Keys Strong

My first post-Hurricane Irma trip to the Keys was in early December. There were still a few signs of the storm in Miami – walls crumbled by giant trees whose roots had gathered the surrounding earth and raised it to the sky in their sinking; rows of unclaimed and now derelict sailboats that filled injured marinas. But these scenes were localized and had begun to blend in with the scattered cranes and safety cones of a city already littered with construction sites. But what of the Keys? They were ground zero, the site of first landfall for the seventh most intense hurricane to hit the continental U.S. in recorded history. I confess to having been somewhat nervous about facing the potential wreckage as I headed south.

Hurricane Irma damaged vehicle on the roadside.

I knew the middle keys had been hit hardest, so I was dismayed to see piles of debris as soon as the overseas highway merged onto the northernmost island. Old sofas, broken tables, whicker shelving, roofing and chunks of concrete were tangled within brush piles that sprawled along roadsides from Key Largo south. Signs warning that officials had cleared an area and that further dumping was prohibited were answered with towers of waterlogged lumber and tortured metal. I wondered how much worse it would get as I journeyed south.

Past Marathon, refrigerators, freezers, boats and mobile homes joined the roadside piles. Siding was stripped right off trailers, leaving meager wisps of insulation to fray in the wind amidst the insufficient plywood skeletons. Railings, windows and docks were ripped from oceanside homes, their awnings shred to threads. Tile roofs bore scars where Hurricane Irma binged through entire sections of terra cotta as if they were cookies. Tar roofs were simply missing. It was a glum scene, remnants of peoples’ lives reduced to rubble.

Only the top floor of an apartment building is visible after Hurricane Irma.

Some of the worst destruction seemed to be in western Islamorada on Lower Matecumbe Key. An entire building was consumed by the sea, broken pipes and a few remaining foundation beams the only signs that this jagged-edged cove was only recently ripped into existence. Another spot where the ocean had channeled across the narrow island left a multi-story apartment building sunk in sand. I stood on the severed driveway, staring past fractured plumbing and a remaining moat for several minutes before I realized that I knew this building. It was no longer distinctively flat, but this roof had been a nesting ground for least terns. I’d photographed this structure and its avian residents just a few years prior for my book Attracting Birds to South Florida Gardens. What would happen to those poor terns upon their spring return? Their former nesting ground now topped an atrocity so significant that tourists pulled over for selfies in front of the destruction. This old-style roof would undoubtedly be replaced with a sleek and modern hurricane-resistant roof, wise from a human perspective but what of the terns? Just like the Keys’ human residents, the birds need lasting post-hurricane assistance. Perhaps a protected patch of graveled ground for these terns?

Key Deer picks its way around Hurricane debris.

Beaches, forests and landscaping were similarly beaten. Median plantings leaned heavily bayside; non-native palms waved the scraggly brown shreds that remained of their fronds; some beaches were missing; others were engulfed in sand dredged and dropped by the storm, piling 20+ feet high. The slash pines on Big Pine Key were browned to a crisp; and the blue hole was more of an opaque green, its lush surroundings toppled or dried – even the cattails looked like a line of toothpicks ready to tumble. Endangered key deer on No Name Key, those who survived last year’s screw worm attack, picked their way through a maze of rusting machines, plastic barrels and other assorted trash to forage on meager road-edge vegetation. Dismal? Yes, but there was hope.

Signs of hope – an island resident turned a depressing pile of trash into art.

Signs of hope – No Name Key Pub open & artistically promoting Key Deer.

Sugarloaf Shores, an oceanside community, had clearly banded together for rapid recovery. Roadsides were debris-free, yards were tidy, and apparent damage minimal. A group of men stood on one roof pounding in the last few tiles. A truck pulled in next door with what must’ve been a final pile of lumber because the house, the entire neighborhood really, looked ready for the cover of a real estate magazine. One home had fall decorations on the porch that included two pumpkins painted inspiringly with “Keys Strong” and “Home Sweet Home”.

Keys Strong. It was painted on those pumpkins, and also sprayed on the side of displaced boats, scrawled across remaining window plywood and festively announced on a 10-foot banner hung on old bridge infrastructure where a lone tree, growing directly from the concrete above the sea, was being elaborately decorated for Christmas by a team of locals. 

The Florida gardening section at Marathon’s bookstore, Hooked on Books.

Keys Strong. It was demonstrated by the crowd that showed up at the Florida Keys History & Discovery Center on Islamorada for my talk presenting my newest book Biscayne National Park. These were not survivors, they were conquerors. Iguanas basked high along the towering ridge of the Islander Resort’s entry sign and while the oceanside hotel was still closed for repairs, its Bayside town homes operated as if nothing had happened; their beach and Florida Bay’s water already sparkled invitingly. The Green Turtle Inn, celebrating its 70th anniversary the day after I was there, served a delectable omelet in a cheery atmosphere. The local Islamorada bookstore, Hooked on Books, was open for business, displaying the best selection of Florida books I’ve ever seen in a single shop.

Keys Strong. It was the Tropic Cinema in Key West serving wine and popcorn in plush seats to two movies and my book talk simultaneously. It was the musician singing melodies at the old school Wharf Bar and Grill, Christmas decorations mingling with the usual marine-themed tree adornments above while a family of jungle fowl-looking chickens scavenged below. It was the bustle on Duval Street, thinner than usual but there nonetheless. It was the typical 35-minute wait for brunch at Blue Heaven, crowds sipping bloody Mary’s and mimosas as they awaited tables. It was the Key West Garden Club already planting anew after the loss of the banyan tree that had been a crowning glory of their West Martello garden site. It was the cheery report from the manager at the Books & Books in Key West that the Keys would bounce back. They’d lost a couple of windows and some books in the storm, but people were coming. Not only that, but locals were noticing more birds due to the thinned foliage and were buying my Attracting Birds to South Florida Gardens book to aid in their replanting. It was encouraging and made me happy to think that my book might play some role in replenishing the storm-cleared landscape with native plants, plants that would provide for deprived wildlife and better withstand future hurricanes. I couldn’t help but agree with the manager – the Keys would no doubt bounce back, the process had already begun.

Key West’s West Martello Tower before Hurricane Irma.

Key West’s West Martello Tower after Hurricane Irma, missing its banyan but tidily replanted.

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Meet the Henriettas

Reminiscent of Gonzo’s Muppet Show chickens, the Henriettas peer through the dog door.

Rhode Island Reds? Golden Comet hybrids? Who knows! The two hardly distinguishable chickens I call the Henriettas are Amish mutts of the hen world, but they generally lay an egg a day (or at least did before days got short) and are entertaining; so does it really matter what breed they are? They’re the leaders of our flock; the largest; the boldest; the most adventurous. They remind me of Gonzo’s chickens from the Muppet Show as they stare through the dog door, willing it to open so they can be part of whatever excitement might be on the other side. Crack the door even slightly, their bills are already in. They’re relentlessly persistent, a lesson I learned the hard way. 

When we first brought them home we didn’t have a proper coop. We had a fenced in area for them to roam and a rabbit hutch for secure sleep, but we lacked a nest box. They were too young to lay so it wasn’t an issue initially, but protecting our blueberry bushes was. Within just a couple of days they’d exposed the roots with their scratching, putting our precious blueberry crop in jeopardy. We painstakingly covered the ground around the bushes in chicken wire, but next they chewed off the bottom leaves. We constructed a small fence around the bushes and seemed to have reached a compromise… until the Henriettas began laying eggs. Somehow they decided that the best place to lay was in a corner between the blueberries and the house, on the other side of our protective fence. The battle was on. 

One of the Henriettas trapped in the blueberry enclosure.

We made the fence higher. They got in. We added a netting roof. They still got in. We secured the netting to the fence with tie wraps. They still got in, though they could no longer get back out. I’d find one or both Henriettas pacing among the blueberries. I’d pop open a tie-wrap to create a wide enough gap to reach in for a rescue. They’d run into my hands, eager to be free now that their egg was safely deposited in the chosen corner, well beyond my reach. Yet I couldn’t figure out how they were getting in.

After days of spying, I finally watched in amazement as one of the Henriettas flew to the top of our chicken wire fence, bounced across the netting trampoline we’d inadvertently created, flew to the top of the outer permanent fence, tight-rope walked to the back corner where the netting was simply draped against the house and slid right down to her self-proclaimed nesting area. I’d added a nest box to their yard by now and this flagrant disobedience annoyed me. I stormed out, climbed the fence myself and entered in the same place as the Henrietta. I plucked her from the ground, climbed back out and put her in the proper nest box. Surely I could outsmart a chicken. I added a couple more feet of fencing to the spot where she’d flown up and retreated to watch.

Both Henriettas paced the perimeter, then the bolder of the two leaped up toward the top of my addition. It took a few tries, but she finally perched upon my extension. I raced out and grabbed her. I put her back in the nest box, added a line of even taller garden tools and retreated to spy. 

Henrietta once again took a giant leap and landed atop my extension, apparently even more easily now that it was made of solid equipment instead of flimsy plastic fencing. We went back and forth. Her clearing all my extensions and me grabbing her before the next leg of her journey. I’d ordered a proper chicken coop by now, but it would be several days before it arrived and I simply couldn’t spend all day thwarting a chicken. Why didn’t she like the nest box already present? 

Location? I moved it. She still didn’t approve. 

More cushioning? I added straw. She cleared my barricade again. 

Not private enough? In desperation, I found a cardboard box and stuck the nest box inside. BINGO. 

Henrietta squatted by my side for a pet, then went in and laid her egg. I may have won the battle, but I’d say she won the war.

The Henriettas.

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Beginning my Adventures with Chickens

While I’ve always been an animal lover, my preference has been for wild animals. Leave the wild in the wild was always my motto, though perhaps that had something to do with the fact that once upon a time even a potted plant felt like too much of a commitment. But my life is far more settled than it was in my anti-potted plant days and I’ve come to love growing my own fruits and vegetables, and catching my own fish and crabs. So chickens seemed like a logical next step; why not add eggs to my line-up of fresh products? 

The first challenge proved to be buying hens. It seemed chicks would be easy to purchase, but I wasn’t sure I was ready for the responsibilities of rearing babies and there was no guarantee that they wouldn’t grow up to be roosters, which I knew I didn’t want. My husband and I searched and searched and just as we were about to give up, his brother in Pennsylvania called to report an Amish farm advertising pullets for sale. Perfect! We jumped in our car and drove the couple hours from Maryland to this farm in Lancaster County. 

It was a rainy day and I was glad I’d chosen waterproof boots for our outing as we followed our teenage guide through mucky fields of knee-high grass, freshly plowed mud, and finally under a barbed wire fence and through more tall grass to a quonset hut-style trailer. What appeared to me as full-grown hens were everywhere – tall, short, plump, thin, shy and curious, flocks of reddish birds poured out onto the ramp, huddled inside, pecked below the trailer or clustered around its edges like some invisible fence kept them within range of the mothership. The farmer’s son stomped up the ramp, a string of chickens following as his rubber boots, suspenders and straw hat disappeared into the shadows at the back of the trailer. There was some squawking, then the boy re-emerged with a hen under each arm.  

One of the red hens from the Amish farm in Pennsylvania.

My husband, who has owned chickens before, grabbed one. He probed its chest, inspected its beak and examined the bird’s wings before deeming it fit. He thrust the bird into my arms. It was then that I realized I had never held a chicken before. What the heck was I supposed to do with this thing?! The chicken flapped its wings violently as I gently tried to cradle it, shifting my arms this way then that to block imminent departure and more imminent thrashing. “Pin down the wings!” my husband offered, and finally there was calm. A big brown eye watched me suspiciously, red waddles quivering as the hen tilted its head for a better view. Seemingly satisfied, it nestled into the crook of my arm and we both visibly relaxed.

The second bird didn’t pass my husband’s inspection. It was ok, but he preferred the bold one watching us curiously from the top of the ramp. My husband swooped up the desired bird, sending less brave hens scuttling and the farmer boy’s eyebrows up in surprise. Apparently ‘city boys’ weren’t expected to catch their own bird, or maybe it was the scrutiny that was unexpected. Either way, this bird passed the test. We tucked our hens under our arms, both arms in my case, and retraced our steps along the downtrodden grass.   

The farmer lifted the barbed wire for me and as I stooped to lower myself and my new avian friend through the opening, I noticed a couple of hens at my heels. I looked back and noticed a couple more, and more, an entire string of chickens filling the trail of flattened grass from me all the way to the trailer like some red-brick road. They stretched up tall, watching intently, perhaps wondering if they too were going on a field trip, or maybe contemplating a rescue mission. I didn’t wait to find out. 

Hence begins my adventures with chickens…

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