The Ghosts of the Bonefish
On visits to watery Biscayne National Park, I am reminded of the simple shock that one can still view signposts of the natural past despite a hundred years of pollution, the mangrove cutting and wetlands filling, and general disregard of elected officials for laws, regulations and lax enforcement.
On a quiet winter day in the shallows, while the light is low in the sky, it is still possible to find a baby manatee feeding at the shoreline, thrashing the bay bottom only five minutes from the boat ramp. at the right tide and time, close observers can still find dolphin and sharks, from small blacktip to massive bullsharks sunning in the shallows. There are heron, cormorants, and osprey. There are even a few bonefish left, though to see the solitary numbers is to be sadly reminded of the legions that once roamed the shallow water meadows like squadrons of grey ghosts, seeking out pockets of shrimp and crabs before disappearing to the safety of deeper water.
The Everglades ecosystem was once magnificent. At 19th century observer wrote that turtles were so plentiful, one could imagine walking on their backs from Miami to Key Biscayne. Among fishing guides during the time I knew these waters best, in the 1970’s, the southern part of Biscayne Bay was legendary for large bonefish. Who remembers, forty years later?
To sight a bonefish from the deck of a small skiff, one has to look very closely and carefully through the skinny water column. Against a dark bottom or mottled sea grass, they show up as fleeting images, easily confused for barracuda at first glance.
One can go for hours without seeing a bonefish, and unless one’s eyes know what to look for, they may be impossible to see much less catch. On Friday, in one two hour stretch, I spotted a bonefish, cruising like a green torpedo, for four or five seconds before it slipped from sight. This kind of fishing isn’t for everyone, of course. Most throw bait in the water: the faster a tug at the other end of a fishing line, the better. I’ve always been drawn by the subtlety of flats fishing. The silence. The patience required, the adrenalin and failures to lure these objects of fascination onto a fly or shrimp or small crab baited to a hook.
It turns fishing into an exercise in alert meditation. That’s my preference. I shared the best moments with my father in this pursuit, in Florida Bay. He’s gone now. So is Florida Bay to the bonefish we saw in squadrons, pushing their wedges in rippling motion across still, glass calm waters. In different ways, these losses make me sad.
My father hired guides to take us to remarkable adventures on the flats, dependent on season, tide, and temperature. His death was in the natural order. On those days on the flats, when I was in my thirties, I wished he would live forever. In a moment on the flats without him — with nothing but the memory that we were here and we saw bonefish big as baby tarpon off the edge of a sandbar near Arsnicker Key –I am reminded that absence counts for almost nothing on this planet when it is counted in geologic time. We are tiny creatures who are born into the world in pain, and it is painful to leave, no matter whether it is our own experience or those left stunned in our wake.
But the lightly examined loss of the Everglades, of Florida Bay, the vast acres of Keys waters, and the treasures of Biscayne Bay is shocking. This chasm our decades opened represents an unnatural passing. We may breezily scoot along US Route 1 without giving a second thought to the breach in thousands of years of natural history and tens of thousands of years of evolution obscured by the backdrop of constant sunrise and sunsets. What brand of intelligence allowed this to happen; that we should be such reckless stewards?
At church, synagogue or in a mosque on Sunday one hears a particular brand of reproach, but these sermons rarely include assignment or blame for the violation of trust between God, the natural world, and what humans ought to protect and defend. Somehow the Religious Right and radical conservative politics have spurned environmental protection entirely. That’s too bad.
I don’t make a nativist cult of the Everglades, or fishing, or a religion of the environment, although that is how the Great Destroyers describe the ‘zealotry’ of environmentalism. But I do believe that the natural order makes observable, as if through a keyhole, the grand, breathtaking beauty of the planet we share. To me, organized religion makes a tragic mistake to imagine there is another place — a heaven — that awaits the pious, a reward for good personal behavior that somehow glides past our destruction of natural order. There is a very good chance we are not going anywhere better than this place, now, that we can apprehend with senses anywhere resembling our own.
Of course I can’t be certain of that, but if the best we can do in our lives is to create the conditions that ensure the generations to come will no longer experience the orderly flow of seasons into years, we are savages. It is said, the devil is in the details. So is God. That is what I bring home after a day on Biscayne Bay, failing to catch except a glimpse of what means so much.
Alan Farago is president of Friends of the Everglades.