Searching for Mr. Watson

Two frat brothers make a healing pilgrimage to a legendary renegade's retreat in the heart of the Everglades.

Published October 16, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Just minutes after I leave my home in northeastern Florida to drive down to the Everglades to search for Mr. Watson, I zip past a wood stork. It is standing at the side of the entrance ramp to the busy interstate, looking at once noble and woefully misplaced -- like a lonely chess piece on a checker board.

The Glades with its vast subtropical wilderness is a good five hours away at the other end of the state. But the stork is here anyway. It is knee-deep in a drainage ditch -- cars whizzing by on their way to Disney World without a notion of whatever it can be -- and it is doing what wading birds like it have been doing in Florida since before anything like a human or a theme park arrived. It is sweeping its curved beak through the cloudy water, hoping to connect with something alive there.

My friend Terry, an old college pal who will paddle the other end of our canoe, misses the bird altogether, not because he is obtuse, but because he lives on the opposite rim of the country and his senses are already saturated with local exotica. It will take a mighty dose of melodrama to jar him.

"Wood stork," I say, pointing with one hand and driving us onto Interstate 4 with the other.

"Is that a rare bird?" asks Terry earnestly, and I tell him that it is. I say I am both heartened to see it and disturbed that it has ranged so far outside its natural home. Not so long ago, this bird with the head that seems fire-charred -- this "iron head" -- was so integral to the Glades it was considered a barometer of its health. But the Everglades are on the brink, have been for a while now. The wood stork is trying to roll with this change, ranging far outside its historic territory.

Terry is from three decades worth of my past, a fraternity brother and ex-jock, a reformed party animal like myself seeking redemption in the solitude of distant natural places. Individually, we have struggled to unravel the jumble of civilized threads to get at the nugget of ourselves buried inside. From its discovery, we have come to learn this nature offered solace, living Whitmanesque lessons in the values of singularity and tolerance.

And so Terry hikes east of Los Angeles, back into places like Death Valley and Borrego Springs and camps there. I live in Florida and kayak on any wild body of water I can find -- the St. Francis Dead River, the Wekiva, the Mosquito Lagoon.

Now we are headed together to the Glades, to canoe deep into its distant western boundary in a hunt for the "Watson Place," a pre-Columbian Calusa midden mound. It is a 40-acre composite of shell and stunted tropical foliage, a thread between us and the time-wronged desperado who once lived there.

Like the Glades and the wood stork, we too are on the brink, aging jocks ranging beyond what is safe and known. In this way, we sweep through the experiences that still lie before us, hoping to connect with something alive and vital. All we are sure of is that we have come to appreciate wilderness for the way it lays itself down on the soul.

Unlike other men who seek solace in this way, we don't carry traditional props; we are not hunters or dapper L.L. Bean campers. I carry a set of old binoculars to watch for avi-fauna, but the truth is, beyond raptors and tropical wading birds, I'm lost unless a species appears clear and unobstructed in the scope. As for our gear, it is jerry-rigged and stuffed into duffels and garbage bags and plastic buckets. Instead of giant foil pouches of official freeze-dried camp food, I have brought noodles-in-a-cup and tins of tuna and chicken. We have granola bars that look and taste like Oreos compressed into little rectangles. I imagine Jack Kerouac, when he went up on Desolation Peak out West, might have packed like this.

But I do place a lot of significance on a compass and the correct nautical map to lead me in and out of untamed places like this. Each tiny paper squiggle, each logarithmic degree corresponds to something tangible -- an oxbow or bar or tiny islet. Once ground-truthed, these coordinates can sometimes nudge the senses, linking near-meaningless geographic names to remarkable places on the landscape. Ahead in the Glades, my map promises Pavilion and Buzzard Keys, Chokoloskee and Rabbit Key Passes, Lostman's and Chatham Rivers.

I have tucked both compass and map inside a waterproof seal-lock baggy I will carry on my lap when we finally reach our canoe. Also in the baggy is a paperback copy of Peter Matthiessen's novel "Killing Mr. Watson."

As I drive south on I-95, this idea amuses me, as if the immediacy of the adventure will require me to be ready at any time to understand direction, latitude and literary metaphor. But this book and its sequels is the thread that has relinked Terry and myself after all these years, something real our adult selves respond to that goes far beyond the retelling of old locker room jokes and keg party stories.

In "Watson," "Lost Man's River" and "Bone by Bone," Matthiessen uses the real life and death of renegade cane-grower Ed Watson to re-create a wild place and a maverick culture special to southwest Florida. But if his books are about a vanished time, they are also about the social evolution of perception, about how the realities of a richly embroidered moment -- or a mystifying personality -- can be spun down into simple-minded slogans. Time has treated both the Glades and the strong, passionate man who was E.J. Watson this way, turning the magnificent Everglades into a swamp and the complex E.J. into "Bloody Watson."

Like me, Terry had read the Matthiessen trilogy on Watson's life and demise. Like me, he felt a kinship with Watson -- a complex soul who existed far outside the monotone of local myth. The connection was profound, personal: During our jock-frat era, we were both regarded as "bad actors," guys who might do most anything at any time. We fought in bars, we drank to the point of temporary pyschosis. We were confused, and when we both quit sports halfway through school, we became chaotic. Terry was fast and good with his fists and seldom lost a fight; I was strong and slow and punched in doors, old hardwood ones. We were considered "dangerous," and when not being dangerous, we were dead drunk.

That was a long time ago, of course, and we had each learned a lot since then -- though our old acquaintances, now businessmen and lawyers and doctors, weren't quite convinced. I have been a writer for 25 years, choosing subjects that champion the put-upon earth and the people who care for it. Later in life, Terry decided to become a therapist. Now we laugh at the irony between our old personas and our current lives -- and at the doubting frat brothers with whom we have been out of touch for years -- but the truth is that, deep down, those old realities still hurt.

Certainly, Watson had been hurt, too. In "Bone," which provides an astounding insight into how the wounds of childhood shaped the adult Watson, a young Ed finds himself at an emotional crossroads: "I knew my life had lost its purchase. The future was flying away forever, like a dark bird crossing distant woods. Not knowing which way to turn, with no one to confide in, I hurried onward ..."

Terry and I hurried onward, too, but we eventually prevailed as adults -- not because we were better people than Ed Watson, but because we lived in a different time. We had learned just enough about pyschology to understand the grace of forgiving ourselves.

Matthiessen confesses to having "reimagined" Ed Watson's life. But in doing so, he admits the retelling probably "contains much more of the truth of Mr. Watson than the lurid and popularity accepted 'facts.'" If I were honest, I would admit that searching for Mr. Watson was a way of reimagining ourselves -- by visiting Watson's still-intact nature world, we might find atonement in the complexities of our own lives.

But searching for Mr. Watson is not a walk in the woods. The Glades is a sprawling subtropical territory larger than the state of Delaware; ranger stations and interpretive boardwalks dot the outer edges, but inside, sawgrass stretches to the east, and mud-rooted mangroves to the west, leaving little dry land in between. It is, as Matthiessen has observed, a "labyrinthal wilderness," and its sheer lack of accessibility has been the secret to keeping it so.

Or, as "Lost Man" character Speck Daniel puts it: "What the hell kind of tourist would beat his way three to four miles back up a mangrove river to take a picture of some raggedy ol' lonesome place?"

Down we go on the notorious I-95 into Miami, the car-jacking, drug-shuttling, neon-rocker-paneled, middle-finger-in-the-air conduit, finally turning west near the Latino bustle of Calle Ocho. From here, we drive through block after block of urban landscape that barely a half century ago was fresh-water marl prairie, bristling with great fields of sawgrass. Today it is colonized by espresso shops and Santeria botanicas, 7-Elevens and Texacos hugging every available square inch.

"Man," says Terry, shaking his head, "talk about sensory overload." I run this gantlet for an hour until we are safely west of the city, headed out across the northern boundary of the Glades. Open space and dwarfed cypress and sawgrass command the geography now, with great white cumulus billowing overhead, fed by the wet, feral terrain. There may be two more contrary realities this close to each other somewhere else in the world, but I'm not aware of them.

We are safely atop the Tamiami Trail now -- a word squeeze of "Tampa-to-Miami." It is the road that first splayed the Glades in two when it was built, water-spitting draglines and dredges crunching their way through the limerock in the 1920s.

Water-driven, the Glades is at the mercy of the kindness of strangers upstream. And this trail we are driving serves as a massive dam across it. The lazy but deliberate sheet flow of water that once swept down across southern Florida from just below Orlando is now squeezed under us through a series of mechanical gates, giant erector set-like devices built for flood control. Man plays God with the upland rainfall and water now, and as gods go, he has proved to be a baleful, selfish sort, a minor Old Testament deity with more ambition than wisdom.

Soon, we arrive at SR 29, the narrow southerly road that trails past "Panther Crossing" signs and dead-ends 6 miles south in Everglades City, the fishing village now being transformed into a RV tourist mecca on the far western tip of the park. The freshwater sweeping down from the easterly sawgrass meadows meets the coastal mangrove buffer a few miles inland from here. Everglades City is the jumping-off point for our quest.

Clinging to shards of a hard-scrabble pioneer culture still tended by a handful of stone crabbers and mullet fishermen, this little town on the edge of the park now teeters precariously towards a fun-house-mirror version of "ecotourism." Anything alive, it seems, is fair game: Airboat rides and canned "Safaris" and "Jungle Boat Tours" (Gators Guaranteed!) are everywhere, as are boutique-like souvenir shops painted peach and green, with incongruous names like "Jungle Erv's." The natural rhythm -- of place and people -- has been squeezed and massaged and marketed in a heavy-handed attempt to catch up to the trendiness that has homogenized much of Florida's coast.

As I watch a gaggle of tourists board an air-conditioned park service pontoon boat for a guided excursion onto Chokoloskee Bay, my only thought is how white and spanking clean everyone is. The outlaw plume hunters and gator poachers, turtlers and contraband smugglers -- the bona fide heirs to the Watson legend and time -- have died, trickled away, tried to grow up. "Lost Man," set in the past, foretells this gentrification: "Beaten flat, [it] would disappear beneath the tar and concrete, the tourist courts and house trailers, the noisy cars of vacationers with their red faces, sun hats, candy-colored clothes."

We are eager to get to the former Watson homesite as soon as we can. But it is now late in the day. Faced with spending a night in a motel here or paying an outfitter to ferry us and our canoe back to the old Watson mound by motorboat, we choose the later, planning to use the time saved to more thoroughly explore the creeks and sloughs of the back country on our five-day paddle back.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

A slight young man named Justin, wearing rubber white fisherman's boots, has brought us to the threshold of the Watson site in his go-fast fiberglass outboard, expertly twisting and turning the wheel behind the center console to deliver us through the lookalike puzzle of mangrove islands and tidal rivers.

Justin's new girlfriend has come along for the ride, and on our trip here, I overhear her asking him who this Watson was. Either Justin has not read the Matthiessen books or he doesn't feel like re-creating the complexities of them. He gives her the shorthand folk version, the one locals have been giving to tourists for years. "He was a guy who lived back up here and grew cane -- and when it came time to pay his hired help, he would kill them instead."

The "Watson Place" is one of several dozen primitive campsites in this odd park; most are dock-like "chickees" built where there is simply no dry land to be found. But a few, like this one, are high mounds of shell and bone constructed first by the Calusas and later colonized by farmers, fishermen and assorted renegades. It arises from the dark tannin of the Chatham River like a high natural bluff, fringed at one edge with a thick cover of snake plants -- a hardy, spiky ornamental that settlers cultivated in their yards in Florida a century and more ago. It is an odd relief, back here in this mud-driven monoculture of red and black mangrove, an exotic harbinger of other surprises yet to come.

It is 4:30 p.m. and the early spring sun is dipping down towards the top of the tall black mangroves just across the Chatham River, and Justin is anxious to get back to the marina at Everglades City before dark. We quickly unload our canoe and supplies on a narrow wooden dock. The ferocious salt water marsh mosquitoes -- "swamp angels" to the settlers -- seem to be marshaling their forces for sundown; their humming from back in the tangle of truncated tropical jungle at the edge of the clearing produces a low-grade static. It is early April, at the wane of an El Niño winter in which a few mildly colder months have barely kept a lid on the hatch of blood-sucking insects. We are as concerned about getting our mosquito-flapped tents set up as Justin is to get home to his warm bed.

As Terry and I sort through our pile of gear, Justin cranks the motor up, eases his boat away from the dock and disappears in a meringue-like froth around the corner of Chatham Bend. I think of Ed Watson's old gasoline launch, the "Brave," and how he puttered slowly down the Chatham to Chokoloskee Island in it one last time on Oct. 24, 1910, the distinctive pop-pop-pop of the ancient motor announcing his arrival to a gathering mob of islanders.

Finally alone now, we establish priorities: First, we douse ourselves with repellent, then we hurry to set up camp in the scant half-acre or so of open, weedy land. At the clearing's edge, an entangled jungle has colonized the rest of the 40-acre mound, slender trunks and boughs of native gumbo limbo and machineel gridded together like spider webs, along with lime and guava and avocado left from the Watson era, all as feral now as a herd of wild hogs.

After I work up a light sweat assembling my tent, I stop and look around, letting the reality of being atop the former Watson homestead settle in. The quiet back here is complete, so full it seems to have measurable weight.

At the edge of the Chatham River, several large red mangroves, bow-like roots arching into the oyster shell mud, frame the water. The sun dips down below them to the west, and Terry asks, "You think ol' Ed trimmed back those mangroves to give him a good view of the sunset?" and I figure he probably did.

This Watson Place is the largest shell mound for miles in any direction. The Calusas shucked oysters and clams here, discarded bones from bear and panther, manatee and deer for at least 2,000 years. Spiritually complex and savvy to nature, they understood its power -- especially the water-thrashing energy of tropical hurricanes -- and did all they could to literally rise above it.

In his time, Ed Watson painstakingly hauled timber in by boat to build a substantial two-story frame farm house here, flanking it with flowering red royal poinciana trees. It was said to be the finest of its type inside the great uncivilized wash between Ft. Myers and Key West. After Watson's death, the home was used by hunters and fishermen and squatters. Hurricane Donna damaged the house in 1960, and the park service -- looking for any excuse to clear old private structures from public land -- razed it soon afterwards,

I ask Terry if he's ready to look for Ed's homesite in the jungle, and he says he is. It is Friday night now, a weekend evening in the middle of the Everglades, darkness coming fast. A large, unseen gator bellows out a mating call from the edge of the Chatham -- or perhaps it is a territorial warning. I can't imagine being in a place more removed from the superfluous collegiate atmosphere under which Terry and I met. He must think the same of me, for we both exist far outside the social convention that first bound us.

Off we go on a narrow trail back into the wall of stunted tropical foliage, ducking under low branches. Terry has on long pants and a T-shirt sporting an ET-like extraterrestrial, a large Bowie-type knife strapped to his belt. I am in jeans and T-shirt, wearing a baseball cap that reads "Jung." Under the thick canopy back here, the sun barely penetrates -- by day, it is sepia-tinted; in the early evening, it is downright gloomy. At the edge of the trail lies a skull and skeleton, a small mammal of some sort, about the size of a raccoon, like the wild-eyed coons I have been seeing clattering about on the bow roots, dark stripes bleached almost white by salt and sun.

We are in the midst of the insect static now, and despite our repellent, the swamp angels blanket us -- hanging on for dear life, waiting for the chemical to wear off. Settlers, like Watson, virtually lived in the black smoke of smudge pots, which they kept burning day and night; when they had window screens, they rubbed crankcase oil on them to keep the insects from smothering the grid.

Just off the trail, I see what looks like knee-high concrete boundary markers, scattered haphazardly. I look closer and realize they are the original foundations Watson once built his fine house upon, raising it up a couple feet for ventilation. They are made of a tabby, crushed limerock and shells of the sort the Calusas left behind. From the elegant trunks of the gumbo limbo trees, tissue-thin patches of red-amber bark curl like the skin of a sunburnt tourist, pineapple-like bromeliads tucked away in the crooks.

Just when the buzzing seems enough to drive us mad, I notice a mysterious structure peeking out from the thick jungle just ahead. It is made of the same tabby material as the foundations, except it is rectangular, as large as a room-sized funeral vault. The park service has built a wooden cap atop it to keep people and animals from falling in. "It's Ed's cistern," I say, "where he gathered rainwater." Weathered by a century of tropical heat and rain, the tabby walls look more like the sides of an ancient Spanish mission. A gumbo limbo, far bigger than any of the others, grows from a corner of the cistern, happy for the fresh water still inside. Nearby, Ed and his family slept and dreamed, and I wonder, what of?

The swamp angels, perhaps a mutant breed, are starting to bite now, and we move as fast as we can back to our camp. I fire up my gas lantern, and as I do, an easy breeze picks up from the Chatham, enough to hold the insects at bay. We concoct a dinner swill over a one-burner stove, and as we eat, the scarlet sky turns gray, then full black. Fireflies, a rarity in Chem-Lawned Florida nowadays, dart the edge of the jungle with their green-blue light.

I look overhead to see Venus hanging just under the sliver of new moon; minutes later, the sky is as full of stars and constellations as any I have ever seen. I turn down the lantern and Terry and I sit in silence, watching meteors streak through the darkness like distant flares, as if underscoring our own sense of awe. From the Chatham, mullet leap and splash, joyous ghosts water-skipping in the night.

It is too warm for a sleeping bag, so when I crawl into my tent, I lie on top of the bag, using it as a mattress. Above, the bright stars burn a soft glow through the thin fabric. From the river, I hear a deep human-like exhalation, the sound of a bottlenose dolphin surfacing to blow. From back up the trail, a chuck-will's-widow calls its own name over and over, waiting for an answer that doesn't come. Everywhere, unseen critters rustle and gurgle in the isolation of the Everglades darkness. Instead of distressing me, this has a remarkably calming effect, as if the mound itself is exuding the timeless exhalations of all who have come here before me, the Calusas, the renegades, Ed Watson. And now, into the collective dreams of the mound I also go.

The new morning is fresh, dew on the tent and the wild grass in the clearing. After a quick breakfast, we walk the edge of the jungle, find what must have been a farm plow in the weeds, metal wheels dark red with rust. A few yards in, we discover the frame of an old truck, rubber and wood long gone. Terry takes my photograph sitting on it. Out near the shell-encrusted shore of the river, we see the 150-gallon iron kettle where Watson rendered down his cane, still mounted inside a waist-high concrete and brick pedestal. Instead of cane syrup, the kettle holds stagnant rainwater, green now with algae, tadpoles swirling back and forth just under the surface. I run my hand on the concrete rimming the kettle, realize someone once took the trouble to round and smooth the edges, a remarkable act of civilization in such a place.

Watson, as Matthiessen wisely guessed, was ambitious, a person who cared about how the world was ordered around him. He was, after all, the only white man to live on this mound more than a year or two -- farming it for nearly two decades before he was killed in 1910. I reach down to the ground, pick up a piece of metal, maybe a ladle, iron corroded beyond recognition. Watson's presence here is nearly palatable: I think of him laying down this tool 90 years ago on the edge of the smooth concrete rim, going down to Chokoloskee to take care of business, just for the afternoon.

We have spent three days here now, using the Watson mound as a base to explore local waters, seguing up into tight canopied creeks, including one that wasn't even on our map. Once back there, we paddled for almost a mile, until the tide ebbed finally out from under us, reshaping our path into an impassable slough of foliage and roots. Stoic, we rested, drank tepid water and ate granola bars, listened to the coon oysters spit, watched the mangrove crabs nervously scuttle over the mud like black mice. Terry, gracious, named the creek Belleville. From there, I saw my first swallowtail kite of the season, newly arrived from Brazil, joining the frigates soaring overhead like untethered origami. In three days, we have encountered only five other boats, and all were fishermen hunkered down, coming to or going from Florida Bay.

Each night on the mound, the chuck-will's-widow has sung his sweet sad song, a four-note serenade of all he has ever seen and can't fully say, and the stars have fallen, inexorably marking mortal time. One evening, I slept next to the water and Venus rose under a crescent moon, setting down a trail of pale light that connected me to it, a planet too distant to imagine, yet able to touch me in these Everglades.

Now, with our canoe loaded to the gunnels, we are pushing away from the mound one last time for our two-day paddle back to Chokoloskee and Everglades City. Terry began to sketch and paint several years ago, waiting for each image to "push" its way out, allowing his unseen self to become less so on paper, healing old wounds. I try to do much of the same with words, a mechanism to remind me of what I have experienced. And now, in our coming back together after all this time, we grasp onto the tangible around us, discuss it with great joy, and then let it sink back into ourselves, waiting to see what it will finally reveal.

Upstream we go on this fine river, one eye on the tree line and the sky above, the other on the map and compass. Mangroves surround us. From a distance, they seem like a diminutive northern forest, but up close, the land under them is ephemeral, water and detritus-fueled mud, rich nursery grounds for the same critters -- redfish, trout, snook, tarpon -- the fishermen hunt. Neither fully land nor water, this place has long claimed a hold on the imagination of visitors, spooking them with its mystique.

The early Spanish conquistadors, at once superstitious and brutal, first charted this territory as La Laguna de la Espirtus Santus, the Lagoon of the Sacred Spirit. As we bear down today against a building wind and outgoing tide, I think of this place in that way, a terrain with a pulse and a heart, able to breathe. Right now, its breath is sun-warmed mangrove leaves and sea purslane, a dusky perfume of salt and chlorophyll and sap.

Up the Chatham we go, following the more narrow branch that meanders to the west, once almost running aground on a shoal that mysteriously appears in the middle of the river where eight feet of water should be. Instead of working our way north through Last Huston and Huston bays, we sneak around the lee sides of mangrove islands, crouching as close to shore as we can get to avoid the wind-driven thrash of the waves that will pile up in two-foot-high whitecaps. Sometimes the water is so clear we can see blue crabs scuttling across the seagrass bottom, needle fish flashing iridescent at the surface. Other times, it is soil-brown, a moving organic soup.

As I paddle, I pay careful attention to direction, to the spin of a little sliver of metal locked inside glass, gauging how the world of mangrove and marl unfolds around us, curious how it matches up to my nautical chart.

Suddenly the air is filled with sulfur-wing butterflies fresh from a new spring hatch. We paddle through them for a mile until finally they vanish as quickly as they appeared, a rain shower of butterflies. Up to the southerly forks of Huston Bay we go, and then down again into an unnamed branch leading to the Huston River. It empties us into House Hammock Bay, named for an old clan that once homesteaded here, collecting buttonwood mangrove for charcoal like Watson did, fishing and hunting.

House Hammock is barely two feet deep, and as I dip and draw my paddle it touches mud as often as not. Ospreys are nesting everywhere, young chicks just large enough to rise up and squawk now from their huge beds of twigs. Mother birds fly over us, small mullet in their talons, headed for home. In the distance, gators, their bodies as black and corrugated as large truck tires, thrash in the water and mud to flee this odd apparition, a log with two moving heads.

We spend the night on the wooden dock chickee at Sunday Bay, and then surf the rolling breakers back out of its broad lagoon. As we do, we ride an easterly wind beyond Barnes and Crooked creeks, into the lee of the shoal-filled Cross Bays where we run aground, using our paddles as poles to finally push away. From there, we skim the conflux of Hurddles Creek and the Turner River, an intersection deep enough to hold giant half-ton manatees up from Florida Bay; they frolic like giant children, fluke-like tails out of the water, bodies rolling and churning the water in some outsized mammalian ecstasy, safe at last from motorboat props. We sit at a distance and watch in quiet obeisance, then push on towards Chokoloskee under a bright tropical sun.

Once, just after a flock of white ibis fly low across the mangrove tops, I blunder somewhere off the map, getting lost as thoroughly as I have ever been. When I tell Terry of the mistake, I joke that we must be in such a state before we can ever truly be found, and he smiles and says gently, I know what you mean, bro.

Safely back on track, we finally enter Chokoloskee Bay, windswept and sparkling in the sun, the end-game in sight now. I wonder what secrets are still hiding from us. But in the end, I decide it doesn't much matter -- this lagoon of the sacred spirit and its ghosts will be here, whether I want them to be or not.

But then, there is this: I think one last time of Ed Watson and how Matthiessen treated him more generously than life ever did. And I wish the same for the Glades itself. I wish it in my heart for Terry, for me, for us all.

By Bill Belleville

Bill Belleville is an environmental writer and documentary filmmaker who lives in Sanford, Fla. His new book is "River of Lakes: A Journey on Florida's St. Johns River," published by the University of Georgia Press.

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