10 April, 2019 • • 40.1EnvironmentOriginal Short Story

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Florida

Conor Gearin

 
Sydney Nolan, First Class Marksman (1978-1979)

 
Avery had gotten used to the megachiropterans, the huge fruit-bats native to the Old World, which swooped disturbingly low around sunset as he walked back to his sleeping quarters. So too the hyena shrieks and the baboon hoots—usually in the distance, but occasionally from a nearby location that he couldn’t quite pinpoint. He had gotten used to many things at the Florida African Wildlife Reserve, Ranger Station Echo.

But one thing he had not quite accepted were the rangers, apparently his colleagues, who seemed as secretive as the nocturnal lemurs in the canopy. They were seen always at a middle distance, doing jobs which no one had assigned. They wore khakis much like the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission rangers. They were apparently benevolent, but could never be reached, and never responded to shouts to come to the station.

He had just watched one, a nameless woman in a broad-brimmed hat, walking the edge of a cypress grove. Every so often she kneeled and checked the ground, as if monitoring track stations. But the FWCC did not have any track stations there.

He thought about the British Parliament, how the opposition forms a “shadow cabinet” that sits across from the real ministers.

He did not even bother trying to call out. He knew she would just keep doing her job, neither looking away nor turning towards him.

*          *          *

Soon after the Burmese python became an accepted part of Florida’s fauna, the Fish and Wildlife Commission quickly made up for all its time officially ignoring the other exotics making hay of the Everglades. For years they had pulled escaped and unwanted millionaires’ pets grown to adulthood out of the reeds—solitary giraffes, rhinos, and cobras—but for the past ten years they had started to see breeding pairs, always just eluding capture. And as soon as they were confirmed as official residents of Florida, the breeding pairs became fecund breeding populations in a way not explained by the steady trickle of wayward pets.

Fish and Wildlife ordered a “red line” around a new reserve made from three former conservation areas, including Everglades National Park, declaring that exotics would not escape beyond the boundary. If they could not save the everglades, they would save whatever was left of old Florida.

The problem was enforcing a “red line” that stretched for hundreds of miles of swamp and wet forest. Fish and Wildlife did not hire any new full-time rangers, instead relying on overtime and temps to guard the line with tranquilizer darts, snake gaffs, Glocks, cameras, deerslugs, and butterfly nets. Everyone knew there were blindspots. The managers just tried to shuffle the blindspots around as much as possible. They ordered their teams to give up patrolling the interior and just keep watch on the border.

Yet somehow, this bureaucratic line had so far kept every exotic creature within the designated area, as though by the will of the Commissioner’s pen.

*          *          *

A report rang out from the east. Shotgun—deerslug.

Five of them were sitting around the particle board table sipping black coffee. Rex, the station director, stepped to the window and raised her binoculars to her eyes.

“Can’t make it out. You got this one, Avery.”

Three months into the African Wildlife Reserve project, solo missions like this were standard. They were stretched too thin to send out a pair. A shot near the line could mean one large mammal stopped from making a break for the continental U.S. Or it could mean an entire herd of wildebeest trying to do the same, held back by a single ranger who happened to be in the wrong place at the right time.

Okovango was in all their minds.  Not the delta in Botswana, but the big watering-hole marsh to the north they had nicknamed. The animals there had apparently staged an uprising against a field team carrying out a survey. Two rangers had been trampled to death there, three others injured. They had gotten four of those casualties off the field before a hunting pack of female lions forced them to retreat. They never recovered Ranger Leroy’s body.

Afterward, their requests to Fish and Wildlife for airboats outfitted with .50 caliber machine guns received no response.

Avery walked in the direction of the gunshot, his tranquilizer carbine against his shoulder.

He spoke into the radio strapped to his chest. “Echo to Delta. Ranger Avery. Heard a shot, heading your way. What’s the word?”

Static for a while. Then: “Delta to Echo. Avery, we heard that too. None of us were in that area. Must have been our friends from the swamp.”

“Copy. Maybe I’ll chase one down this time.”

Our friends from the swamp and swamp rangers had become the rangers’ names for the shadow team apparently doing the FWCC’s job free of charge.

There was a pause before Delta replied. “Interrogative: are you high?”

“Uh, negative.”

“Well, good luck with that, dude. Stay frosty. Over.”

He scanned the landscape for any horns, human shoulders, or the backs of grazing animals above the rushes and grasses. Then he saw a tuft of tawny hair near a patch of cattails.

He put away the tranquilizer and took out the revolver. That was lion fur.

It was a female, dead from a single shot to the torso. Deerslugs turned out to be decent lion-stoppers, too.

“All stations, report dead lion between Echo and Delta. Dead lion, female,” said Avery into the radio, trying to keep his voice steady, keeping his eyes on the brushline. He repeated, and was about to request a backup team when he noticed a tag collar on the lion’s neck. It was numbered for a mark-recapture study, but the numbering system didn’t match the FWCC system. The serial number began with the letters “VFK”—what the hell was that?

“Avery, do you need backup? We’re saddling up the Land Rover.”

Maybe the swamp ranger was still around. A backup team would scare them off, but maybe they would be willing to parley with a single ranger. He looked into the trees, willing the swamp ranger to materialize, even just to acknowledge him. “No, negative, no backup needed. All quiet here.”

*          *          *

He sat on a folding chair outside the hastily-constructed barracks attached to the station, where everyone slept in the same room in bunks. He looked over the mark-recapture tag. He had tried the serial number, and all of its component parts, in the Commission’s intranet and databases. He had checked the federal database. Nothing matched. He was mad at himself for not trying to fingerprint the tag before handling it.

Why had they shot this lion? It was fairly close to the border but not on top of it. Were the swamp rangers starting to kill-off large mammals, the measure begged for by many but held back by animal rights activists?

Now there was a silly conflict for you. People who usually protested against factory-farmed cows and chickens had come out to support the destruction of Florida by exotic wildlife brought in by human actions. To them, a giraffe had a right to life and the pursuit of happiness in southern Florida equal to its native species. The Florida puma had gone extinct three years ago, but was surely just the first of many. Which animals’ rights were actually at risk here?

If there were a second set of rangers out there, they would need food, fresh water, maybe computers to analyze population data. Perhaps if he could find a power line leading deep into the park, he could pinpoint their base. He could start by circling the cypress grove…

As the sun set, Avery thought about Carl Sandburg’s poem “Chicago.” He had been a literature minor in college, and some of it stuck with him.

Hog Butcher of the World,

Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,

City of the Big Shoulders,

They say you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women…”

How would an ode to Florida go?

Sweaty Armpit of the World,

Hot Garbage Bin, Rotten Petri-Dish,

State of the Mutant Bugs,

They say you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your pythons…”

A heron—as far as he could tell, a normal Everglades great blue heron—erupted from its unnoticed post at the end of the cove and flew across the setting sun, one dark bird before a cauldron of fire.

*          *          *

Six months into the project, with the rangers feeling like soldiers dug into stalemate trenches, the FWCC realized it had it all wrong. The Florida African Wildlife Reserve was South Florida’s biggest economic windfall since plantation agriculture. If the animals weren’t leaving the park, they should be employing their rangers to lead Everglade Safaris, not wage war on the beasts. Busloads of Midwesterners streamed in, paying hundreds each.

Avery tried to avoid safari duty, but wound up as the cheery tour guide on a Land Rover, pointing out various species at Okavango, trying to suppress furious asides. “And here are thirty-five of our wildebeest who broke my friend Sara’s hip a couple months ago. And oh look, we get to see some of our hyenas today who scavenged Leroy’s dead body, by the way.

The sabotage began just a few days in. Rover tires slashed, airboats scuttled at their moorings. Real Edward Abbey stuff. Romeo Station did catch one apparent monkeywrench gang, but those college dropouts couldn’t match the level of expertise involved in bleaching the oil reservoirs of an entire fleet of ultralight aircraft, or filling the safari ticket office with native cottonmouth snakes. Avery suspected their friends from the swamp had been at work.

The way he imagined their motives went something like this: they would neither clear out the exotics for the FWCC, nor would they allow despicable hypocrisies like the new “conservation” safaris. They would carefully preserve the heinous status quo until someone did something about it.

No one knew who they were. Maybe they were highly-trained federal agents, a deniable secret presence keeping order. Maybe they were ex-conservation biologists intent on shaming their official counterparts into competence. And maybe they were something else entirely—the spirits of murdered Seminoles? The ghosts of the rangers they lost?

*          *          *

The safari programs lasted little more than a month. A Nebraskan had been nipped by a couple frisky wild dogs, Lyacon pictus. It was nothing compared to what some of the rangers had gone through, but CNN interviewed the frantic old man from his bedside. A memo came through the fax machine:

To Our Valued Conservation Commission Rangers,

            For your safety, and the safety of our visitors, we have elected to discontinue our Wild Florida Safari program. We thank you for your continued service and ask that you resume normal border patrol and survey duties.

            The next shipment of coffee will be delayed one week. We apologize for any inconvenience and hope that you will be able to economize your rations accordingly.

Sincerely,

            Commissioner Johnson

He still liked to rise with the sun, even though he often had to take nightwatches. The everglades, he thought, were the most beautiful place in the country to watch the sunrise. The flocks of cattle egrets just made it a bit different.  He decided to skip coffee so he would have some the next day.

Stepping out of the station with stale tea, he began his usual morning stare at the cypress grove. He had been waiting for the swamp rangers to communicate with him somehow—a flashlight transmitting Morse code, or an arrow with a message tied to it, like in Robin Hood. He had begun to give up on that, though. If these people were on the side of conservation, they didn’t give much indication of it.

He looked into the canopy. Then his stomach dropped when it appeared that the leaves were moving—sideways, changing places.

He focused his binoculars. It wasn’t the leaves moving, it was the flock of birds in the trees shifting places. Columbiform birds—pigeons of some kind. But with red breasts like robins. What the hell was that?

Eventually, he accepted that he was looking at a flock of extinct passenger pigeons.

Then he saw tan fur among the cypress-knees. It took him twenty minutes to convince himself he was looking at an extinct Florida panther. He thought he was hallucinating until he watched the extinct panther eat an extinct marsh rabbit.

*          *          *

The rangers of Echo Station last saw Daniel Avery walking towards the cypress grove, tranquilizer carbine in one hand, the other waving, as if to signal peace to unseen allies in the shadows.

 
 

‘Florida’ is part of a Special Issue on Uto/Dystopias.

~

Conor Gearin is a writer from St. Louis living in Boston. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, New Scientist, The Millions, and The New Territory.