Thursday, November 19, 2009

Loxahatchee - My Florida Escape

I visited my sister recently in Florida and noticed that almost every front yard in her "adult community" is adorned with lawn ornaments: dwarfs, dancing frogs, mushrooms, apple-cheeked children, lizards, birds, turtles and, of course, pink flamingos. There were signs too, like: An old rooster and a young chick live here.

What causes this phenomenon? Perhaps it's the languid, humid air that makes people feel carefree and just a little bit giddy. Or could it be that non-stop development has made the land inhospitable for most native creatures, including children, and Floridians have had to content themselves with mass-produced copies?

In the early 1900s this area from Ft. Pierce to Miami, where six million people (and their lawn ornaments) now live, was part of the Everglades, a shallow, slow-moving sheet of water that covered almost, 11,000 square miles of the Florida peninsula. Over the next 50 to 60 years, about half that area was drained and the waters channeled into canals. The population of Florida grew from about a half a million people in 1900 to more than 18 million in 2008. (For a great read on the history and the characters that shaped and developed Florida, I recommend The Swamp, a book by Michael Grunwald.)

My sister's neighborhood south of West Palm Beach is surrounded by highways, gated housing developments and big box stores. Yet only a few miles away from this highly-populated area is one of my favorite nature spots - the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. A respite from the rapidly expanding urban communities, large sugar cane plantations, sod farms and cattle ranches that surround it, Loxahatchee is all that remains of the once vast northern portion of the Everglades ridge and deep-water slough habitat.

Even though it's a managed habitat, Loxahatchee gives you an idea of what once was. Its more than 143,000 acres are home to river otters, bobcats, snakes, birds, butterflies, turtles and alligators - more than 25,000 of them. There are walking paths, an interesting nature center and guided tours.

For a more intimate, up-close look, paddle a canoe through the five and a half mile trail that winds through the refuge. In 1947, the journalist and environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas wrote a book, The Everglades: Rivers of Grass, that galvanized people to work for the protection of Florida's vanishing natural habitat. That same year, the Federal Government created the Everglades National Park, preserving 2,500 square miles of the South Florida Everglades.

The northern Everglades have all but disappeared, but this one idyllic refuge remains. As you glide silently through the waterways of Loxahatchee, you experience what Douglas felt when she wrote:

"The miracle of light pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass and of water, shining and slowly moving, the grass and water that is the meaning and central fact of the Everglades. It is a river of grass."
(To see more photos, click here.)


P.S. When I was in Arkansas recently, a friend gave me a blue ceramic pig. I love it. I don't think I'll be moving to Florida anytime soon, but if I do, I'm ready.

For directions to Loxahatchee, click here.

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Sunday, November 1, 2009


Recently when my husband got an invitation from Italian colleagues to give a mathematical talk at their home university, he invited me to go along. Italy in the fall - what could be better?

It turns out, however, that not all Italians live in Italy. Some - but not many - live in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Like Professor Dr. von Igelfeld, the hero of Alexander McCall Smith's very funny book, "The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs," I had not envisioned spending time in Fayetteville. The good professor, renowned among his German colleagues for his academic tome, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, had anticipated an invitation to New York or California. In a bureaucratic mix up, he is sent instead to Fayetteville. There he finds to his delight, as I did, "a charming college town nestling in the Ozark Mountains, seat of the University of Arkansas..."

Scientifically speaking, the Ozarks are not mountains, but rather a high inland plateau, eroded by time, weather and the action of its many rivers. Fayetteville, a quintessential college town, is in one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country. Nonetheless, it's just a 20-minute car ride from the busy, student-filled town to the solitude of the countryside. Professor Dr. von Igelfeld's experience describes it perfectly:

They drove out of town, following a road that wound up into the hills. It was a gentle landscape - limestone hills which had been softened by the action of the rain; meandering valleys dotted with farmhouses under shady oak trees. Von Igelfeld had not thought of America as being at all like this; there were no dry plains, no glittering Dallas in the distance, no leafy suburbia with neat white houses. This could have been Bavaria, or even Austria.

Our drive took us to nearby Devil's Den State Park. Filled with natural bridges, waterfalls, caves and more than 20 miles of hiking trails, Devil's Den is also one of the best preserved Civilian Conservation Corps projects in the country. In the 1930s, the CCC built the park's first hiking trails, a stone dam, offices, a restaurant, and campgrounds with cabins made of native stone and logs.

The next day while my professor was pushing back the frontiers of mathematical science up the hill at the University of Arkansas, I took a walking tour of Fayetteville. According to the town brochure, "Fayetteville is the center of everything that happens in Northwest Arkansas." It is a nice town with lots of trees, arts and crafts style houses, parks, walking paths, good book stores, a performing arts center and, of course, the University.

There are also, I've been told, restaurants that specialize in good southern-style cooking. Perhaps we'll try one of them on our next visit to Fayetteville. This time around, we ate at the best place in town - our friends' house.

Fayetteville may be in Arkansas and the countryside may look like Bavaria or even Austria, but sitting around our friends' dinner table eating their delicious home-cooked Italian food, Fayetteville sure felt a lot like Italy.

"From his seat on the aeroplane, von Igelfeld looked down at the Ozarks as they became smaller and smaller beneath him. It was a good place, America, and Arkansas was a good state."
(For more photos, click here.)


Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

All quotations are from the book

The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs
by Alexander McCall Smith
Anchor Books, 2005