Sunday, November 2, 2008


It took me a day and a half to get from Santa Fe in northern New Mexico to the Everglades in southern Florida. I left a busy life of family and teaching for more than two weeks of almost uninterrupted solitude. As I pulled up to the Park Service offices I had a moment of terror—what if I’d made the whole thing up and the residency wasn’t real? I was reassured to meet Alan Scott, the ranger in charge of the artists in residence program. He gave me a brief orientation to the park, which focused on:

The Four Poisonous Snakes Of The Park
The Two Poisonous Plants
Mosquitoes, And West Nile Virus
Why To Never Touch A Caterpillar
When To Back Away From An Alligator (if it hisses and comes toward you)

Then he took me outside to a conveniently located poison wood tree covered in poison ivy vines and had me identify each one. “Now,” said Alan, “on to the dangers of man.” Serial killers? Psychopaths? “People drive worse on vacation than they do at home,” he said, “be careful, particularly in parking lots.”

The apartment I was to stay in looked simple but pleasant, and turned out to be a great place to write. The first thing I did was move my desk—card table really—to the screened porch, facing into the forest of slash pine.

a lizard
in a rolled up shade

One day I counted almost a hundred turkey vultures riding the thermals above my house. I was just a few minutes from the Royal Palm Visitor Center and the Anhinga Trail. A few years ago, I’d made a dash of a day trip through here and part of my motivation was to come back—and simply sit and look. I walked the boardwalk around the slough almost every day. Each time I saw something new. I saw a cormorant catch a catfish—it is the only bird that has figured out how to eat catfish—bludgeon it and break its spine and swallow it in one gulp. I also saw:

tree bromeliads—
two anhingas
build a nest of twigs
man with a cane
crosses paths with
a tiny turtle
child pats the palm tree
the alligator

I wanted to make a poetic map of the park. The poem was getting bigger and bigger, then finally settled into seven sections. Some sections required actually going somewhere—some moved in time and imagination. I went to Flamingo, and out among the mangroves, to Shark Valley and to the Gulf Coast and by boat among 10,000 Islands. I saw crocodiles, a rare tree snail, a nest of baby alligators, golden-bellied spiders, and birds of all kinds—herons, egrets, ibis, purple gallinule, anhinga, osprey, hawk.

tree snail gleams
in the leaf canopy—
stolen ghost orchid

And there were things I didn’t see—a panther, not even a bobcat. No pythons, either, those unwelcome visitors. I also explored the border of the park, agricultural lands that interrupt the water flow, the Redland area and Krome Avenue, nurseries I would have simply thought lush and charming if I hadn’t been focused on water drainage and wilderness preservation.

out of the palm trees
a peacock darts—escaped—
but from where?

There was a journal that each artist had written in. Alan Scott had suggested I not read it right away, and that was a good idea—I had my own experience first. It surprised me, though, when I did read it, how similar everyone’s experience was—the bliss of being in such beautiful surroundings combined with intense inspiration to create. The only conflict described, one which I shared, was whether to work or to jaunt about. One artist had drawn a detailed image of a green leaf and one of a snail.

only the most
delicate colored pencils
draw the tree snail’s shell

I felt a familiar twinge of jealousy—the ability to reproduce the world visually. Still, I found that here I was working as a poet almost the way painters must work going out, looking at something, recording it in my notebook.

hurricane downed
tree roots, nurse log
what green comes next...
tree canopy
butterfly, and purple glade
morning glory
rare buttonwood vine
looks like any foliage—
but rare...
a leaf drops in
the mahogany hammock—
without season

The artist who was in the apartment before me had left me a big board covered in foil. The first thing I did was put up a map of the Everglades. Then came photographs by my friend Mary Peck that had been exhibited at Miami-Dade Community College. The images of the park were in black and white, meditative long horizontals. Then I added three postcards of birds, including one ibis and one egret. I had trouble telling them apart and was plagued by not knowing what bird I’d actually seen. I kept changing them in a poem, changing the sound, trying to get it right. I hung up a pair of beautiful long beaded earrings and an even more lavish turquoise, white, yellow, red and black necklace. The ladies at the at the Miccosukee Indian cultural center had helped me match them. Over it all, I pinned up a painting of a model of the solar system. Why? I guess because I felt far from home but also at home in a vast space.

On the boat out of 10,000 Islands I met a family from Pasadena. The woman and I got to chatting, and at the end she exclaimed: “I’ve never met an author before!” I, on the other hand, had never seen white pelicans before—hundreds of them taking off from a sandbar.

raindrops’ circles—
yellow spatterdock flowers
floating green pads...
two shy vultures
pick raindrops
off the car’s roof
drawn in an inky line,
overcast afternoon
drop tip
implies rain

by Miriam Sagan
Santa Fe, New Mexico
first published in
Santa Fe Poetry Broadside 54 (2007)

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