healthy population of pygmy rattlesnakes, along with several coachwhips and other harmless species.

Pygmy rattlesnake

Hickory mound was especially productive of herps. The impoundment of several tidal creeks resulted in an ecosystem that is extraordinarily full of life. Below you see a mix of fresh and brackish water vegetation. If it were not for the impoundment the trees seen in the distance would already be dead from recent anthropogenically induced sea level rise.

Hickory mound

While fishing (not catching) along the low dike that separates the fresh water from the salt, a nice family who had been crabbing on the freshwater side called to ask for help. They had caught something rather larger than expected!

Do not feed the alligators!

Crabbing would seem to be a harmless activity. All you have to do is to lower a chicken neck or other piece of meaty bait into brackish water, then scoop up the crabs with a net. Needless to say, if you do this in a place with alligators they will find the bait.

The poor beast seen above is wrapped in at least five different fishing and crabbing lines. There is a wad of rotten meat and fishing lures in front of its nose, and another lodged in its throat. Who knows what is in its stomach?Despite the fact that the animal had a zero chance of survival, I tried to rescue it, not an easy thing to do with an angry alligator!

After much wrangling we pulled it to shore. I carefully cut several of the lines with the tip of a sharp machete before it broke free, but that still left it completely entangled with other lines and its mouth full of treble hooks. There is no question but that it will suffer a long and agonizing death.

About a week later I happened to stop by the Paynes prairie overlook on route 441 just south of Hogtown. The blessed rains of the past three years have turned Paynes prairie back into a lake for the first time in over a century. At the end of the boardwalk leading to the overlook I found a young couple fishing. I was just there to enjoy the sunset so I paid them no attention despite the fact that they kept talking about an alligator. The prairie has thousands of alligators, so I presumed they were talking about a small one somewhere out in the lake.

Just to be neighborly I walked over to say hello, and to ask about the alligator since I didn’t see any. They pointed straight down. There, less than two feet away, directly beneath our feet, was the head of an unbelievably enormous alligator that was lying beneath the dock. It was easily twelve feet long! They were bouncing lumps of liver off its nose.

“Stop that!” I said, “It is against the law to feed alligators, and it doesn’t need any more hooks in its mouth. What if it gets mad?” Needless to say the  couple was affronted. They considered it just another example of an elderly white man telling young black people what to do, so they left in disgust.

This puts the Weazel in a pickle. I am all in favor of people enjoying the outdoors, and the ongoing epidemic of “Nature deficit disorder” disproportionately affects black people above all others. (Though so called “millennials”, often seen as “green”, are equally averse to actually experiencing nature.)

It is a sad fact that black people rarely venture deep in the woods, much less to places like Hickory mound which is fifty miles from the nearest city, so I made it a point to thank the family who had helped me attempt to rescue the alligator. They were trying to do the right thing. I did, however, point out the large sign directly in front of them warning that discarded fishing line was injurious to wildlife. Other signs warned against feeding alligators.

That was when I noticed that the dock, which had been built specifically to facilitate crabbing and fishing, was covered with abandoned crab lines that had been tied to the railing. Every single one had been cut. (Crab line is too strong to be broken by hand.) It was obvious that each of these cut lines represented an unfortunate encounter with an alligator.

Part of the problem is a cultural divide. Sport fishing with lures and fast boats is a lily white middle class amusement that poses little threat to alligators; whereas, poor people, who often fish to put food on the table, use bait that is irresistibly attractive, either because the alligators go directly for the bait, or for the small fish congregating nearby.

Thus, fishing with bait puts poor people and kids at special risk of attack. For example, I have watched in amazement while local folks fish waist deep in heavily vegetated water along the edge of Newnan’s lake. They stand there among the lily pads with a stringer of flapping fish attached to their belt while large alligators swim by; this, in the very spot where I was almost eaten by an alligator! I have seen the same technique used in lake Myakka which is the most alligator infested place on earth.

I have observed that rural black people are much more tolerant of alligators than snakes; a fact (if it is a fact) that contradicts one of my most basic assumptions, that many, if not most, fears are innate. Studies have clearly shown that Primates, including humans, are terrified of snakes at birth, and can identify them as a threat despite their cryptic patterns. Those interested in the evolution of this trait may also wish to read How seeing snakes in the grass helped primates to evolve. 

Other more obvious predators apparently do not require specific hardwired instincts to be seen as dangerous. If it is big and toothy just run!

Nevertheless, our African ancestors grew up with crocodiles, so I am surprised that a fear, or lack thereof, of alligators is apparently learned behavior.

This reminds me of a scene in the The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver in which the lunatic preacher fumes because the natives refuse to baptize their children in the river. They can’t understand a word he is saying, so they presume that he wants them to sacrifice their children to the crocodiles, perhaps even to Sobek himself! Now that is what I call an angry old testament God!

Racist postcard circa 1915?

Racist? Perhaps, but true. Alligators are more picky about prey size than crocodiles, but kids of all races, creeds, and religions are equally yummy and just the right size for a snack!

All it would take is one attack for the peace treaty to be broken. When (not if) that day comes then the slaughter of the innocents (the alligators that is) will commence.

I don’t want that to happen, so I called the manager of Paynes prairie, and the staff biologist for Hickory mound, to ask what could be done about the inherent conflict between bait fishermen and alligators. The answer was straightforward. Nothing.

In every instance when someone calls the “alligator hotline” to complain about an encounter the alligator is “removed”. They both refused to use the world “killed”, and instead said that the offending alligators were moved to a “better place such as an alligator farm, perhaps to use in breeding”, all of which is utter nonsense. Anyone care to adopt a twelve footer?

We have no lack of alligators in Florida, so this is neither a conservation nor an animal rights issue. To me the real issue is the willingness of society to tolerate real life monsters, to allow wildness as well as wilderness to exist in the 21st century. A giant alligator is more than capable of eating someone, and I, for one, think that is a good thing. It keeps me on my toes, and others out of the swamps that I so dearly love.

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Perhaps some of my gentle readers are disturbed by so much talk of man eating monsters, so lets do a bit of botanizing.

Back in the dawn of time the Weazel designed and constructed a large recycled wastewater project for Kanapaha Botanical Gardens. It is a 1000 foot long aquatic ecosystem that features several different levels with waterfalls in between. Some 350 tons of massive stones were used in its construction, and the system utilizes tertiary effluent from the municipal sewage treatment plant.

Don Goodman, the estimable Director of the Gardens, designed the landscape surrounding the water feature. Like so many botanists before him, he was smitten by the beauty of Victoria amazonica, the world’s largest water lily, and decided to give it a try.

The Victorias thrived in the nutrient rich water, but unfortunately, so did a wide variety of other aquatic organisms including alligators, so here we go again, for it seems that man eating monsters is a theme.

One day Don was cleaning excess vegetation from the lower pond when ka-chomp, a twelve foot alligator bit off his arm. This terrible accident was chronicled in his excellent book Summer of the Dragon.

It was a miracle that Don survived, but let’s not dwell on tragedy; instead, let’s see the results of his experiment.

Victoria amazonica at Kanapaha Botanical Gardens

It was a raging success, for these enormous platters are equal in size to the largest ever found in the Amazon itself!

The Weazel is equally proud of his work at the Butterfly Rainforest. Here are a few vignettes from a recent visit.

Bromeliads and other lithophytic plants adorn a large boulder at the Butterfly Rainforest

The plants are indeed beautiful, but they have been allowed to obscure the underlying stonework, and to block critically important views. It is unfortunate that the administration of the McGuire Center (where the Butterfly Rainforest is located) has chosen not to honor my original aesthetic vision for the project, but has instead emphasized the butterflies and flowers to the exclusion of all other aspects.

To what end did I carefully place some 400 tons of massive boulders if they cannot be seen? What of the now obscured views that once led the eye past the superficial beauty of the blossoms to the depths of the rainforest beyond? So it is that visitors often fail to see the forest for the trees.

Back at the hacienda the Weazel has undertaken more modest landscaping projects. Here you see a silvered oak adorned with Bromeliads.

And the strange blossom of the Carrion flower Stapelia gigantea, which looks like a cactus but is actually an aberrant milkweed from South Africa. This fuzzy monstrosity both looks and smells like a dead rotting animal.

Stapelia gigantea

Speaking of floristic anomalies, some of you may have heard of the wondrous living bridges of northeastern India.

Ficus root bridge in Meghalaya, India

We are neither so talented, nor do we have giant fig roots to work with, but we do have my friend Kevin Ratkus who sculpted a somewhat similar bridge in a remote part of Barr hammock.

Still creek bridge, Barr hammock

What a delight to come across such an excellent work of art in the woods!

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Human trafficking is a problem throughout the world, especially in traditional places like Williston, Florida where women are expected to fulfill their husband’s expectations. Sadly, some girls just don’t know how to behave so they are sent to training camps to receive instruction on how to please their future spouses. Toward that end they are often subjected to inhumane tortures intended to increase their behavioral “flexibility”.

Soon she will learn to behave!

Here are some of the successful graduates. After veiling and sequestration each will fetch a fine bride price!

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Speaking of fish, how is a fellow with a broken back and two ruined shoulders supposed to paddle a canoe? Nevertheless, I did, if only once. It was a great success for Eric who, as per usual, caught all the fish.

Eric with an undersized snook

Wipe that smug grin buddy, your fish is only 26 inches, too small, so throw it back!

As I said to Dr. Ann, “I’m going to keep fishing until the day I die, even if I never catch another fish!”; so, I decided that I wasn’t going to let an inability to paddle a canoe to stop me.  I’ll track them down on dry land if I have to! That was when I started walking.

The problem is that there are very few places along the gulf coast where bank fishing is possible. I refuse to fish off a beach, bridge, or dock, and everywhere else deep sucking mud prevents access to the water. The only hope is to find either a small rocky bluff overlooking a channel, or an oyster bar at low tide. Somewhere like this.

Somewhere in the vicinity of the Withlacoochee

So there you are all alone as the sun begins to set. You decide to take a shortcut, but bloop, down you go. You are only thigh deep in the mud, but with every attempt to escape you sink deeper. Yes, the mosquitoes are covering your face, but the fact that the tide is coming in is an even worse problem. Will it be quick, as in glub glub, or will you be only chin deep in the water when the crabs come out to feed? Will they find you someday, or will you become a fossil still standing erect in a block of shale a million years later? Hard to say.

But I was determined so I persevered and prayed to Dagon the fish god.

Engraving from 1884 featuring the Assyrian God, Dagon.

At long last the curse was lifted!

The curse has lifted!

This lovely fish, one of about thirty, did not die in vain. It was placed whole in a pressure cooker, head and all, until it was reduced to the world’s richest broth. Bones, scales, and eyeballs were carefully removed, then pressure cooked again to squeeze out every last drop of goodness. The broth was then simmered with coconut milk, tom yum paste, lime juice, lemon grass, ginger, fiery chilies, fresh vegetables, portobello mushrooms, and a pound of fresh shrimp. Some would refer  to this as tom kha pla (Thai coconut soup with fish), but it will hereafter be known as Weazel yum, a delicious medicinal potion that will cure all known ills including a broken back.

Thus recovered, Dr. Ann and I set out for West Virginia, so stay tuned!