James Phillips Photography


Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

Bleak Beauty

Saturday, October 11th, 2008

I was out hiking the scrub when the storm broke. I’d seen it coming, but misjudged its trajectory, assuming it would pass to the north. Now, suddenly, it was almost overhead, a grumbling slate-grey behemoth gliding on a curtain of rain, with a bellyfull of lightning and a real bad attitude.

Be You Later, Alligator

Saturday, October 11th, 2008

It was late in the morning when I set out by canoe from Rocky Ford, on Sarasota County’s scenic Myakka River. The air was hot and still, and despite recent rains the current was molasses-slow. I drifted downstream, past low deltas and sandy, head-high bluffs, over a riverbed laced with fossils. The banks were lined with pines and live oaks, sable palms and saw palmettoes, shimmering in the heat.

Aside from that, nothing much stirred. Turtles basked on waterworn stumps, legs extended, toes splayed. Kingfishers peeked from their muddy dens. On the bow, a heat-stunned dragonfly perched like a tiny figurehead.

Suddenly I heard a weird ruckus -a woofing and whooping and flapping and flopping- coming from a thicket on the bank. Only one thing makes that kind of commotion: a passel of hungry vultures. Plainly, something had attracted them. Something big. Something dead.

It was a ‘gator, a nine-footer at least. As Monty Python might’ve said, it was “bleedin’ demised.” Now, as naturalists say, it was transforming, from alligator energy into vulture energy, from a single ex-reptile to a horde of living, breathing birds. Molecules that once coasted on currents of water would soon glide on currents of air. Not such a bad fate, really.

I drifted closer, but the vultures didn’t budge. Pretty soon I was above the submerged tail. The brashest -or hungriest- birds still ignored me, eagerly probing the eyesockets and nostrils, looking for chinks in the armor. I snapped a few photos, then -feeling a little queasy- pushed off and continued downstream.

Here in Florida, live alligators are a common sight -but you almost never see a dead one, at least, not in the wild. I suspect it’s because Mother Nature is so brilliant at tidying up. When an organism at the top of the food chain kicks the bucket, she simply sends in her many and diverse cleanup crews. If you think of the alligator as a demolition site, vultures are like bulldozers, paving the way for myriads of other creatures, all of them drawn by the promise of a little sustenance, a share of the spoils.

Only rarely are we privileged to witness the transfer of energy on such a relatively massive scale. Usually its more subtle and covert, occurring on a microscopic level, a river of energy flowing from point to point, population to population, a staggering, not-quite-infinite number of tiny energy transactions, the economy of the wild.

By the time I returned, some weeks later, the carcass had vanished entirely. But high overhead, there were dozens of vultures, effortlessly riding the thermals.

Drought Fishing

Saturday, October 11th, 2008

The little pond had almost disappeared. Another week or two and it would dry up completely, victim of the worst drought in Florida’s history. I was shocked and saddened to find it in this condition; I was expecting the same perfect microcosm I’d chanced upon many years ago, an obsidian pool hidden deep in the forest, decked with emerald lotus leaves and patrolled by iridescent dragonflies. What I found instead was a scummy puddle in a field of mud. Parched and lifeless, or so it seemed.

I stepped onto the exposed lakebed. The muddy ground was cracked and broken into slabs. The cracks were shin deep, and filled with gasping fish, bream and bluegills and largemouth bass, packed like sardines in a tin, with barely enough water to cover their backs.

Without warning, a great blue heron landed nearby. I sensed that it was sizing me up, so I pretended to ignore it. Moving slowly, I planted the tripod in the mud, mounted the camera on it, and looked through the viewfinder. It was still there, poised for flight, eyeing me suspiciously.

To the big heron, the lure of easy prey was strong. Eventually it decided I was harmless and began to hunt. With the grace and balance of a tai chi master it prowled the tortured lakebed, scanning the cracks and crevices for a flash of silver scales.

The hunting was good and the killings quick. It speared fish after fish with its dagger-sharp bill, then swallowed them whole, “converting fish energy into bird energy,” as the nature gurus say.

Then it left, again without warning and for reasons of its own. Fearing that my presence might discourage other birds, I left too.

The Seafood Solution (excerpt)

Saturday, October 11th, 2008

(2001 Florida Magazine Association Charlie Award Winner, Best Article In A Magazine Under 50,000 Circulation)

As the world’s fisheries become depleted, an ailing seafood industry struggles to stay afloat…

The little fish wasn’t going quietly, which was fine by me. I was in the deck chair, working the heavy boat rod. We were pretty evenly matched at first; I’d crank some line in, he’d strip it back off. But after a minute or two I began to get the upper hand. I still couldn’t see him, but I could sense he was almost done.

I was thirteen. We lived in the keys, where almost everybody fished almost every day. My father and I were out on a friend’s charter boat, and after an unusually unproductive morning I was about to land dinner. Suddenly there was a violent jolt; the rod bent double and nearly left my hands. Then the line went slack and I quickly reeled it in. On the end there was only a bloody fishhead, trailing a few shattered vertebrae. Even the fish looked kind of surprised.

Dad examined the carnage. “Pompano,” he said. “Too bad, they’re good eatin’.” We scanned the quiet water for a clue to what just happened. Then we saw the black triangular fin maybe fifty feet off the stern, cleaving the surface like the conning tower of a nazi sub. It was a big shark -big to us, at least- hovering in the pale green gulf and looking for another handout. Dad’s eyes were bright. “You want it, boy?” he asked. I didn’t, but nodded anyway -when you’re thirteen, some rites of passage just aren’t negotiable. They strapped me in and rigged up “John Henry” -the heaviest rod on the boat. Dad impaled an entire mullet on a massive treble hook and tossed it in the shark’s direction. In an instant the fight was on.

It took about twenty minutes to land the shark. We brought it back to the dock so everyone could admire it, and us. Then we threw it away.

Reprinted from Water’s Edge Magazine, November 2001

Lido Beach

Saturday, October 11th, 2008

Lido Beach (2004)

On the restless border of two worlds
time is a shadow
in the burrow of a ghost crab,
the fleeting radiance of a
morning glory,
the fierce hunger of a heron.

In the soft sand,
every passage is recorded.
Evidence is preserved, at least
for a while.

The tide rises,
bearing gifts for the gathering gulls.
Water-worn shells tumble in the surf.
Sand returns to sand.

What the waves can’t conquer,
the wind compels,
scattering the golden sea oats,
driving the dunes down, grain by grain.