The Limpkin: A Poem and Short Essay

The Limpkin. Photo by Zachary Caple.
The Limpkin. Photo by Zachary Caple.
The Limpkin. Photo by Zachary Caple.

By Zachary Caple, University of California, Santa Cruz §


The Limpkin

Lover of the trashiest shorelines,
the limpkin is an ibis made plainer, browner. Flecked
white collar and long proboscis, it makes a living
along the dock-stamped littorals and dingy canals of Florida. I got my first good look
at a limpkin in a phosphate pit where working class locals like to fish.
I have a nice photograph of the bird
framed to capture a patch of torpedo grass
and a discarded bait container. Chicken liver
containers are blue.

Limpkins are noisier than ibis, more solitary
though they share a similar habit.

The limpkin outside my bedroom window, like all limpkins, makes a shrill, hacking call.
It comes in bursts. My bedroom backs up to a canal that parallels the road where
my trailer, the second structure from the lake, is parked. It is a boat canal, not a drainage
canal. My trailer was built in the 70s. Ferns have overtaken the gutters.

The neighbors next door have the prime spot on the lake.
They are redneck types always out on weekends working on their trucks.
The trucks are loud by design. Rednecks want to have a presence on the road.
I once saw a guy get out of his truck and punch the truck in front of him.
Rednecks, like limpkins, want to be left alone. But they are always punching and kicking
and driving loud vehicles (on and off road) and so it’s hard not to notice them.
Which, I guess, is the kind of sociality they want: to be noticed but to be left alone.
The limpkins and the neighbors start making noise around 5:00-5:30 a.m.
I am writing this at 6:00.

The neighbors before were suburban types; he drove a sedan and didn’t really care about
the lake. He let me borrow his canoe.

When the rednecks moved in
they whacked down all the wetland plants
on the edge of the lake. My friend the regulator
tells me this is a violation and that I should report them
to the water management district.

The limpkins stopped hanging out there as there were no more apple snails to eat.

The birds feed in the overgrown canal. Recently, with all the rain, lake levels
have begun to rise and the neighbors down the road have started talking about dredging.

The limpkins might not approve.

In the last few years, limpkins have made something of a resurgence.
I haven’t studied it, but they say it has to do with the invasion of the Amazonian
apple snail that is displacing the native apple snail. The Amazonian variety is larger.
Its shells are hard and rather ugly. The snail deposits clusters of pink eggs on the stems of
bullrush, duck potato, and pickerelweed. I spent one summer removing the egg clusters
from the edge of a large lake trashed by farmers (a different lake, I was doing research).
We used an airboat and one of those long handled pool nets fashioned with a piece of
metal for scraping. We all recognized it was futile: the snail had joined the ecosystem.


How do we, we environmentalists, cast our lots with the lives of others?

The woman who crashed the Lake Management Society meeting
is mad as hell about turtles and wears a yellow turtle shirt
and is a bit overweight and blond and evidently a local, a non-scientist
(this is a scientific meeting) and she is mad about turtles
and mad about the artificial lighting in the lakeshore redevelopment where the meeting
is being held. The booster who came to the meeting to show off the new park
brags that the project came in 5 million dollars under budget because he
(yes, he) took advantage of the recession to buy materials at a discount.
The turtle lady interrupts to let him know that she is mad as hell
about an oak tree she saw being removed and he shrugs her off and she,
facing public embarrassment, submits to being shrugged off
and her friend, her friend is a bit embarrassed.
And she, the woman who cannot shrug off turtles,
is the most important person at the meeting.


The Limpkin: A Short Essay

Unique ecosystems, reckless development, and complex restoration projects make Florida a compelling site to study landscape change. But studying the more-than-human in Florida is full of heartbreak – at least for a passionate advocate of native ecology like me. In March 2015, I attended a Florida Lake Management Society meeting at the Kissimmee Lakefront Park to better understand how people manage nutrient pollution in freshwater ecosystems. A few weeks later, I woke to the rev of my neighbor’s engine and wrote “The Limpkin.”

“The Limpkin” came into being in a moment of irritation that overflowed into a meditation on anger. The final figure of the poem, the turtle activist, is the poem’s real subject. I sat near her at the meeting. Her anger was vivid, almost ethereal — so evocative of the love and rage felt by wildlife enthusiasts who witness the everyday traumas of ecocide. Anger choked her speech. And yet she spoke. She complained about the artificial lighting at the park, but it wasn’t clear what the lighting had to do with turtles. Recently, I stumbled on a description of the issue she was attempting to flag:

Our penchant to light the night sky disorients insects and birds, and also confuses reptiles, notably sea turtles. On beaches around the world, when the tide is high and the moon slight, female turtles emerge from the dark sea. On legs built for swimming, they paddle across the sand to the dunes where they use their hind flippers to excavate a niche suitable for one hundred or more leathery eggs. After covering all signs of their actions, the mothers reverse course and return to the sea. About two months later baby turtles dig out of their sandy incubators and orient toward bright horizons. Naturally, this would lead them away from a dark shore and into the sea. But because of shore lighting, the bright horizon today is often an inland town or lighted yard, which leads the hatchlings astray. Well-lit shores may also cause gravid females to delay or abort landings, reducing the use of otherwise healthy nesting habitat.[1]

If light pollution disrupts the reproductive biology of sea turtles, might the lighting at the Kissimmee Lakefront Park affect the chenofauna of Lake Tohopekaliga? The very possibility makes me mad too. I am unsure what kind of littoral zone this lakeshore development replaced, but we may conjecture that it was better nesting ground for turtles and a place this woman, presumably native to Florida, had grown to love.

The love of white “natives” for “real” Florida is something I take seriously as an anthropologist. Florida’s ecological places have been utterly and irreversibly transformed in the last century, much of it after World War II — the period in Anthropocene-speak known as the Great Acceleration. As problematic as white settler culture is everywhere, Florida crackers do not bear the lion’s share of responsibility for Florida’s ecological erasures. The lion’s share belongs to capitalist boosters and politicians who drain wetlands, erect subdivisions, and encourage colonies of snowbirds.

The rednecks in my poem may or may not be nature lovers, but they are not bulldozing remnants of the Florida Holocene (they are just off-roading in them). The bulldozers belong to real estate developers. As a white anthropologist working in white Florida, I see the need for a more calibrated attention to whiteness and the role it plays in unmaking and remaking life at the Holocene-Anthropocene boundary. Curiosity about whiteness, however, did not bring me to the meeting. Like the turtle lady, my attachments lie with nonhumans, specifically those living in fragmented and degraded environments.

In my poem, the turtle woman’s encumbered speech carries forth the limpkin’s shrill, hacking call. Their voices merge. The spokesperson and the spoken for enter but fail to affect a Latourian Parliament of Things.[2] The world is unmoved; the developer finishes his presentation. The erasures of the development are lauded as “new urbanist design.” The Anthropocene goes unrecognized; the Capitalocene is unthinkable. The oak tree will not be replaced.

Anger chokes our speech.



[1] John Marzluff, Welcome to Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers, and Other Wildlife. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014), 173.

[2] Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).

Zachary Caple is a Ph.D. candidate in Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His dissertation, Holocene in Fragments, investigates how the phosphate fertilizer industry in Florida has transformed multispecies landscapes through mining and agricultural runoff. His research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, and the Social Science Research Council.

This post is part of our thematic series, Multi-Species Anthropology: Becoming Human with Others.