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Book excerpt: Son of Real Florida by Jeff Klinkenberg

Mike Owen and Donna Glann-Smyth marry near a ghost orchid-bearing tree in the Fakahatchee Preserve State Park.

Son of Real Florida

Editor's note: 83 Degrees periodically publishes excerpts from books by local Tampa Bay Area authors. Here is A Swamp Wedding from Son of Real Florida: Stories from My Life by Jeff Klinkenberg, University Press of Florida, 2018.

The bride wore a long white dress and muddy boots. She yelled “HOO-TEEHOO!” Waiting for her in the distance, the groom hollered “HOO- TEEHOO!” back. She homed in on his shout and sloshed toward him through the cathedral of cypress trees and cypress knees, ferns and royal palms that grew in the black water. Michael Scott Owen and Donna Ann Glann-Smyth were going to exchange vows in the holiest place they know, a primeval Florida swamp where alligators and cottonmouths went with the territory.

In their wedding chapel, a ghost orchid, one of the rarest of all plants, clung to the trunk of a pond ash. Poison ivy hung from the curved bough of what served as their altar, a red maple.

Renee Rau, an ordained minister who also managed Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve in southwest Florida, asked the guests to settle down. The green tree frogs, performing their unique version of Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March,” ignored her.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the minister said in a loud voice, “we will begin.”

                                                        *    *    *

That they were getting married was something almost as unlikely as a giant sphinx moth finding a ghost orchid. The moth is the only known pollinator of the famous orchid, which very much resembles a dancing fairy. The moth flits through the Fakahatchee on summer nights, filtering the air for a scent that nothing else apparently can detect. It’s an enormous swamp, more than 70,000 acres, with only the 370 ghosts Owen has counted. The moth evolved to keep the ghost orchid in existence. If you ask Owen, he’ll tell you that Glann-Smyth showed up to play the same role in his life.

Owen, fifty-three, had lived in the swamp for nearly half his life. He grew up in Pinellas County near St. Petersburg, graduated from the University of South Florida, and took his biology degree to perhaps North America’s greatest swamp, a cauldron of endangered animals and plants, some found nowhere else.

“IT’S LIKE THE AMAZON!” he told people. Most scientists I know didn’t talk in capital letters or exclamation points. Owen was the exception. As park biologist, he had led 433 trips into the Fakahatchee at the time I wrote this. He met Glann-Smyth on one of those trips.

She lived in the east central Florida city of Melbourne. A biologist who was a few classes short of obtaining a medical degree, she was already a talented naturalist. But the Fakahatchee was 200 miles away. Should she go? At the last minute, she made a reservation for a guided trip. She got the last slot.

It was March 25, 2006 -- trip No. 251, Owen wrote in his little notebook. It’s natural to be afraid to walk into a swamp where anything can happen, including a gator encounter. But Glann-Smyth wasn’t nervous. About a half mile from the nearest road, Owen showed everybody a ghost orchid. Most were disappointed. Ghost orchids bloom in the summer. In March, the dormant period, they look like whole-wheat spaghetti wrapped around a limb. Glann-Smyth did not hide her enthusiasm. She was excited.

Ten minutes later, on her own, she found another of those nondescript spaghetti strands. In Owen’s experience, no rookie had ever found a dormant ghost orchid on her own. Most swamp newbies are more likely to look down for venomous snakes than study the high branches for famous orchids.

Both had recently ended disappointing marriages. Both were in their forties and wondering if they would ever love again. Smitten, Owen wrote down her name and phone number in his little notebook and called a few days later.

At first their relationship was long-distance. Eventually she moved to the Fakahatchee. A few months ago they set a wedding date. They decided they would marry next to the very ghost orchid Owen had first shown Glann-Smyth in 2006. It would be a June wedding, traditional in every way except for the possibility of seeing a cottonmouth.

                                                           *    *    *

Standing in the swamp, holding a bouquet of baby’s breath, Glann-Smyth spoke first. “The first time we met, Mike was speaking so loud I thought to myself, ‘I’m not going to hear a bird or see a bird.’ And I noticed that he kept measuring things with a pole. And then he was always writing down those measurements in a little notebook. How odd. And then he talked about how people who came to the swamp developed a Faka-Habit. How corny can you get?”

She developed a Faka-Habit. A Mike Owen habit, too. Sometimes, when they walked into the swamp, they separated to cover more territory. When they wanted to find each other, they simply yelled “HOO-TEEHOO!” and the other would slosh back.

Now, on his wedding day, it was Owen’s turn to say his piece in front of witnesses who included an eighty-year-old friend from Naples who wore a tuxedo and patent-leather shoes into the water and an orchid- crazed British pal who covered her beauty-shop hairdo with mosquito netting.

Suddenly, the paparazzi arrived -- not the shouting, pushy tabloid photographers -- but ravenous deer flies. They began landing on exposed flesh and savagely biting. From the swamp cathedral came the sound of slapping.

Owen poked his ever-present measuring stick in the muddy water, which, by the way, was 18 inches deep. The ghost orchid, by the way, grew 12 inches above the water’s surface. Owen, by the way, had man- aged to write everything down in his notebook. But now he talked from the heart.

He talked about intangibles, things that can’t be measured, even by someone like him: “Friendship. Compassion. Love.” He talked about how one plastic flamingo on the lawn is lonely but two plastic flamingos on a lawn are a couple. He talked about how lucky he was to have found a woman, at his stage in life, like Donna to love and who would love him back.

His voice broke. A red-shouldered hawk somewhere in the distance cried, too. The wedding could have stopped there and been perfect. But the Reverend Renee needed to make it official.

Owen and Glann-Smyth, being careful not to drop them into the swamp, exchanged rings. They were pronounced husband and wife.

Hooteehoo. They enjoyed a giant sphinx moth-ghost orchid kind of kiss. It was 11:19 a.m. on a windless Saturday, cloudy and 86 degrees in Florida’s most unusual wedding chapel.

Reprinted by permission of the University Press of Florida. Comments? Suggest another book for an excerpt? Contact 83 Degrees.
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