Down where the Florida peninsula reaches the tropics stands the most luxuriant mangrove forest in the world. Stretching in a wide belt along the west coast to Cape Sable the mangroves attain a height of more than 70 feet, rising in a dark green mass above the impenetrable tangle of their grotesque roots. These aerial roots, like an endless snarl of spider legs, and the leathery texture of the leaves give this mass of primitive trees an eerie beauty.
This jungle and the miles of marshy prairies to the east are favorite haunts of Florida's spectacular bird life. Herons in wide variety, ibises and dozens of other species feed in the Everglades by day and then fly in flocks and files through the dusk to their roosts in the mangroves. The stateliness and beauty of these birds make them one of the main attractions to increasing thousands of visitors to this part of the state. By night the mangrove jungles become the domain of wildcats, raccoons and other prowlers.
Guarding 300,000 acres of this forest and protecting its many forms of wildlife is the duty of Barnie Parker, the ranger of Lostmans River. Barnie has the remotest ranger station in the Everglades National Park. It is his responsibility that the birds—the egret, the pelican and the eagle—carry on their fishing undisturbed. It is his charge that the panther hunts its prey unmolested. It is his care that, when the great loggerhead turtles haul out on the beaches in spring, the digging of their nests in the sand is not interrupted. Even the moccasin and the rattlesnake must be left alone.
As Barnie sits on the porch of his shack, built on a shellbank thrown up by the '48 hurricane, his front yard is the Gulf of Mexico and his backyard is this mangrove jungle, reaching all the way to the sea of grass that forms the Everglades proper. But Barnie has little time to sit. His duties keep him prowling his territory in a battered outboard motorboat known all along that wild coast as the Green Hornet.
February 20, 1956
It has been my privilege and delight to spend a week with Barnie, sharing his shack at the mouth of Lostmans River and patrolling with him over hundreds of miles of the rivers and creeks that twist through the mangroves. As a result of this visit I am convinced that Barnie Parker is a remarkable man.
He is 65 years old and as tough as an old mangrove root. He is not afraid of anything, from wildcats to women. He has weathered hurricanes alone and he has pushed the Green Hornet through swamps in the dead of night when his motor broke down. When poachers threatened to kill him he informed them of the terrible risk they were taking—"Somebody else'll go with me"—and they desisted.
A lusty love of food has given Barnie a physique which he describes as "pussle-gutted." His face is a pair of clear blue eyes and a grin standing out from a weathered countenance. His singing voice is ghastly; he is reputed to have once sung a couple of limbs off a mangrove tree. But in his case the will to sing is more important than the song.
Concerning attire, there are two Barnies. In town or around the park headquarters you see a neat Barnie in a ranger's uniform, necktie and stiff-brimmed hat. But once afloat in the Green Hornet the uniform has been replaced by dungarees and an old boatman's cap. The store teeth have disappeared and in their place is a chew of tobacco. I like the tobacco-chewing Barnie best. The tobacco seems to bring out the flavor of the man.
I met Barnie at the Coot Bay Ranger Station, reached by the only road that penetrates the park. The Everglades National Park, dedicated by President Truman in 1947, is the newest and third largest in the national park system. It comprises almost a million and a half acres of the southern tip of Florida and is exceeded in area only by Yellowstone National Park and Mount McKinley National Park in Alaska.
Loading our grub and gasoline aboard a work boat we set off, towing the Green Hornet astern. Barnie bridled the Hornet so she rode the billowing wake without yawing. Passing through the Coot Bay Canal we headed into that labyrinth of island-dotted bays and crooked streams which Barnie Parker knows better than any other living man.
After a trip of five hours we rode into the mouth of Lostmans River with the tide. Our greeting committee was a dozen brown pelicans sitting in comical solemnity on a small tree rising above the water.
"Hiya, boys," Barnie called. As the boat slowed to maneuver the channel a little blue heron flapped across the river. A kingfisher clattered shrilly as it flew along the bank; cormorants became airborne and mullets shone silvery in the afternoon sunlight as they leaped from the water. On a tall, dead tree to the right sat a bald eagle. Barnie explained that something had happened to the eagle's mate and now he just stays around.
We unloaded our gear, but before we could take it up to the house Barnie had to look for various signs to learn if anybody had been there during his absence. When he was satisfied that his castle had not been invaded we carried our stuff up to the house.
The house was a one-room and screened-porch shack perched on seven-foot posts rising out of the shellbank. There was a bed, a kitchen in one corner, a gas refrigerator and a table. On the porch were two cots and a shortwave radio for communicating with other ranger stations and with headquarters. The shack stood in a grove of Australian pines and about it were young coconut palms, a key lime tree, hibiscus and other tropical plants.
As Barnie stowed the provisions his arm brushed against a bucket which clattered to the floor. As he picked it up he said, "What the hell did you do that for, bucket?" Later when he was out watering his plants I watched him douse a fledgling coconut palm and overheard him say, "Now go ahead and grow, little plant."
Through these and subsequent one-sided conversations I learned that while living alone for so many years Barnie has developed the habit of talking to the things about him, not only the animals but inanimate objects as well. This usually takes the form of swearing at them. He denounces raccoons, turtles and wildcats in strong terms, but at the same time it is plain that he loves the recipients of his invective. He is one of the few men I've known who can swear tenderly.
When the Green Hornet would pass a huge alligator sunning on the bank, Barnie would slow the boat and say, "Why, you ugly-lookin' old so-and-so, you. What in the hell makes you so lazy?" Up near the head of Rogers River Barnie made friends with a nine-foot alligator, which he called Charlie. When patrolling in that section he would take a mullet along for Charlie. The huge saurian would come to his call and Barnie would toss him the mullet. The man and the reptile became friends and Charlie would swim along behind the Green Hornet for long distances.
One day Charlie failed to come at the ranger's call. Barnie found the alligator's hacked and mutilated carcass where the animal had crawled out on the bank to die. Barnie figures that somebody mistook Charlie's friendliness for an attack and killed him.
"I've never tried to make pets of any of these 'gators since," he said, and then added, "I'd like to meet the man who did it."
A TERRIFIC RACKET
We turned in soon after the sun had dropped into the Gulf of Mexico. I was sleeping deeply on the porch when I was awakened by a terrific racket out in front of the shack. In my startled condition it seemed that the Calusa Indians had come back to life and were raiding the ranger station. But as my mind cleared I realized that the predominant note in the racket was swearing. In fact, the night air around the shack had become deep blue.
It developed that the bedlam was just a part of Barnie's running feud with raccoons. The 'coons raid the station under cover of night. When Barnie is away they tear a hole in his screen door and abscond with his groceries. This time they had discovered a tin pail in which had been some fish scraps. The 'coons had been kicking the bucket around and banging it against a bench, so the ranger was unable to sleep. When the nocturnal gang had been dispersed Barnie went back to bed muttering threats against the whole 'coon tribe.
"Why the hell can't they be nice and quiet like wildcats and panthers," I heard him grumble.
The next day we took the first of a series of trips through Barnie's domain, typical of regular patrols. He averages 1,200 miles a month by boat. Our craft, of course, was the Green Hornet, a stocky outboard skiff painted green and brown like the mangroves through which it travels. The hull is of heavy plastic and is scarred by collisions with stumps and roots that would stave in a lesser boat.
On these trips we moved up the big tidal rivers—Lostmans, Rogers, the Broad and the Harney. Leaving the rivers we followed winding creeks and crossed wide bays. Sometimes we kept on up the watercourses until they grew small. The mangroves, lovers of salt water, dwindled in size and finally disappeared altogether. Then we would be gliding between banks covered with thick sawgrass. By standing up in the boat we could look across the endless grass dotted by clumps of trees, called hammocks or cypress heads. This was the Everglades, a watery plain like no other part of the United States.
I liked these trips up the small streams best. As we passed through the transition zone from salt to fresh water the country changed steadily. The water, dyed brown by the tannic acid of the mangrove roots, became clearer and clearer until we could see snook, mullet and mangrove snappers darting from beneath the boat. Alligators eight to 10 feet long sunned themselves on the grassy banks and received their usual admonitions from Barnie. While watching one huge 'gator Barnie said, "Looks like old Charlie." There was a long pause and then he added, "Wish it was old Charlie."
On these trips wild ducks rose ahead of us in small clouds and there were always the herons—the great blue, the little blue, the Louisiana, the little green—and American and snowy egrets, which are the trademark of this national park.
On one trip Barnie steered the Green Hornet for 12 miles through Woods River, one of the weirdest streams in America. It was so narrow that the mangroves, festooned with air plants and wild orchids, met in a green tangle overhead. As the boat turned and twisted we had to duck beneath low branches. Anhingas, those odd birds with the long, snaky necks, threw themselves from their perches into the water and disappeared. Beyond was always a flock of assorted herons, and countless tarpons rolled ahead of us.
Just after we emerged from Woods River into a wider stream we spotted something light in color on the water ahead. It turned out to be a big Florida diamondback rattlesnake. The creature seemed to have inflated itself, for it swam high on the water like a balloon snake.
"Ridin' high, isn't he?" Barnie said, and I gathered from the fact that he didn't swear that this was one animal of which he is not fond. One bit him while he was patrolling and he treated himself for the bite.
"Didn't get a good bite," Barnie said. "Had to go through my boot."
In the evenings, as we sat on the porch, the ranger recalled incidents in his solitary life that had left impressions. There was the time he rescued two baby manatees, or sea cows, from a pool in which they had been stranded by the dropping tide. There were the wildcats that stalk the beaches at both ends of the day and the times he had sighted panthers. There was his discovery that by sprinkling dog repellent on the sand over turtle nests he could prevent the 'coons from digging up the eggs.
"There's one little strip of beach down the line where the turtle nests are so thick that each turtle that comes ashore has to have a chart and a map so she can find a place to dig hers," he said. "And when the little turtles hatch out they scurry into the gulf by the hundreds."
When questioned about himself Barnie was more reticent. Once I asked him where he was born.
"Osceola County," he answered.
"Yes, but what town?"
He hesitated and then said, "Well, Kissimmee was the nearest town. I was born out in the woods on an old stump." From other sources I learned that he had passed most of his life outdoors. He punched cattle on the Kissimmee Prairie and in the early days he ran a river steamer freighting citrus fruit down the St. Johns River. He operated one of the first packing houses in Florida and for a time he was a deputy sheriff and the only law south of the Tamiami Trail.
Since 1940 he has guarded the wildlife of this southwest coast as a warden with the state, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Audubon Society. When the region became a national park in 1947 it was obvious that Barnie had to become a ranger because no one knew the country as he did. Also he couldn't leave his birds, his wildcats and his alligators. During the past 15 years he has won the respect of everybody who visits that coast, from naturalists to poachers.
But as we sat in the darkness on the porch Barnie kept talking about the animals: the deer that come to the shell-bank on which his shack stands; the bear signs he sees; the rookeries where the herons nest and the great white pelicans that come to Lostmans River in the fall.
As he talked there was a glow in the sky to the east caused by the lights of Miami on the other side of the Florida peninsula. That is one of the odd things about this national park. We were in a wilderness with no human habitation within 20 miles yet there were the lights of the big, East Coast city.
Now this newest of the American national parks is being developed for greater public use. A large recreation center with a motel, docks, restaurants and all kinds of camping and boating facilities is being constructed so that all sorts of Americans—naturalists, fishermen, vacationists and just plain old tourists—can share in the wildlife riches of this unique region. When they come I hope every one of them will be able to meet Barnie Parker, the ranger of Lostmans River. It will do them good, for Barnie is as much a part of the park as any of the things he watches over.
A PORTFOLIO IN COLOR
There is rare merit to David Goodnow's photographs of birds in the Everglades which appear on the following eight pages. Few sanctuaries in the world can boast of the beauty and variety of wild fowl that can be found here; and seldom have they been pictured so successfully in color in their natural surroundings, without props or artificial lighting, free and untrammeled, like the roseate spoonbill shown on the opposite page. And for the bird lovers who want to see them as these pictures show them, Horace Sutton details the Everglades bird tours on page 39.