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Down where the Florida peninsula reaches the tropics stands the most luxuriant mangrove forest in the world. Stretching in a wide belt along the west coast to Cape Sable the mangroves attain a height of more than 70 feet, rising in a dark green mass above the impenetrable tangle of their grotesque roots. These aerial roots, like an endless snarl of spider legs, and the leathery texture of the leaves give this mass of primitive trees an eerie beauty.
This jungle and the miles of marshy prairies to the east are favorite haunts of Florida's spectacular bird life. Herons in wide variety, ibises and dozens of other species feed in the Everglades by day and then fly in flocks and files through the dusk to their roosts in the mangroves. The stateliness and beauty of these birds make them one of the main attractions to increasing thousands of visitors to this part of the state. By night the mangrove jungles become the domain of wildcats, raccoons and other prowlers.
Guarding 300,000 acres of this forest and protecting its many forms of wildlife is the duty of Barnie Parker, the ranger of Lostmans River. Barnie has the remotest ranger station in the Everglades National Park. It is his responsibility that the birds—the egret, the pelican and the eagle—carry on their fishing undisturbed. It is his charge that the panther hunts its prey unmolested. It is his care that, when the great loggerhead turtles haul out on the beaches in spring, the digging of their nests in the sand is not interrupted. Even the moccasin and the rattlesnake must be left alone.
As Barnie sits on the porch of his shack, built on a shellbank thrown up by the '48 hurricane, his front yard is the Gulf of Mexico and his backyard is this mangrove jungle, reaching all the way to the sea of grass that forms the Everglades proper. But Barnie has little time to sit. His duties keep him prowling his territory in a battered outboard motorboat known all along that wild coast as the Green Hornet.
It has been my privilege and delight to spend a week with Barnie, sharing his shack at the mouth of Lostmans River and patrolling with him over hundreds of miles of the rivers and creeks that twist through the mangroves. As a result of this visit I am convinced that Barnie Parker is a remarkable man.
He is 65 years old and as tough as an old mangrove root. He is not afraid of anything, from wildcats to women. He has weathered hurricanes alone and he has pushed the Green Hornet through swamps in the dead of night when his motor broke down. When poachers threatened to kill him he informed them of the terrible risk they were taking—"Somebody else'll go with me"—and they desisted.
A lusty love of food has given Barnie a physique which he describes as "pussle-gutted." His face is a pair of clear blue eyes and a grin standing out from a weathered countenance. His singing voice is ghastly; he is reputed to have once sung a couple of limbs off a mangrove tree. But in his case the will to sing is more important than the song.
Concerning attire, there are two Barnies. In town or around the park headquarters you see a neat Barnie in a ranger's uniform, necktie and stiff-brimmed hat. But once afloat in the Green Hornet the uniform has been replaced by dungarees and an old boatman's cap. The store teeth have disappeared and in their place is a chew of tobacco. I like the tobacco-chewing Barnie best. The tobacco seems to bring out the flavor of the man.
I met Barnie at the Coot Bay Ranger Station, reached by the only road that penetrates the park. The Everglades National Park, dedicated by President Truman in 1947, is the newest and third largest in the national park system. It comprises almost a million and a half acres of the southern tip of Florida and is exceeded in area only by Yellowstone National Park and Mount McKinley National Park in Alaska.
Loading our grub and gasoline aboard a work boat we set off, towing the Green Hornet astern. Barnie bridled the Hornet so she rode the billowing wake without yawing. Passing through the Coot Bay Canal we headed into that labyrinth of island-dotted bays and crooked streams which Barnie Parker knows better than any other living man.