Nature's Wet, Unexpected Wildness

IT's been three years since farm chores have beckoned us outside. In rain or snow, humidity or chill, we worked out-of-doors and came to enjoy the unique quirks of nature's personality. Unfortunately, with city life we've lost touch with the daily drama beyond our windowpanes. Just recently we were surprised to experience the elements at their most awesome.

In the space of 10 days, my family and I have had two such encounters with the unpredictable nuances of nature. Both benevolence and fury have left their mark upon us. I've been reminded of something I once had the luxury of knowing regularly. In the merest blade of grass or passing cloud resides great promise.

When we set out for a short trip to Florida, we expected to see the unusual. We walked through the swampy wetness of the Everglades, where brown bumps in murky water meant alligators and where the strange oilless anhinga birds stood motionless with wings outstretched to dry. We took a glass-bottomed boat trip to a living coral reef and saw rainbow-colored fish darting by. We watched amazed as red-throated lizards drank their water from the heart of the sword-leafed bromeliad, and though our daughters tri ed again and again, they never caught even one. There were daily marvels, but one day caught us completely by surprise.

After driving four hours west, we reached the beach on Sanibel Island. As we walked through the sandy parking lot and past the sea grape shrubs, we found the beach and stopped. It was 4 p.m., the tide was out, and the sky seemed to stretch on forever. Our eyes dropped to the white sand and discovered there a sight I never thought I'd see. It was as if all the shells of the sea had been gathered by some giant Neptune and deposited upon this stretch of beach. Shells of all sizes, shapes, and colors lay thi ckly everywhere we looked. I could have sat down there upon that beach amid those shells for hours, drinking in the wonder of it all. Instead, we all leaped into action.

My husband and two older daughters hit the water with masks and snorkels to look for baby conchs, large olive shells, and smooth round moon shells that were still hidden under a few feet of water. They had to walk out for about 10 feet in water up to their knees before reaching the deeper place where the sandbar had rolled those shells.

Meanwhile, my two younger daughters and I joined the other beachcombers in the characteristic stoop along the shore's edge. With our buckets we bent over and over again to sift through the piles of speckled pectins to find rarer pointy augers, brown and white spiraled whelks, perfect turkey wings, and large cockles. Our three-year-old was soon delighting in the oranges and pinks of the still living coquinas that burrowed in the sand.

With buckets and bags full, we decided to take a break and cool off in the still shallow water. It seemed as if everyone that day was discovering treasures that I had only seen in books. There were slender eight-armed starfish, which we examined excitedly but put back underwater. There were gray and bristly sand dollars still living and unbleached. The baby conchs were showing up here and there, and we were becoming connoisseurs of their differing inside colors. One with a rare purple had my husband jump ing up to share his find.

As I went walking in two feet of blue-green water as warm as an evening bath, I looked down and saw the shell of my dreams - an 8-inch copper-colored perfectly conical conch, its tip an unscratched point. I reached down and met resistance. The strange suction that I felt suddenly gave way and as I lifted it above the water I saw a perfect baby Horse Conch - Florida's state shell. As I turned it over to look inside I glimpsed a shocking bright-orange glob protruding. It quickly retreated into its shell an d I knew my prize could not come home with me when I saw two black eyes peek out.

We all gathered around my Horse Conch agreeing it was the best find of the day. We carried it in our bucket until evening shadows and hunger beckoned us back indoors. My husband walked out as far as he could and threw the Horse Conch back, a small thanksgiving for the sea's munificence.

By the time we'd been back home in Kentucky for three days, shells were spread everywhere. We were recovering from sun and salt and sand when skies overhead darkened ominously. A mighty blast from the tornado signal alerted us to impending menace. While my husband and I sat listening to the radio report, the four girls rushed around choosing their favorite things to stash in the basement. If the tornado blew our house away, at least porcelain dolls, stuffed animals, favorite blankets from babyhood, books , and pillows would be saved.

Until the rain began in earnest, they trooped down the stairs to the dirt-floored basement and created a pile of treasures. The storm was unyielding in its fury. Rain pounded so hard that gutters on the roof overflowed, and the kitchen ceiling leaked. The dogs cowered by our sides, while thunder crashed directly overhead and lightning flashed. We sat subdued, yet awed at this display of nature's power. The peaceful reticence of the sea on the Sanibel beach seemed like a dream.

Two hours later, the storm was over and we were relieved to emerge from our still intact house and survey the damage. My tall, leafy spearmint plants were bent to the ground like dominoes in a line. The street ran with water, our backyard was a pond, and our basement, that potential refuge, was flooded 15 inches. The murky sight that met our eyes was not a pleasant one to see.

The girls groaned. Their treasures, floating in the muddy water, were reminiscent of the gators we had seen just a few days earlier in the swamp. My husband and I exchanged quick grins at nature's irony. Piece by piece, we dragged the precious, water-logged bundles up the stairs and squeezed brown water from 10-pound pillows and cloth-bodied dolls. One well-loved tattered blanket didn't emerge until two days later, when the water had been siphoned out.

Meanwhile, inside our house, everywhere I look I am reminded of nature's impact. Shells upon our table are being transformed into mirror frames and magnets. I find shells under chairs, in the bathtub, and even glowing in the dark, a nightlight's shade.

Our front porch is the scene of drying dolls, their painted faces freshly scrubbed and shiny. Upstairs, books are lying open on the floor while fans blow drying air upon them. The smell of sea and mold is everpresent.

After the beach each night, I used to feel the rocking of the waves as I drifted off to sleep. After the storm, there was, for a short while, a luminous, gilded light breaking through the clouds. The air had changed and new coolness drifted through our windows all that night.

We have seen, in such a short space of time, how nature can inundate and uncover, revealing both its power and its wealth. The Horse Conch I often wish I had is back amid its depths, and I am grateful to have glimpsed these transforming fragments of nature's wet, unexpected wildness.

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