by Elena Gaffney

This past winter break, I had the extraordinary opportunity to visit and work in Big Cypress National Preserve in south Florida.

I could sum up the trip in many ways, but I think it comes down to one word: living. This seems silly; obviously going to a nationally protected wilderness area should entail things that are alive. But thinking about it maybe a little deeper, almost everything I encountered in Big Cypress was alive, from the giant cypress trees to the park employees our group worked alongside, to the organisms living in the mud glued to our boots at the end of each day.

We came to Big Cypress unsure of exactly of what our role would be over the next five days. This was the first group Branch Out had sent there, so understandably there were some kinks to work out. As the days unfolded, the primary issue we began to explore was environmental restoration, and the ways in which the preserve’s ecosystem was being damaged because of trash leftover from un-cleaned camp sites as well as because of invasive species and human development.

For some context, as a national preserve, Big Cypress was saved from being developed into an airport in 1974 by becoming nationally-protected land that allows drilling, mining, and land claims. For land claims specifically, the Miccosukee and Seminole tribes, which have ancestral rights to the land, maintain homes on the preserve.

Though we learned the drilling and mining is limited, the preserve suffers from development in the populated metropolitan areas to its east and west, Naples and Miami. Our group was brought out on an incredible astronomy walk one night, and a ranger working with us, Luke, showed us the areas in the sky where light pollution was being emitted from these large cities, harming the sight and communication patterns of nocturnal animals in the preserve. Directly cutting through the preserve, is Highway 41 or the Tamiami Trail, the main highway connecting Naples and Florida. As a result of its slicing the preserve in half, nocturnal animals are often hit while crossing the highway.

The trip was a physically intensive one, and I learned the most about the issues facing the preserve while out experiencing it. As a remote area with a rough swamp terrain, our group was led out on swamp buggies and UTV vehicles that can handle road one minute and gigantic pools of swamp water the next. Being out on the preserve was informative and exhilarating. Our first site was an area where a house once stood that was burned down by a natural wildfire which occurred in 2010. Though we knew limited information about the historical context of the sites we were working at, our trips out, which often took close to an hour, provided times to take in the incredible scenery and array of gigantic cypress trees, prairies, and palm forests. They also provided bonding opportunities for our small group as we clung to each other, trying not to fall off a comically bumpy ride.

Working in the areas we were trying to restore brought up a lot of critical thinking for our group. As we pulled decaying iron bed frames, wheelbarrows, and a truck from 1953 out of the ground, we had a lot of questions. Was it better to let nature decay the rest of this material, rather than yank it out ourselves, pulling out vital soil and roots with the trash? Why did the owners of the property abandon their trash and didn’t they feel a responsibility for it? Why had this site gone five years without a proper cleanup? And why was the information we were hearing from the employees we worked with so sparse? We questioned the effects of what we were doing by causing noise pollution with our movement and vehicles, or the realization that the trash we were picking up would only be placed in the ground elsewhere in a landfill. Our group came to the conclusion that our work was important, even if our means were imperfect we would make the area more accessible for naturalists like us to enjoy. At our second site we were working towards removing an invasive species of plum trees to return the area to its natural state, which felt satisfying, and above all we got to experience a pre-development south Florida without the palm beaches or strip malls; one that was raw and relatively unfiltered.

So I’ll take it back to what I’ve taken away from the trip. First, I loved the tangible parts: working with a hand saw to cut a 13 foot log in half, using a machete to rip apart roots, becoming sweaty and covered in dirt, and being up to my waist in incredibly clear swamp water. I took away that aggressively chopping things can be a great stress reliever after a crazy first semester. I took away that the people working at Big Cypress are different, but incredible and idiosyncratic people. I took away that I can drink some over-chlorinated tap water and reuse the same plastic utensils for a week if it means less plastic consumption. I took away a profound love for the people I went on the trip with, and a shared connection for preserving the untouched. I took away a desire to look into a Branch Out trip in Ecuador, to work more on this tedious thing called habitat restoration. I have left having found this exciting zest to explore more naturally-protected areas to learn things about myself I couldn’t have tapped into if not for being in Big Cypress, with large trees looking down on me and sharing their secrets for living naturally and adventurously.