On a Wing and a Dare
by Rebecca Johnson


Cats in tow--two cats, old cats, cats who've been by my side and seen me through divorce, my mother's death, my move from Tampa Bay to Orlando for ten years and back again, and now, we are leaving this paved paradise, if the villa sells, and the hurricanes don't get us. We are moving to a two-story log cabin in a boreal forest on 40 acres along the Rainy River, a wild international waterway separating Minnesota from Canada. We are moving in with Tom and his golden retriever, Willie.

I knew it the moment I found the Cooper's hawk tail feather outside my front door. I wish I could tell you it was the dead turtle in the middle of Tampa Road that brought such clarity to my decision, because it extends the metaphor, adds just the right touch of irony--like the morning I battled traffic on my way to the university to teach "Writing for Civic Literacy" to the young and the upcoming. We were discussing The New York Times article on the state of the Florida Panther and Rick Bass's plea to save the Yak Valley, one of our last remaining off-road wildernesses.

"The cat, unlike the cow," explains a Poli-Sci major, "has no economic value."

"Besides, science and technology will replace what we lose in trees and wildlife," says a nurse in the making.

"Yeah, you can't stop progress!" This, like a mantra chanted in unison, seems to sum up the fate of things to come.

Back in the day, when I sat in their seats, I donned a black arm band, marched for peace, and tried to save the scrub pines at what was then called "Beer Can Beach." The developers of what is now Sand Key understood that condos, unlike pines, have more economic value, but I wonder if science and technology can indeed make up for paradise lost.

True, the winters where I'm headed are bitter cold, but the northern woods are free of ambient light and city noises. One can awaken from a clear, cold, light-winded night to the sound of Evening Grosbeak wings flapping, or northern lights dancing, or the intricate crystals called hoarfrost glittering on hardwoods like morning dew on blades of St. Augustine grass.

Last May, I spent a month in the northern woods viewing the area through high-tech binoculars to research an article. I negotiated wild-rice paddies, cattails, sedges, brush, lagoons, and bogs with a field guide, cruised around 2.7-billion-year-old rock outcrops, and basins sculpted by glaciers, with an ornithologist, and interviewed a biologist about a community committed to preserving, unimpaired, sanctuary for wildlife.

"We want to promote non-consumptive, sustainable, 'quiet' recreational opportunities, where nothing is removed from the area except, perhaps, a photo or an observation."

In other words, this is a place that's actually saving its wetlands to maintain water quality and provide sanctuary for Bitterns, Great Blue Herons, songbirds, waterfowl, mink, beaver, timber and brush wolves, bear, and deer. No wonder the sacred link between humans and nature is so palpable here. Like the intimacy and communion found on the deck off Tom's cabin, where dusk lingers for hours and the only sounds one hears most nights are the rapids rushing and the birds singing as White Pelicans glide upriver and Nuthatches feed a few feet away. Below, my love pours circles of corn near the banks of the river for the impending onslaught of Wood Ducks in the morning. It's like watching a Mary Oliver poem, and I'm reminded of the day the Cooper's hawk carried off the female cardinal from my own feeder in Palm Harbor. That same day, one of my neighbors complained about the birds and the squirrels and the noise and the mess. So I put away my feeder rather than face contention, just like I sold my condo in Orlando, to move here, when they cut down the cherry laurel.

"What are those three men doing by my tree?" I asked Jack, my neighbor and condo board president.

"The leaves are causing clogs in the fountain."

"But I bought my place because of this tree?"

"It's a trash tree."

A trash tree?

"Leaves everywhere and roots all over the place."

"Trees drop leaves," I said. "That's what they're supposed to do," and my eyes cloud over with fantasies of climbing it and calling the media and . . .

Then Jack, with his over-sixty blue-black hair, his Walter Mathau look-alike face, and the pale blue Guayabera shirt--the one that barely stays buttoned over his belly--leaned over and whispered, "Palms." A word as significant to discerning landscapers as "plastics" was to The Graduate. In that pivotal cinematic moment our generation was defined, differentiated.

Now, near the nature preserve where I live, they are tagging more oaks for removal; the one behind my villa, the one where the Cooper's hawk nested, is already gone, and another outside my neighbor's back screen door, the one with her daughter's childhood swing in it, is tied with orange string. We both know it's not diseased. Oh, sure, they'll plant a sapling or maybe a palm somewhere on property to replace it. They have to, but she wants to fight; she thinks she can save it and the cardinals who nest there.

Maybe hope is a thing with feathers.


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