In the classic novel Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad describes the Congo River as “… a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land.” There’s a sense of vastness and mystery Conrad evokes when describing the core of Central Africa, setting the stage for the characters’ transition from civilization to savagery when engulfed in this deep wilderness.
That’s how I felt when I entered the Everglades.
I went to the National Park on a particularly rainy Thursday. A deep, rumbling, angry thunder served as the soundtrack for the afternoon, setting a ominous tone as paid my fee and entered the gates. I had spent about half an hour studying the brightly colored-coded maps and picture-perfect dioramas of the Visitor Center, and it was time to take a look for myself. The warm, heavy rain had kept most visitors at bay, and as I crept through the fast wetlands I felt as if I was the only person on earth. Armed with just a bright yellow raincoat and my digital camera, I ventured into my own heart of darkness to see what awaited me.
At first glance the park is just a flat, wet, wasteland. The wildlife, so properly evolved for their habitat, stayed hidden in the tall grasses, offering only sporadic croaks and grunts to let me know they were there. I eased my car along the roadway, conscious of how out of place my Volvo was in the ecosystem. Every so often I’d catch a glimpse of a bird and I’d hasten to snap a few shots, but they would always leap into flight before long. I decided that the car would have to go.
I parked and continued on foot. I chose a small path that led through the tall grasses to a raised platform overlooking the water. I stepped carefully, moving at a snails pace so I could scour every detail of the grasses so as not to miss a well-camoflauged animal. I found a relatively unafraid, lively bird who allowed me to approach and take photos, keeping me occupied for about ten minutes. After a while the mud began to heave suspiciously, and the bird took off in a flash. A large alligator emerged about four feet away from where I was standing and eyed me cautiously. My heart rate jumped- how could I have been standing so close and not noticed him? He held my gaze with heavy, gold-rimmed eyes, then turned slowly and slunk off through the grass. It was as if he was reminding me that I was in an arena where civilization meets the wild, and if it came down to it, the wild would win.