Recently, my husband and I spent a week on vacation in the furthest, southern, sunny geography in the continental United States; south Florida. We also recently spent several rainy, winter months in counseling in Seattle, Washington. We didn’t choose to go to Florida, and if we didn’t have to, we wouldn’t have chosen to go to counseling. But my husband, the intrepid bread-winner, won this trip to the Sunshine State through his work. It was a rare accomplishment for his large company, and since we were not taking the kids, it was also a rare opportunity for us to spend some extended time alone.
I was mostly excited; only a touch nervous.
We started off being utterly spoiled at the Ritz Carlton on Key Biscayne. This was the company portion of the trip. In those four days we took a boat tour around Miami, went to a Heat basketball game (my husband is a huge NBA fan), and took an air boat tour of the Everglades. We ate, drank and slept our fill over four days in luxurious style. Like a relaxing, self-endulgent massage on tense muscles, it was a perfect way to soften us up for the rest of our trip—our personal vacation away from the company people, deeper south in Key West. We left the Ritz, somewhat remorsefully, and made our way, slowly, southward along Hwy 1 where we would spend three days alone.
But before we could get there, we had to drive through the Everglades.
The Everglades is actually not a swamp, but a river. It’s a remarkably lazy one because it moves (slides really) off the edge of Southern Florida at a whiplashing rate of a half mile a day. When it reaches the ocean, the fresh (although muddy) water mixes with the shallow, light blue seas of the Caribbean. If you draw a latitudinal line through the Everglades all the way around the Earth you will not find another geography like it. It is a truly unique ecosystem.
The Everglades is also a petri dish for wildlife. If, by chance, a new species makes it way to this lazy river, that species proliferates beyond its typical boundaries. It grows larger, more resilient than usual, disturbing all other things and creating chinks in the chain of homeostasis. Apparently geriatrics are not the only population who thrive in Florida.
Like most ecosystems, the Everglades are sensitive to change. The slightest hiccup; the subtraction or addition of a plant or animal can bring sweeping and permanent change to all the parts. The most publicized, and perhaps most exotic of these invasive species is the Burmese Python. Sometime in the 80s, no doubt a misguided pet owner channeling his inner Michael Jackson, let lose some Burmese Pythons that had grown too big to wrap around their mullets. That mistake resulted in a population of Pythons that are now estimated in the 100s of thousands. These monster-sized snakes are now eating the natural predators at the top of the Everglade food chain, the alligators. In some areas, the Pythons have devoured 90% of the animal life; everything from wrens to deer.
Realizing the potential for destruction of one of the world’s most unique habitats, the government now spends $500 million dollars a year trying to save it. And it’s not just from Pythons; there are trees, snails, mice and yes, men who want to take over this prime real estate.
As we traveled south I thought of those Pythons. People in Florida hate them. They hold contests to see who can kill the most snakes. Once, a tour guide operator even jumped in after a one attempting to wrestle it with his bare hands. He was almost strangled to death in front a group of tourists. Pythons are Everglade Public Enemy #1 but they didn’t really do anything wrong. They are just Pythons being Pythons. But that doesn’t change the fact that they don’t belong there, even if they like the warm weather and plentiful golf courses. It does not change the fact that if left unfettered, they will destroy a good thing.
As I looked out the car window onto the mangroves and saw grass, it hit me. I’ve let loose Pythons in my marriage.
Marriage Pythons are unforgiven deeds. Resentments. Marriage Pythons are deadly and if allowed to grow unfettered, they will proliferate and destroy 90% of all the other pieces that make a marriage unique and beautiful. If you can’t stop the Marriage Pythons, the ecosystem will collapse. Right then I decided to become a Python hunter, but since I’m more a catch and release kind of gal, I’m not killing them. I’m caging them. Studying them.
Now, I see Pythons all the time. I’ve learned how they move, where they hide, what they eat and where they breed. I’m catching them one by one. I’m giving them names, shining a light on them inside their cages and letting your little fingers to tap on the glass. Hopefully, I’m educating a few on the dangers of owning exotic animals, 80s hair and marriage pitfalls.
By the time we reached sunny Key West, I had recommitted myself—not to my husband, but to honing my most valuable Python catching tool: forgiveness. So far, it’s been the hardest thing yet.
But Key West wasn’t the furthest we had to go on this journey south. We went even further. We took a float plane 70 miles south to the most southern and key of all; The Dry Tortugas. This is where a pre Civil War military fort, Fort Jefferson, has been turned into a pristine and magical animal sanctuary and protected state park.
Fort Jefferson’s history is gruesome; a tropical island of horrors. Slaves built the fort in the early 1800s. They are called The Dry Tortugas because the island lacks access to fresh water. The fort was designed to sit on top of a massive cistern that would hold fresh rain water. But the engineering was faulty and the massive brick structure collapsed under its weight, cracking the cistern and filling the surrounding moat with sewage water. Imagine a moat of standing sewage in tropical heat? During the Civil War prisoners and soldiers in their heavy wool uniforms were forced to stay here. Disease ran rampant. Many tried to escape, and many others died.
Today, the moat is clear blue ocean water. The canons and shackles are rusted relics and the attached land is a rookery for all kinds of beautiful tropical birds. As we walked this empty, ethereal and solemn place, I realized that this was me. I am a fort, on an island, in a shallow sea and if I do not seek peace, I may collapse under my own weight, surrounding myself with sewage water while chained to the wall. I am also beautiful, magical, a sanctuary. I can be deadly. My history; flawed. If I cannot learn to forgive even myself, to turn the page, if I cannot hunt the Pythons inside my head and bring the waters to homeostasis, I might flood my moat and destroy my own habitat.
I came home from Florida changed. But do you know the best part of all? The most heart-clenching truth I found in this most southern, foreign of places? That sometimes is it out of war, that beauty arises. Sanctuaries are found. That love lives on behind high walls and dirty waters.