A Weekend with Clyde Butcher, Part II: Valentine’s Day in the Swamp

By Nic Stoltzfus

February 28th, 2015


Swamp Crew Valentine's Day cake

Swamp Crew Valentine’s Day cake


Before I begin this post, let me begin with a preface: I am single. And in my mid-twenties.


This is a period of time when relatives begin to turn up the heat on finding a companion. I have discovered that uncles are particularly zealous in this task. In fact, it is usually the first question they ask me. “Sooooo, Nic, how is your LOVE life?” I have taken to finding creative responses for this question. To one uncle I replied, “Well, I was thinking the same thing—how is your love life with Aunt B.?” To another quizzing uncle at a family dinner, I nodded my head at my likewise unmarried cousin a few years younger than me and replied, “The same as your daughter’s love life: I’m happily single and open to options.” The most fervent attempt to find me a mate was one uncle’s crusade in online dating on my behalf. “Nic, I could sign you up for Christian Mingle or EHarmony. They even have a dating site for guys living in rural areas called ‘Farmers Only.’” I was mortified.


With all this being said, when I found out that I was going to be going to the Big Cypress Swamp to film swamp walks on Valentine’s Day, I punched my fists in the air and yelled a heroic, “Heck ya! I got plans for V-Day!” You see, I hadn’t been on a swamp walk since I was a kid. I grew up with a swamp behind the house in north Florida, and I am endlessly fascinated by all the bugs and critters hiding in those murky waters. A date with the swamp was just the thing.


The night before V-Day Dad, Joey, and I drove to the Big Cypress Swamp Gallery from Miami after filming one of Clyde’s new galleries opening in Coconut Grove.


On Valentine’s Day, I woke up early and spent the morning drinking coffee with my Dad, Clyde Butcher, and his wife, Niki. They soon left and went out to get ready for the swamp walks. After everyone left, I got my laptop and plopped down on the big sofa upstairs in the cabin overlooking the swamp. It was quiet. Peaceful. All I could hear was the whirring of overhead fans and the muted ticking of a bird-shaped clock on the wall. I looked out through the large glass panels and witnessed the brilliant and bright-white morning light slashing through cypress limbs and filtering downward, slowed by fern fronds and bromeliad leaves. The sunbeams reached the black surface of swamp water and reflected upward on the cypress trunks and knees, the soft strands of light rippling on the rough bark like a glittering harp.


I took another sip of coffee and thought about what Niki told me this morning. She said that there was a man who was giving a presentation on ecology and, at the beginning, he handed everyone a blue marble. At the end of the presentation he asked everyone to get out their blue marbles and hold it in their right hand with their thumb and forefinger. “Look at it closely. Observe every crack and crevice.” The audience did so. The presenter then put up a slide showing Earth. He said, “You are holding the world in your hands. You have the power to change this planet. Now go out and share what you have learned today.”


If the Earth is a marble, what am I? I am but an atom on its surface—tiny, small, fragile. I thought on this a moment, took another gulp of coffee and closed my laptop, ready to meet up with my group for a swamp walk.


I walked to the gallery and snapped a few photos of people meeting Clyde. A family of tourists from China chatted with Clyde for a bit. An Austrian man gave Clyde a calendar of his photos of birds in the Everglades. A little boy with glasses hid shyly behind his mother as she said, “We came all the way from Miami; my son wanted to meet you today.” They got behind the desk to get a photo with him and the boy hopped onto Clyde’s lap. With a smile covering his face, he waved goodbye to Clyde as they left the gallery. After about half an hour of watching Clyde chat with visitors, I went outside and mingled with some of the gallery workers while I waited for the 1:00 swamp walk. Finally, the tour guide, Trish, assembled everyone on the walk and we started off. There were about 15 of us in the group with Trish leading the train of people and me as the caboose; I wanted to make sure I got plenty of good pictures of people schlepping about the swamp!


A family meeting Clyde Butcher at the Big Cypress Gallery.

A family meeting Clyde Butcher at the Big Cypress Gallery.

Joey and Elam filming Clyde. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

Joey and Elam filming Clyde. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

Elam filming Clyde. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

Elam filming Clyde. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

To keep me company at the back was a young couple from Tampa. The boyfriend informed me that the evening before they had waltzed away the night at a Valentine’s Day soiree held in a ballroom overlooking the Tampa skyline. Today his girlfriend traded a sparkly evening gown for bug spray and old sneakers and he thought it was pretty cool that she was the one who planned the whole thing. “She’s a keeper,” he said to me with a twinkle in his eyes. About a third of the way through a tour guide from another group, Dylann, joined up with us. She knew much about swamp plants and taught us the names for different ones as we walked. There were bladder-wort, cocoplum, wax myrtle, cardinal bromeliads, resurrection ferns…All these different species living together, breathing together, forming one giant system. Cypress trees growing out of the porous coral with a myriad of other plants living on their trunks and limbs. Flora like alveoli in our respiratory tracts transmogrifying carbon dioxide to oxygen. Perhaps this is what it feels like to live in a lung?


A couple enjoying the swamp walk. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

A couple enjoying the swamp walk. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.


We finished our walk, sprayed the mud off our muck-soaked sneakers and changed into dry clothes. I said goodbye to the tour group and worked on a few images before supper.


On my way upstairs for supper, I felt my phone buzz and looked at a message from my sister. It was a Valentine’s Day E-card: R4 is red, R2 is blue, if I was the force, I’d be with you! I smiled and went inside.


A Valentine's Day E-Card from Laura

A Valentine’s Day E-Card from Laura


By the time I arrived, all the other volunteers were getting their plates and queuing by the food. Jackie had a large spread set out for us: barbecue, baked beans, rolls, green beans, and even a carrot cake that read “Happy Valentine’s Day to the Swamp Crew.” One of the volunteers handed me a piece of homemade chocolate quinoa cake she had baked. I was a little skeptical at first (quinoa? In a cake? In a chocolate cake? How can you ruin my chocolate with something that sounds that healthy?!), but I have tasted it and have come back with good news: it was the best chocolate cake I have ever eaten in my life, and I was soon recalcitrant for judging the chocolate-quinoa pairing. Yes, quinoa, you can be friends with chocolate. Please go on a date in my mouth anytime you desire.


Although words cannot do such feels justice, I will attempt a paean to this holy pairing:


Excerpt from “An Ode to a Chocolate-Quinoa Cake


O chocolate-quinioa cake! O Cool fudginess!

Be still my sugar-crazed heart! You have

Melted my heart of all other passions.

Unlike the lava cakes they sell at Applebees,

You are not cloying

Nor overly saccharine.

Your taste is like the full-bodied taste of Guinness

Enjoyed after a long day.

Deliciousness is truth, deliciousness beauty,” – Earth is

The only planet with chocolate. That is all ye need to know.


The crew sat around chatting late into the night and I had a realization: Valentine’s Day needn’t be just for dates. It is about love—and love can be found in many different ways. Love can be found in a hot cup of coffee, or in a chat with old friends. Love can be found in nature, love can be found in the corniness of lampooned poem. These moments are just as real, and just as life-sustaining. There are many avenues to love. So, there is no reason for single people to fret on Valentine’s Day. Love really is all around you—you just have to look for it.


A group of volunteers at the Big Cypress Gallery. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

A group of volunteers at the Big Cypress Gallery. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.


Tomorrow’s blog: A Weekend with Clyde Butcher, Part III: A Harmonica/Guitar Duo





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