Observe the wonders as they occur around you. Don't claim them. Feel the artistry moving through and be silent. ~ Rumi

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


On Thursday, Feb. 18th, I attended the Ramsar certification ceremony for Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and Panther Island Mitigation Bank. The event was a wonderful celebration for everyone concerned. The designation as a wetland of international importance gives these wetlands an opportunity for partnership with a global community. Adopted in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands promotes conservation of wetland habitats around the world. As our Sanctuary became connected to the wetlands of the world with this recognition, my understanding of conservation work came into focus.

The history of this work was impressive with some of the participants working for the conservation of wetlands for over thirty-five years. Ed Carlson, director of Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, reminded us with a time honored story on the history of CSS. He told us how it began with a group of people working to stop the slaughter of birds for their feathers and later how Audubon purchased the sanctuary to save the last stand of old growth Bald Cypress. The vision and connectedness to the land that those conservationists held then, continues to be passed down now. The foundation of this work like the roots of the cypress that reach out to hold onto other cypress trees has created a webbing that reaches far and wide.

Glenn Olson, the Donal O’Brian Chair for Bird Conservation and Public Policy of Audubon, gave an uplifting speech about the progress in conservation and Eric Draper, the state director of Audubon told the crowd that “We are incredibly fortunate to have this place” as he described Corkscrew as the real Florida. He also reminded us that this is the first time that Ramsar has put a mitigation bank on its list of worldwide sites. Bill Barton, the managing partner from Panther Island Mitigation Bank enlightened us on the physical work that had to be done to transform farm land back onto a wetland with a breakdown of the costs involved and the partnerships that made it happen, an amazing feat to say the least. Now, with the transformation complete the wetland has been given to CSS to manage. Ramsar’s Secretary General, Anada Tiega, told us that for this international recognition a wetland needs to meet one out of nine criteria for acceptance. Corkscrew together with the Panther Island Mitigation Bank met three. Then he presented the certificates naming Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, a Wetland of International Importance.

Each of the speakers took time to thank so many people, a reminder of the cooperation and collaboration that we are capable of to make this event happen. As with any event there were more people behind the scenes that continued to work insuring that everyone felt welcomed and appreciated. We were presented with a feast of sandwiches, fruit, vegetables and dessert, an opportunity to get your picture taken with a bald eagle and to view both a red shoulder hawk and a barred owl brought to us by Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland. The music reached back through time with some great country fiddle playing and some tunes my father may have sung to me. As always, there were opportunities to connect with volunteers and staff, educational material on both wetlands and Clyde Butcher was there for a book signing. And of course we took time to walk the boardwalk and take in the surroundings. All in all the afternoon was a generous gathering from a magnificent tribe of conservationists and wildlife alike.

For me as a volunteer at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary I left feeling renewed. I had the opportunity to meet some policy makers from Audubon and an opportunity to witness the partnerships that brought this recognition to fruition. I became more connected to the history of this amazing land and the life that it holds, including mine. Walking the boardwalk again through the uplands, wet prairie and into the Cypress Swamp, connecting with my fellow volunteers, with the flora and fauna, fills me with more than hope. It’s a way of life. And I am so grateful for all of the individuals who have helped and are helping to preserve that way of life.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Through the vine covered gate.
Cross the threshold.
Enter a new world.
Begin a journey.

Just as in life, there are many paths that you can take. If you follow the shell path in the sun it will lead you out onto the pine straw path in the shade and back again until you have formed a figure eight pattern. The figure eight crosses at the pond.

Just as in life, there are distractions or places to divert from the path. The boardwalk will take you out through the mangroves and out to the creek. The stepping stones will lead you to the planting bench. The butterfly house sits next to the straw path under the oak and pine tree. Each distraction could be a journey in itself.

Just as in life, there are many places to pause along the way. Take a camera, a drawing pad or notebook or simply sit in the shade or sun.
Each step each pause, an opportunity for action, reflection or both or neither. I find that when I am working in the garden I am following my nature and become part of the natural surroundings. I slow down and notice the details while being a part of the whole picture. I see more butterflies when I’m gardening than I do when I’m stalking them with my camera.

As I crossed the threshold this month after the freeze, I noticed the damage, the destruction, of what we remembered as our garden. Due to a malfunction even the pond became silent. The native plants were mostly untouched with the exception of the fire bush but our naturalized exotics dropped most of their leaves. The annuals disappeared completely. The garden was quieter, moving in slow motion compared to the month before but still very much alive!

Now after our attention to pruning and cleaning the debris from the garden, we are already seeing the first “signs of springs” that northern states will have to wait months for. The green buds are unfolding on the yellow elder trees and the verbena, the beautiful purple flowers that you see bordering the mangroves, are blooming more often now, thanks in part to the rains and warm sun. With the lack of shade cover the maypop with its promise of magnificent blue star flowers is growing rapidly. Right on cue, the Gulf Fritillaries have appeared, drinking nectar from the verbena and laying eggs on their host plant, the maypop vine. We initiated the potting bench by re-potting the blanket flower seedlings and new seedlings are pushing their way through the mulch where annuals were blooming before the freeze. On Feb. 4th a monarch butterfly emerged from its chrysalis in the butterfly house and we are carefully observing the second one.

We were so grateful for Nick Bodven’s presentation that left the lepidopterists in us feeling renewed as well. The garden walk and the slide show were well received and the cheese and wine was a wonderful idea! Thank you to all the volunteers that made this event so much fun!

Like most of the visitors to our garden, I enjoy learning, so use Tuesday afternoons to share your knowledge or ask questions. In response to visitor’s questions note cards have been created about our wildlife. One is on milkweed bugs, one of our beneficial insects and the other is on the rat snake, one of our beneficial reptiles that appears to be hibernating at this moment. These cards can be found in the box attached to the arbor, containing the information on butterflies.

Come and see for yourself and join us at Spring Creek Nature Park and Butterfly Garden on Tuesdays at 3:00. See you there!

Rosemary Allen, Florida Master Naturalist

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Nature and Nomenclature

Reniform, Orbiculate, Linear and Ovate
Lanceolate, Elliptical
Many many more!

When I first attended the AMI Training center in Washington DC to receive my Montessori teaching certificate, one of my first assignments was to memorize the names of leaf shapes so I could teach them to the students.

In the process of memorizing the shapes I became more aware of them. I lived near Chevy Chase circle and the training was near DuPont circle. Sometimes I would walk or ride the bus or both. In any case there was time to observe the plant life either as hedges neatly trimmed or as weeds struggling to get out from under the concrete and occasionally there was an empty lot with all sorts of weeds and abandoned gardens. I didn’t memorize easily so it was important that I got to know my subject matter.

I used those walks to quietly name the shapes that I saw. I not only noticed the shape but I also took in color, edges, growth, attachment to the stem, insect life, the parts of the leaf etc. One observation just led to another. And so it was with the children. What I had learned as a student myself I saw in my students.
After bathing students in experiences in nature I waited to give the nomenclature until a student asked for the name or I saw that an observation had been made. I never gave more than three names at a time and if possible names and shapes that were contrasting. The younger ones were excited to know the names and would repeat them often as they saw them on walks or in pictures. They enjoyed touching, smelling and in some instances tasting them. The older ones enjoyed collecting drawing, printing, painting them. Both groups enjoyed creating songs from the names as well as learning music that was inspired by plants. Both groups also became more interested in the details and the classification games were endless. As the students entered the elementary they began to ask how they grew, how were they connected to the other plant parts, what gave them color, where on the earth did they grow and what are they used for? As they collected their answers,they became connected with a discipline that they had a genuine interest in. Then,there were more questions, experiments, the building of a garden, a cooking program, planning trips to botanical gardens, invitations to guest speakers, farms, nurseries etc.

…All from learning the names of leaf shapes and going outside. Expand your life. Learn your leaf shapes today and get outside!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

This picture of Pond Cypress was taken behind my house yesterday during a break in the rain. Their striking winter forms reminded me of walking through Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Last week, I took some visitors from the frigid regions up north to the boardwalk over there. The rain had subsided and it was a sunny but slightly cool day.

I like to give people a backdoor tour of the sanctuary. That is, I like to enter the exit and exit the entrance. That way we can experience walking through the uplands with the pines and saw palmettos and walk down through the wet prairie. Then we have a moment to pause and look up at the “doorway” of Pond Cypress looking down to greet us. For me that is a magical moment before we enter a different world, similar to walking in a redwood forest. We are now inside. Our personal space is gone. I love that feeling. The sounds were enhanced and sky was visible from in between the branches of the leafless cypress. Visitors are often surprised that the cypress tree is deciduous. I know that I was when I first arrived. When you are driving along the edge of the swamp, they look dead against the bright green of the cabbage palms that have grown in between them. But they are very much alive and for a short period of time before the new leaves appear you can look carefully at the branches and the ecosystem that depends on them.

My friends were intrigued with the boardwalk and I boasted that it was built around the trees as was the visitor’s center. Not one tree was cut down to build the boardwalk or the visitor’s center! The floor boards, I explained, were made from sustainably harvested Ipe wood. My friend, Ted, pointed out how beautifully the boardwalk was camouflaged against the surrounding cypress. His wife, Linda, was also intrigued with the beauty of the lichens that surrounded us on the bark of trees and on the railings. Shades of red, orange, green and white, these organisms, a symbiotic partnership of fungus and alga, were spectacular and Linda couldn't take enough pictures. As we walked down into the swamp the Bald Cypress loomed overhead. Seeing those trees it’s easy to see where perhaps the inspiration for Avatar came from.

We tried to identify the bird calls and the sightings of different woodpeckers. I finally got a close up of the Yellow Bellied Woodpecker! That sighting was confirmed by one the many knowledgeable volunteers who pointed out to me that the species living in Florida does not have the red on the head but does have the striking white wing bar that gives it away. We even saw a red-shouldered hawk down by the lettuce lakes swoop down on a log and shred a mouse with that specialized beak of his. As we continued our walk we saw a flock of Ibis or swamp chickens as they are sometimes affectionately called, a black crowned night heron taking a nap, some Great Egrets and a few anhinga birds spreading their wings and swimming for crayfish. The Pileated Woodpecker put in quite a few appearances as well. As we finished our walk we were also fortunate enough to get a good close up view of the painted buntings at the bird feeder near the visitor’s center. We spent over two hours on the board walk but we could have been there longer if they weren’t closing at 5:30. We had a wonderful time. No matter what time of day I go to the swamp I have a different experience. Now, I’m ready to go at night!

For those of you interested please click on the link to the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary website and remember to go prepared. Bring a hat, sunscreen and always a bottle of water. Binoculars and a field guide or two can also come in handy. Food is not allowed on the boardwalk but if you bring a lunch or snack for later there are picnic areas in a landscaped area next to the parking lot and a lovely café inside.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Out of the Ordinary

Sometimes a change in the ordinary can wake us up and ask us to pay attention. The rainy and cold weather we are experiencing today is out of the ordinary for me. The weather has pulled away from the ordinary sunny, low humidity winter day that I remember from years past. This is the time of the year we usually refer to as our drought. It’s a gentle rain outside not the downpours we get in the summer. This feels more like fall in northern California where I’m from. Maybe from the viewpoint of a longer timeline this weather is not that unique to this area. But for my short ten years here it is.

Last year I was giving talks about the Wood Storks because so many of them were nesting. This year they decided not to nest because there wasn’t enough water this summer to fill those pools they rely on for their aquatic diet. There were a few cold days last year t hat I remember but most of those days were warm even hot. There’s water now but not much life in them. Remember, there was a freeze.

As I look outside, a flock of cedar waxwings cover the oak tree and I hear a catbird in the distance. The light is dimmed but the sounds outside are enhanced. The greens are greener and the contrast is perfect. I feel like I’m in one of those ancient Chinese landscape paintings. The low clouds have the appearance of distant mountains and images appear and disappear. A good opportunity for a walk! Who knows where I’ll end up?