Encyclopedia Floridiana

by Lia Skalkos

Green Basilisk / Basiliscus plumifrons / Jesus lizard

Green Basilisk / Basiliscus plumifrons / Jesus lizard by spencer77 Spencer Wright via flickr

Photo by spencer77 Spencer Wright via flickr

My roommate Frank finds the basilisk on one of his worksites and brings it home. He puts it in the snake tank, which he leaves on the patio, and tucks some plants in it to make it homey. Sheena puts a towel over one side of the glass so the lizard has shade.

The lizard is a bright, acid green–the kind of green that could only be found in a reptile. It has a crest on top of its head that fans out when it is alert and deflates when it is at ease. Its face is intelligent, though also inanimate in a very un-humanlike way, and it has a long, thin tail–so long as to seem gratuitous. Frank holds it with one hand, its tail protruding pornographically from between his fingers. I wonder if its heart is pounding. If it is, the lizard shows no sign of it. All those years of evolution and it is holding still in a hand that could crush it. I wonder: how does the lizard know when to stay still and when to run? How does it negotiate the balance between coming and going? Between stasis and instinct?

“Come see this,” Frank says, still clutching it.

We all go out to the cul-de-sac in front of the house. Frank kneels down on the cement, lowers his hands, and opens them. Then the lizard is a moving green flash, a blip in our vision. It is running by us upright, on its two hind legs, bipedal, as if it has been hiding this fact from us all along. The thighs of its two legs are comically out of proportion to the rest of its body. They churn the lower legs like crankshafts on propellers. The lizard looks like The Road Runner, its upper body strangely stiff, even as its legs whirl and it is a blur of light. Its sphinx-like expression remains even as it is making a run for it.

“Runs like that over water,” Frank says, then fishes the lizard out from under the rim of a tire.

“No way,” I say. But later, I look it up and find it’s true. In videos Jesus lizards fly across the surfaces of streams, the thin webs between their talons preventing them from plunging in more than an inch at full-speed.

Frank returns the lizard to the tank and it eats a worm, some grasshoppers, a hibiscus flower. I keep thinking about how different it is from mammals. One day, while Frank has it resting on his shoulder, it darts off and one of the cats claws it.

“Didn’t think so much blood could come out of a lizard,” Frank says. I go to see and the floor is indeed filled with small pools of red. I am startled. Somehow, I was not expecting red. In some part of my mind, I was expecting the lizard to bleed blue or green, like toxic waste, or futuristic battery acid. Somehow, I imagined that the lizard–with its scaled skin and speed and stoicism–was untouchable, god-like.

Florida Blue Jay / Cyanocitta cristata semplei

The twin blue jays (are they a couple?) make an appearance on the patio almost every morning. They are haughtier and more aristocratic-looking than their scruffy, conventional blackbird competitors. It is hard not to stare at the blue jays. They are all hard lines and beautiful geometry: the feathered ridge on the head like a mohawk, the shifting shades of cerulean against the snowy white plumage, cordoned off by the necklace of black. The thick triangle of the beak a perfect contrast to the slope of the bird’s head, to the horizontal ridge. And, of course, the eyes like two black beads.

Frank doesn’t like them because they shit on the patio and because they can’t be chased off easily. But I am mesmerized by them. How they are arrogant together, in their coupledom.

Lovebug / Plecia nearctica

On the drive down to Florida the air filled with the long bodies of black flies the size of almond slivers. They had red thoraxes, as though they were wearing tiny red capes, and kamikazed themselves into the front of the car as we drove down 95 South. Some of them, I noticed, were attached at the end. There was something about this that made me feel bad for them. How cruel to have to be glued together in order to mate. To be Siamese-twinned against a car going 65 miles an hour.

By the time we were outside of Orlando the grille of the car was positively slicked with lovebug paste. They covered the walkways and doors like black snow, and we couldn’t help but scratch and slap ourselves, imagining that they were brushing up against our skin. We were told that they only come out a few weeks a year, and that they infested this part of the state because the University of Florida accidentally released them during a science experiment.

“It’s true,” a cashier at a gas station tells me. “I had a friend who was working in the lab at the time. He was there.” He says this with a conspiratorial nod.

The lovebugs are Romeo and Juliet, brought together by fate, mated for one tragic night, and then obliterated until their next reincarnation. I have never experienced such in-the-blood necessity. I still try to feel out the boundaries of my commitments, like a person in the dark. If I press tenderly, how far will they give? Will they stretch all the way to Florida?

And not only this, but the corpses of P. nearcita become acidic after a day or so and begin to eat at the car paint. How strange, I think. Driving into Florida during a downpour of suicidal, paint-eating lovebugs. It makes me nervous, as though they were the plague God forgot to send down. As though they were a silent warning to my need for motion, the reason why I am here.

Giant Toad / Bufo marinus 

Every now and then we see the toad on the patio. He (or she? I always assume, unfairly, that reptiles and amphibians are males) is like a temperamental lover, only calling when the leftover cat food is still out.

If the toad was a person, it would be thought of as ugly. It has fish-like, wide-set eyes and skin the color and texture of swamp mud. Its heavy mouth sags. With all that skin, and being as big as a dinner plate, it is also corpulent. Bulbous but compact. There is something sensual about the toad. All that rutted, muck-brown skin, the face that is all body. The cats mewl at it with longing, thwacking themselves into the patio door for it.

“I want to let the cats out, but I’m worried it’s poisonous,” Sheena says.

I research. According to the University of Florida’s Wildlife Extension site, Bufo marinus secretes a milky-white toxin from its parotoid glands. The poison will burn eyes, make cats and dogs foam at the mouth, cause convulsions. “Good thing we didn’t let the cats out,” I tell Sheena.

It turns out that, like so many other species here, B. marinus isn’t indigenous. They established themselves in south Florida, the article says, after “about 100” of them escaped from a dealer at the Miami airport in the 1950s. When I first read this, I thought the article meant not a hundred toads but a hundred exotic animals had escaped. I pictured a burst of zebras, elephants, and giraffes surging forth from a cage, the exodus from Noah’s ark, ready to thrive in Florida’s warmth, the helpless pet dealer watching from the side. And then I checked and realized no, it was just the toads. I had to remind myself that, though Florida is known for its invasive species, not everything is trying to come here. Not everything is always looking for a new beginning.

And then, as I read on, I find out that, suspiciously, the giant toads were released again in the 1960s, apparently to assist with pest control.

B. marinus looks almost exactly like its southern cousin, Bufo terrestris. The only way to know the difference is to check for ridges on the head and for the parotoid glands that angle over the shoulders. B. marinus is ridge-less and has little hillocks of poison above its arms.

Both B. marinus and I are transplants to Florida. Me, for the summer, B. marinus for good. I want to lift it up from the tiled patio by its underarms, to see its limbs hang down. I want to hug it, to feel its amphibian, too-big warmth on my chest and the ridged, abraded skin, slick and foreign against my neck. Both B. marinus and I have been embraced by this strange land, our beauty and ugliness both finding their uses.

Northern Curly-tailed Lizard / Leiocephalus carinatus

The curly-tails are dune-colored, and when they bask in the sun they lean horizontally, as if their joints are stiff. Their tails raise and tense into a nautilus before they dart off. Whenever I am leaving or coming back to the house they scatter through the bushes or across my line of sight. Anytime there is a bit of movement without clear cause, I know what’s behind it.

Tropical Orbweaver Spider / Eriophora ravilla

Walking up the driveway one night, I feel the unmistakable silk of a spider’s web tangle across my shoulder and I cry out in terror. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the spider’s body glimmer in the dark, the color of moonlight. I run inside and find a flashlight. When I shine it, the orbweaver contracts inwards. Thin-legged and skull-bodied, it is the size a lychee. Its web is a wonder, a tapestry of gossamer concentric rings. In the dark the web is barely visible, so that the spider looks suspended, unearthly. I text Sheena and Frank to watch out for it when they get home. Night after night, we return to the driveway to awe at it. Its exoskeleton is perfectly pieced together, like the parts of a jigsaw puzzle. Its legs hook gracefully, are bent like talons. Never will I recover from the surprises Florida has to offer. Never will it stop giving me something else to wonder at, as though, once I feel I know everything the world has to show, it will say no, look, hear, see.

Ball Python / Python regius

Frank’s snakes live in the closet, coiled up among the button-downs and jeans. They are ball pythons.

“But what if they get hungry?” I want to know.

“They don’t come out,” Sheena tells me. They ingest a rat once a month. When they aren’t in the closet they are in the tank, but the lizard lives there now, so the snakes occupy the closet full-time.

There is something unsettling about the snakes, though I like them, and have probably suffered more at the hands of the cats than I will ever from them. Perhaps it is some remnant instinct that reminds me that they are capable of killing humans. And they are so different from legged creatures, which is what I am used to. I like the long arm of their body, all muscle, corseted by the paper-smooth gold and brown skin. The clench of them wrapped around a limb–like an arm, or a shoulder–is so much stronger than I could have predicted. A little neighbor girl comes over to see them and her mother requests that they be put on her lap, apparently to make her overcome her fear of them. They sit on the couch together and Frank drapes one of the snakes over their legs and then promptly wanders off, leaving me to deal with the girl’s screams to take it away. I grasp the snake a few inches from its head, where my hand can encircle its circumference. I pull it towards me, but it’s like trying to grip the current, or the tide. The snake seems to bend in dimensions I didn’t know existed, nearly thwarting me, though I am pulling it towards me with all my strength. I am humbled by the power of its body. I now understand viscerally that the snake could strangle me if it wanted to, all coil and squeeze–the world’s worst tie, necklace, choker.

American alligator / Alligator mississippiensis

But I cannot write about Florida, cannot catalog its fauna without writing about the alligator. I saw them in an Everglades park. A keeper gave a talk on them in their enclosure, where two of them were basking by a palm. Using a stick, the keeper prodded at them, making them flee into the murky brown pool nearby. From utter rock-stillness they became pure movement, pure slippage in the water. The keeper tucked the stick into the largest one’s mouth so we could see how wide the jaws open. The keeper was, in my opinion, a little cavalier.

The horny exterior of the alligator and its stillness allude to the prehistoric. They seem to know something we don’t. Perhaps, it’s eat or be eaten. Or that time extends in unimaginable stretches. The studded belt of their tails looks like armor against all tragedies.

I associate the alligator with Florida’s strangeness, which I find alluring and beautiful. Forget the beach, the turquoise waters, white sands, tropical fruit. Give me the swamps. Give me the alligators. In Florida quirk is an aesthetic. Unlike the north, here disruption is desired, needed. Here, creatures as old as history lurk in water the color of soil, their eyes comically peeping out like the periscope of a submarine. Here, people get drunk and get mauled by them. Yes, give me Florida any day.

Banyan / Ficus aurea / Florida strangler fig

            The multi-veined banyan trees appear, rope-like, throughout the south, though they are not as common as the palms. Their trunks are webbed in by roots, so that they appear to be all root, and no trunk. They are the color of wet paper, a charcoal, ash-gray. I want to crawl into the nest of those roots, exposed, tender, and fall asleep.

I have fallen in love with the banyan trees, just as I have fallen in love with Florida. How to tell you of the things I saw? How they took care of me, in their own way? How to catalog all the wonders of the world?

 

 

 Lia Skalkos received a BA in English from the University of Chicago in 2009. She is a graduate student at Rutgers University.