On February 21, I participated in Boyd Hill’s Writers at the Preserve, alongside USFSP writing guru Dr. Thomas Hallock, Tribune reporter Wendy Joan Biddlecombe, and Jeff Klinkenberg. We talked about finding nature in the city.
Me, being me, of course, well, I talked about finding a body in Clam Bayou. Or, rather, how very much I want to find a body in Clam Bayou. To be fair, I’ll take a body anywhere, as long as I don’t know the body and it’s in some sort of wild setting. Clam Bayou just seems like the best bet, locally. Don’t judge me. At least, don’t judge me before you read this:
Clam Bayou, a tidal estuary dividing Gulfport’s eclectic “anything goes” lifestyle and St. Petersburg’s ordered, less-affluent suburbs, lacks the forests of the swamp, but the muck and the mangroves mire me in untamed Florida all the same. When the voices in my head start to crowd out rational thought, I throw my kayak atop my car and head to our own local wetlands. On most days, I will pass at least one other kayaker, but the bayou is filled with mangrove tunnels and twists and turns and all too easily I can escape the living and pretend, just for an hour, that I am alone.
It was on one such paddle where I spied the crown of a bright yellow motorbike helmet, trapped in a cage of stained red mangrove roots. My breath caught and my heart pounded, and I felt just a touch of breakfast roll in my stomach. I could not see the face mask, and the murky bottom fogged the water and anything else, such as, oh, an arm, that may have found its way to the swamp with the helmet. I paddled closer, then stopped, and stared at the helmet, trying to convince myself that, after all, it’s just a discarded helmet. Gingerly, I prodded it with my paddle, trying to knock it loose so it could bob harmlessly away, and prove to my fears unfounded. The helmet remained comfortably ensconced in its mangrove jail. I poked harder, and steeled myself for whatever horrors the crabs had done to the poor soul lucky enough to meet his end near the bayou.
Along Florida’s rivers and creeks, some paddlers see gators in every felled log and snakes on every twig, but me? I see dead people. In all honesty, I would love to find a body in Clam Bayou.
If Florida novelist Carl Hiaasen (or myriad others, really) is to be believed, every patch of swamp in the Sunshine State harbors at least one decaying body awaiting discovery. That makes sense; if I were to kill someone – or, more probably, if someone were to kill me – the Everglades is the place to head with the still-warm body. Florida’s palustrine wilderness is perfect for body stashing: weigh it down enough, find a patch of land not often visited, and the muck, wildlife, and humidity will cover your tracks in short order. That’s part of Florida’s dark magic: it is at the very core of the “man against nature” battle we see in some of literature’s most well-read works. Except it is not the literature we recall from our high school English classes, the kind of “literature” that, in your head, you always hear with a posh British accent. This is the prose of Florida’s outback and, in the case of pockets of wilderness like Clam Bayou, Florida’s “near back.” The swamp is a pulsing, breathing, squiggling entity of life and, just as often, death, and while some come to Florida with hopes of finding paradise, I always keep an eye out for dead people.
Let me explain. I am no murderer, and I probably wouldn’t handle finding a dead body very well at all. But I do believe much of the mythology pulp fiction about Florida: we have lots of people in the Sunshine State, many from somewhere else, and some of those people didn’t come here for the white sand beaches and excellent sport fishing. Running away to paradise, apparently, isn’t just for people who are escaping a boring career; some are escaping far more sinister things. I believe, just as much as I believe in the moon’s effect on the tides or the first law of thermodynamics, that if you poke at the state’s dark, wild edges long enough, you will, one day, find a clump of hair attached to a corpse, quite possibly floating amongst the nearest mangroves)
Stick with me. I do not pretend my desires aren’t macabre. What proper lady wishes to find a dead body, much less one almost literally in her backyard? I am a kind of Pantheist. I find divinity when surrounded by the wildness. And for someone to regard this estuary, Clam Bayou – though it contains neither clams, nor is it by definition, a bayou – worthy of swallowing a person would mean that it had, perhaps, earned a place of respect, a place of gothic mystery, alongside the rest of wild Florida. A body in Clam Bayou is an acknowledgment that Florida’s dark heart beats closer than we admit.
We crave wilderness and expect it as we chase the braids of water slipping into the Everglades, or gazing into in the unplumbed blue of a spring. But there is true wilderness – the wilderness we can all touch – much closer to home. These feral pockets of Florida, the Salt Creeks and the Clam Bayous, are not the untamed expanse of the Ten Thousand Islands or our national forests. They are under-valued, overtaxed, and fettered with signs of humanity’s inhumanity to nature. Florida’s forgotten, or perhaps, simply too familiar, wilderness abuts town homes, billboards, and pavement. We discount and devalue it with sneers, talking of a “bay beach” or an “impaired waterway.” We do not count them as gems, but as failures.To quote Rodney Dangerfield, they get no respect.
This particular politically-charged mosaic of flotsam, jetsam, herons, and crabs has seen better days. It has also seen worse ones. You will not find the elusive ghost orchid here, but step deep enough and you will find a perfectly preserved record of snack food wrappers from 1998 through the present day.
Forget the Cheetos wrappers and plastic bottles in the settling pond, and Clam Bayou is a twist of mangroves, muck, and magic. The pull of my paddle as it makes tiny eddies in the water, the slurp of the muck as it swallows my feet at the put in, the scrape of the oysters scrape along my kayak’s lime-tinted hull: all these things spin the spell of the swamp. Man exists with wilderness, and wilderness exists in spite of man.
This wilderness has, to put it delicately, issues. Part Gulfport, part St. Petersburg, part State, and many parts private property, equal the makings of an environmental and political disaster. The world put a lot of pressure on Clam Bayou to filter contaminants like car oil, fertilizer, and pesticides out of the water before it meandered out to Boca Ciega Bay.
Those things remain unseen, and had it been only for those additions to the herons, mullet, and crabs, Clam Bayou might still appear untouched. But add to that shopping carts, potato chip bags, and an almost-archival collection of fast-food cola cups, and the neighbors start to get vocal at city council meetings. At these reality-TV shows in the making that pass for local government, these people do not call Clam Bayou wilderness. It is damaged, impaired, ruined. No one calls it “savage” or “primitive” or “untamed.”
It may not have the sawgrass prairie of the Everglades or Manatee Springs’ emerald-tinged cobalt depths, but the crabs and the muck and the fish in Clam Bayou will reclaim a body just as quickly. It is in the heart of Florida, in her swamps and muck ponds, no matter how close they lie to a fairway or shopping mall, where the real energy of life returns to the world.
That’s what I feel, what I know about Clam Bayou. That’s what I hope for, what I wanted to see, that day, when the bright yellow crown of the motorcycle helmet peeked from the muddy depths. And I admit, I was afraid. Finally, with a great, giant sucking noise, it broke free from the trees and the bog. I admit, I was relieved when it revealed no head with no body or body parts attached. After all, I’m not a monster. Still, I sighed and pull it onto my kayak to throw out when I returned to shore.