The Everglades: Roger Hammer and the Tree of Death
By Jeff Klinkenberg
When I visit the Everglades, I am always accompanied by the series of nature guides written by Roger Hammer. When I am especially lucky, I don’t bring the books. I bring Roger Hammer. Or, better yet, he brings me. On his truck’s stereo, the Grateful Dead sing something about a Sugar Magnolia and remind me that I’m traveling with an unapologetic child of the 1960s – right down to his groovy pony tail.
It’s a hot summer day, humid and miserable. His secret? Not minding. His backyard is practically Everglades National Park, with its 5,000 species of insects, 360 bird species, 40 varieties of reptiles, and another 17 kinds of amphibians. He can tell you about every one.
Although he is the best all-around naturalist I have ever known, it’s his knowledge of plants that sets him apart. About 900 plant species make home in the park. He knows them by common name and genus and species. He sniffs them, tastes them, studies the insects that pollinate them.
His curiosity has no bounds. Once, to see what would happen, he dripped sap from one of the most poisonous plants on earth, the manchineel, on his own wrist. A month later, the wound stopped festering.
“The conquistadors who came to Florida in the 16th century called the manchineel el arbor de la muerte,’’ he once told me as we stood under “the tree of death.”
“By the way. Don’t let that branch hit you in the eye. You might end up blind.’’
I think of him as the crazed outdoorsmen. He was born one of those wild Florida boys who preferred surfing, fishing, picking up snakes and exploring swamps to paying attention in school. In the Army, he served in Vietnam. After the Army, he didn’t know what he wanted to do until he discovered a book he actually found interesting. It was about Everglades orchids. He backpacked into the daunting Fakahatchee Strand, looked for orchids during the day, and slept in a hammock at night over the water, snakes and alligators. In a month, he found every orchid mentioned in the book and a few the author had missed.
He worked as the senior naturalist for Metro-Dade County’s park system for more than three decades. Although he is self-taught, he is considered among the world’s most accomplished botanists of the American tropics and has an honorary doctorate from Florida International University to go along with his high school diploma. In his house near the park – he loathes air conditioning, by the way – he displays dozens of plaques for environmental work. Wife No. 3, Michelle, shares his interest in orchids and swamps.
He once ate a rattlesnake out of curiosity. He has seen bears and panthers. He can identify birds he can’t see by the songs he can hear. He can identify every one of the Everglades’ 100 butterfly species. He paddles his kayak into the backcountry for fishing, using live cockroaches he stuffs in his shirt for bait. On his mountain bike he explores overgrown roads as hordes of mosquitoes draw blood. A few years ago, someone asked how he had managed to take a stunning photograph of a roseate spoonbill rookery for a book. “I threw a rock through the mosquitoes and took a picture through the hole,’’ he explained.
Let’s talk about mosquitoes. In the winter, they often become dormant. If you’re lucky, you won’t be bitten. In the summer, they are plentiful and thirsty for blood. Roger Hammer pulls off the road at the place scientists test repellents in the summer. Hammer seldom uses repellent. Too greasy and potent. In seconds our faces are dotted by mosquitoes. Some people visit Disney World for fun. Hammer doesn’t.
Back in the truck, he steps on the gas. We open the windows and hope the mosquitoes blow out. Not all of them do. Hammer enjoys being part of the food chain.
After a while he steers off the pavement and drives through the grass next to the tropical hardwood forest. “Life. It’s everywhere here,’’ he says.
I know what he means. If we were to tempt the mosquitoes and step through the gumbo limbo and the manchineel, there’s no telling what we might see. Perhaps a rare malachite butterfly, or a spoonbill, or a yellow rat snake, or a crocodile.
“Red mangrove,’’ he says, identifying plants as we drive slowly along. “Jamaica dogwood. Look. A Manchineel. White indigo. Gumbo limbo. Gray Nickerbean. West Indian mahogany. Pigeon plum. Striated milk pea.
“Everglades Wildflowers,” by Roger L. Hammer, Falcon Guides
“Exploring Everglades National Park and the Surrounding Area,” by Roger L. Hammer, Falcon Guides
Photos by Peter W. Cross for VISIT FLORIDA
Be sure to check out additional Everglades stories by Jeff Klinkenberg: visitflorida.com/en-us/everglades.html