Monday, October 25, 2021

Fakahatchee and Me… Memories of a Nature Girl


Stephanie Lyons points to a crocodile at one of her favorite walking spots, the Marsh Trail. Photo by Bob McConville

Stephanie Lyons points to a crocodile at one of her favorite walking spots, the Marsh Trail. Photo by Bob McConville

Every once in a while you come across an individual that is really unique; someone who has a passion for life, for learning and for teaching others. This has only happened to me a few times throughout my working career so this past year was very special.

About 18 months ago I met a young college grad who absolutely exuded the above-mentioned characteristics. That “first impression” feeling was undeniably positive. Her energy was so contagious that everyone she met wanted to spend more time with her. When she agreed to conduct eco-tours for me in the Big Cypress area I knew the public would embrace her as well. She was a great educator.

As our season was ending last April I asked her to submit a paper to me. Not a thesis or term paper but I asked that she put her heart and soul about her feelings for nature, people and our ecosystem in her own words.

I would like to share some excerpts from her writings. She is spending the summer in Maine, still teaching others about another eco-system and I know she is thriving in her new venture. Her passion to further her environmental studies education paired with her great teaching skills will take her on some amazing journeys, for sure.

From Stephanie Lyons, here is her soul, bared for the public to enjoy:

Fakahatchee and Me…

My eye catches the movement of a soft tail swinging lazily from a leaning tree. I gaze up in amazement at the large, tan body. Yellow eyes peer down, mid paw-lick, to see what lesser being has approached. His throne…a cypress tree decorated with strangler figs, gives this King of the Jungle an ample sunning spot above the dampness of the swamp. He settles in for a rest, unimpressed by my curiosity.

I couldn’t help but imagine this scene every time I approached the massive, fallen tree at the end the Big Cypress Bend boardwalk. I feel for the panthers that desperately try to understand the roadways and concrete slabs rising high above. To understand would mean they know they are not welcome. There is no place for them in our neighborhoods. How do I explain this to my guests?

Constantly thinking and teaching about the species that are no longer thriving is the hardest part of my job. I helplessly wait for the rain to come so the wood storks can have a good breeding season. I cringed as many of the fish died after high winds tore up the silt at the bottom of the canal. It would be easy to get caught up in things going wrong, but that’s not me. I reminded myself everyday about the success we have had in protecting the Everglades and the different species that live here. I looked in wonder at ghostly trees reaching toward the clouds, dripping with Spanish moss; the birds as tall as my four-year-old self. I spun around when I heard the call of a bird, trying desperately to spot the bright red feathers of a red-bellied woodpecker begging to be seen and flying off just as quickly.

It has been a dream getting to see all of this inspiration firsthand. At first, working as a guide on the Fakahatchee boardwalk was completely intimidating. The unknown was a little scary, especially when it’s as dense and wild as the Big Cypress Bend. What were these ferns and trees and nest-like bundles in their branches? What bird is making that call, when do gators hatch and how old is that tree? What’s going on with the Burmese pythons?

I wrote out a mock tour looking for transitional pieces and interesting stories. I followed

Bob’s basic outline and casual tone. I memorized facts and tried to master his wit. One thing I loved about these tours was getting to know the people who joined me. I had a man who started a training program to better equip teachers working in inner city schools, a woman who dedicated her life to preserving lighthouses on the New England coast, a seventh grade boy who has more talents and interests than most people I know.

My goal was that my guests left feeling relaxed and optimistic, interested and excited. Maybe they will teach others about the importance of the balance in nature. When it comes down to it, I could spend many days enjoying nature by myself and be happy. But sharing what I know and hearing other people’s stories fulfills me.

I have a wild imagination and can picture my panther on his throne even sitting here at my computer, worlds away from his. It’s fitting to have good imagination working in a place unlike anywhere else on the planet. A place where I saw Burmese python tracks, pink birds and fish in the clutches of sharp talons high above my head. I want to hold on to the feeling I had here of freedom. Even in the density of the strand I felt the wide openness of the area, the possibility of what I might see and all the moments that were happening that no one else was seeing. I know how cool it was for me to have this experience and see so much of this unique area.

I am confident that a part of me will always be “swamp girl” and swamp girl looked alligators in the eye and casually passed by water moccasins. So, my dear unknown future challenges, just know I survived the swamp. Actually… I thrived here!

Thank you, Stephanie, for sharing your heart. As are your guests, I am a better person for knowing you. God bless you on your journey!

Bob is the owner of Stepping Stone Ecotours and a naturalist on board the Dolphin Explorer. His pictorial book “Beyond The Mangrove Trees” is available at several locations on Marco Island. Bob loves his wife very much!

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