Under the empty blue sky which conceals millions of massive spiral galaxies, there is something about ice cream that is comforting. At the Marble Slab in Clearwater, where it is served up with great silver scoops on slabs of cold marble and mixed with various candies, children of all ages routinely stop by with one or more parents or grandparents to enjoy a frozen vanilla or chocolate dripping over the side of a cone. The relaxed little families sit outside in the orange glow of the setting sun and go on about the newest American Idols and one can perceive in the loving looks of the adults an outlandish hope that something in these cherished descendents will outlast time, some curve of a chin or a certain cowlick or an upturned nose; that some genetic memory will persist through millions of eons and, however faintly, refer to an atom of the joys and sacrifices and dreams of these mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers.
So it is with the deepest apology to all these doting customers of the Marble Slab and to all others who have sacrificed everything for their children in this weary and uncertain time, that I confess I have recently pondered who will be the next species to replace our own, at least in the great state of Florida. Who will take over what is left, once our oversized apartment buildings are empty and our children’s electronic toys are left unnoticed on the carpet, and once the beautiful songs of the mockingbird rising up early in the morning do not have to contend with the din and clamor of sirens, trucks, jackhammers, and rattling helicopters.
If we have learned anything at all from the past, this distant future will exclude the descendents of these cherished children whose pictures are so carefully framed in all the bedrooms and living rooms of Tampa, Sarasota, Miami and Vero Beach, but will belong instead to an odd species who we currently take little notice of, one who we view as non-threatening, and undeserving of our attention.
Emerging from the ancient cypress swamps, the small and unspectacular green lizards are worthy examples of creatures who might be able one day take over the state. I have often noticed, as they race around on the grass and under hibiscus bushes and in garages everywhere in Florida, that they all seem to be on a profoundly serious quest, their wrinkled scaly noses to the grindstone so to speak, unlike those they abandoned in the swamp, the easy-going slow-roaming families of snapping turtles still climbing upon each other in the afternoon sun and the incurious water moccasins lazily waving like moss from damp branches. As if they were preparing the way for some momentous day, these energetic lizards actually hustle the way individuals do when they have many important tasks to accomplish, although the reptiles are discretely silent about what these chores are.
Nevertheless, their attentive bulging eyes have seen the sunlight belong to many generations of creatures, have witnessed one predominant population replace another in the long cruel journey of time which is perhaps the reason they are always in such a hurry not to be caught napping.
Now, the great grand-lizards of our day are presently keeping track of every condo going up and every bridge being built and every highway being widened. For although we are running out of space in our trailer parks, gated communities and seashore condos, millions of lizards are simply finding more newly planted palm trees to hide in, more outdoor screens to climb, and more brand new light fixtures in which to lay their eggs. These cheerful and silent hunters of insects are extraordinary climbers and there is not much of the world unavailable to their explorations. Their little footpads with suction discs help them get up walls and across ceilings and of course they all recognize the importance of climbing telephone poles and cell phone towers, if just to see the newest roof being repaired from hurricane damage.
Their scouts are hiding in the dead leaves of the immense live oaks on every block in every suburb; are running across the railings of every balcony of every seaside apartment by every bay and waterway in the state.
And as their world has been completely transformed, as bogs and sinkholes and quicksand and the dark tropical terror of the cedar swamps have been transmuted into millions of front yards of tough spongy St Augustine grass, the cautious industrious lizards, like their alligator cousins, have always adapted and flourished. Being cold-blooded, they cannot maintain a constant body temperature like our great-grandchildren who need only wear a lovingly hand-knitted sweater, so a chilly evening will immobilize even the most adventurous and aspiring of lizards. But with global warming on the burning orange horizon this will not be too much of a problem.
Surrounded by water, Florida has long been sheltered by the sea’s vastness and mystery – which brings me to another of my picks to take our place, the Atlantic horseshoe crab, the living fossil we have always been reluctant to treasure and value, but who is already over 400 million years old. This prototype of an olive-colored tank has certainly been the object of our indifference and condescension ever since discovered on the east coast from Florida to Maine. She is as undomesticated and inscrutable and even more primeval and instinctive than the lizard. Timeless, ancient, and harmless, she comes to shore under a full moon to mate and lay her eggs.
Still slightly sandy and dazed from a year’s retreat in the deep ocean, she suddenly emerges with all her hard-shelled neighbors, with only a rudimentary immune system, crawls through one billion gram negative bacteria crowding ominously on the tidal flats, in order to find a stolid mate along a tranquil shoreline. Of course, these hardy crabs will never meet the lizards who have hidden themselves up under the drainpipes and in the cracks of foundations of all those waterfront cottages and motels, their scrunched up wrinkled faces still emerging frequently to see if any storms are surging across the street and threatening to flood their tiny living quarters.
But my guess is that the lizards are already aware of what happens when these crabs are thrown upside down by the waves, are already watching them lying on their backs helplessly waving their legs in the air, stranded by the outgoing tide. In any case, both species seem to know that time is on their side, that the untroubled heart of a patient earth has given them immeasurable eons to dream.
Only recently has the future of this crab seemed vulnerable. Fishermen are gathering large numbers of horseshoe crab eggs as bait for conch and eels even though this crab’s precious eggs continue to feed millions of migrating shore birds. And, more ominously, biomedical companies have recently discovered the clotting and antibacterial capacity of its blood. Thus, for every 100,000 eggs the mother crabs now so carefully deposit in the sand at the tide’s edge, only thirty will develop into juvenile crabs. But their survival skills are still impressive enough to include them here as a rival to the restless lizard. Just as the lizard’s extraordinary adaptation lets him find a home anywhere in an overcrowded world that is running out of homes, so the primitive immune system of the horseshoe crab puts her into contention in a world full of ever more dangerous germs, viruses and poisons.
So here we have it: the ambitious ferociously curious lizards looking like tiny dinosaurs, who are always watching us, who always know whenever we leave the house and whenever we return; and who are always on guard against the terrifying lawnmowers, and the stolid introverted plodding horseshoe crab, content with her lot and her unobtrusive destiny. Though one day she might be the only survivor in the state, she will still wisely bury herself on the bottom of the Atlantic for the winter to take her rest so that she might last another 400 million years.
Neither face (although the crab has nine ears) seems attractive enough, intelligent enough, or familiar enough for the grandfathers in their flowered shirts to put them on the mantel. But, as I dip into my deep yellow vanilla ice cream and enjoy the afternoon sun, I ponder what now seems so inevitable: that whatever catastrophe brings us to our knees – the weather, pandemics, a polluted ocean, mold, Type II diabetes, terrorists, the result will be the same. When in the uncompromisingly severe process of evolution, our joys and sacrifices and dreams come to nothing, be assured that the distant star clusters will carry on as they always have, and Venus will stay just to the left of the thin crescent moon as usual, and the untroubled and benign heart of a patient earth, who has never once underestimated even the most humble and unassuming creature, will once again begin her inscrutable quest for a complex coherent mind and a conscience. And it is then that her lizards will finally reveal their surprising promise, and her healthy and beloved horseshoe crabs, with new confidence and dignity will slowly and carefully crawl ashore under a full moon.
©2006 Linda Clarke Volume 7 Issue 3