Trinkets and souvenirs rarely interest me when I travel, but I find it almost impossible to pass by a farm stand selling local honey. Each of the half dozen varieties lining my kitchen shelves has a particular use: a thick, full-bodied Blackberry honey from the Virginia hills is best drizzled over fresh fruit, while scarce honey from Sourwood tree blossoms found in the mountains of North Carolina is perfect on toast. However my most recent acquisition, Babcock’s Wilderness Nectar, had remained unopened since I purchased it from the gift shop at Crescent B Ranch in south central Florida.
I’d gone to the Crescent B to take a Swamp Buggy Eco-Tour of the ranch’s 90,000 acres of oak hammocks, pine woods, pastures, wetlands, and swamps, all located within the Babcock Wilderness Area. Swamps have always conjured images of black water, boot-sucking mud, and alligators submerged to their eyeballs, patiently waiting to chomp on a passing leg. To me these dank, dangerous places were devoid of beauty and to be avoided at all costs, thus it was with some trepidation that I boarded the old Bluebird school bus, long since painted in a khaki and olive drab camouflage, for my hour and a half tour.
Our driver forced the rattletrap bus into gear and lurched onto a rough sand track. A moment later we sighted our first alligator, a foot long baby perched on a waterlogged branch in a drainage ditch. We rumbled across a brilliant chartreuse pasture and ducked into an unspoiled stand of moss-draped longleaf pine and Sawgrass Palmettos. On the other side, the forest opened onto a broad plain where cracker cattle roamed. These smallish, red and black splotched cows are descended from ones brought to Florida from Puerto Rico by Ponce de Leon during his 1521 voyage. Accustomed to people, bolder ones ambled up to the bus and stuck their heads in the open door, waiting for our guide to throw handfuls of hard corn onto the grass. Wildlife was everywhere. Wild turkey and pigs ran toward the bus for their share of the booty while wood storks swooped along the edge of the forest, spreading wings to their full thee-foot span to take advantage of midday updrafts.
*Image of Bald Cypress Tree Overhanging River via Shutterstock