Monday, September 8, 2008

The ordinary becomes extraordinary through Florida visitors' eyes

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 8, 2008)

Sometimes we forget how extraordinary our surroundings are, and it helps to look at the familiar through another person's eyes. That happened the other day when a young couple from Spokane, Wash., accompanied their relatives on a visit to our nursery.

While their companions concentrated on choosing the best plants to provide a privacy screen, the young couple -- they couldn't have been more than 21 or 22 -- took in the semitropical, Central Florida surroundings with childlike curiosity.

Their first question -- "Are there alligators in the lake?" -- was a typical, first-time-in-Florida query. I would have mistakenly pigeon-holed them as non-outdoorsy, timid types had they not followed up with another question.

"What kind of spider is this?" they asked, pointing to a spiny-backed orb weaver that had strung an intricate web between an irrigation spigot and bamboo cane.

I could tell by their voices, postures and rapt attention these two were not intimidated by nature's minutiae. I love it when I meet people like that. Too often, adults -- even some children -- are so frightened by spiders, snakes and other creeping, crawling critters that they lose all perspective and act irrationally.

We all know sane, peaceful individuals who turn into screeching killing machines when they encounter one of nature's smallest creatures. Instead of learning about these fascinating and often beneficial critters, they go ballistic. They grab whatever object is handy -- shoe, bug spray, shovel or fly swatter -- and go into destroy mode.

Fortunately, that was not the case with my Spokane visitors. They were eager to learn all they could about the unfamiliar.

Looking more like a miniature crab than an arachnid, the spiny-backed orb weaver's compact, oddly shaped black-and-white body is distinguished by six pointy, red spines. Although quite small -- less than one-third-of-an-inch long and barely a half-inch wide -- this harmless, insect-eater's bizarre appearance differentiates it from other spiders.

Because it is frequently found in gardens -- as I am -- I've grown accustomed to seeing this spider and rarely pay it much attention. But the young couple paid attention. The backyard beauty that I had come to see as ordinary was far from common to these Pacific Northwest residents.

"I've never seen anything like it," said the woman as she peered at the spider waiting mid-web for a mosquito to trap.

That could have been the end of it -- one weird-looking creature to demonstrate the unique Southern landscape. But at that point, another insect caught their attention. They reacted with simultaneous squeals of surprise.

"What's that bug?" they asked, pointing at a large, fuzzy-looking orange thing scurrying across a sandy stretch of ground.

"Oh," I responded matter-of-factly. "That's a velvet ant. Be careful. They sting."

My response may have been understated, but there's nothing run-of-the-mill about a velvet ant's appearance. Like the spiny-backed orb weaver, this is a one-of-a-kind critter in Florida's insect world.

Nicknamed "cow killer," this colorful member of the Mutillidae family is a good example of a look-but-don't-touch critter. Although it resembles and moves like a cuddly wind-up toy put into motion, the inch-long insect is really a wingless wasp with a potent sting. According to legend, a velvet ant's venom can kill a cow, and while that's probably a stretch, I'm not about to put it to the test.

From a respectful distance, we watched as the bright-orange-and-black insect followed a fast-paced path to an underground burrow, where it was most likely bound to either lay eggs or find food. It must have been a female ant, because its elusive male counterpart has wings and is slightly larger.

For a few minutes, the three of us stood side by side, captivated by the velvet ant's determined trek through blades of grass and over bumpy ground. I don't know what my visitors were thinking, but I could tell they were fascinated. So was I.

It's easy to take things for granted. Repetition has the tricky ability to rub the shine off novelty. When I moved to Florida, I was completely awed by torrential downpours that ended as quickly as they began and by the sight of rain pouring down on one side of the lake and not the other. Eventually, I grew used to these things.

I even grew used to rainbows. Imagine that -- taking rainbows for granted. But it happened. A little bit of time and a lot of repetition turned the extraordinary into the ordinary.

That's why I'm glad my mind-set has been rebooted. I don't know how long this fresh outlook will last, but thanks to two crazy-looking bugs and a couple of curious tourists, I'm enjoying a fresh perspective -- seeing my surroundings as if for the first time.

Florida's a wild and crazy place filled with some weird and fascinating creatures, and I'm here to enjoy every minute of it.

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