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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

08 March 2024

On his US travels, Malcolm Guite reaches Florida, where he encounters alligators

MY TRAVELS in the United States have taken me, for the first time, to Florida, to an Episcopal church and its university chaplaincy in the town of Gainesville. Asked what I would like to do in my “down time”, I replied, with some trepidation, that, since I was in Florida, it might be exciting to see an alligator. “Sure, we can fix that up,” they said. “There are ’gators everywhere!”

This was a rather alarming reply, as I had imagined that I would be taken to see one specimen in a zoo, or at least some safe enclosure; but, no, we were going for a hike on the La Chua Trail on Paynes Prairie, a name that rang a bell for me — a slightly ominous bell. As I read later, in a leaflet about the trail: “Paynes Prairie is a massive landform in North Florida visited and written about by William Bartram in 1774, with an unusual twist for a prairie. It has a drain. That drain is called Alachua Sink, and every once in a while it clogs up, turning the prairie into a lake. In times of drought, water collects at this end of the prairie, as do the alligators.”

Then I knew why the name had rung a bell. When I was researching for my book on Coleridge, I came upon Bartram’s Travels, published in 1791: a book that influenced both Coleridge and Wordsworth — and, indeed, the whole Romantic apprehension of the wild, the sublime, and the grotesque. The passages in which Bartram describes his encounters with alligators, in the very place that I was visiting, are truly terrifying: “Behold him rushing forth from the flags and reeds. His enormous body swells. His plaited tail brandished high, floats upon the lake. The waters like a cataract descend from his opening jaws. Clouds of smoke issue from his dilated nostrils. The earth trembles with his thunder.” Even allowing for the inevitable exaggerations of a traveller’s tale, it’s a formidable description.

But, soon enough, I found myself walking past the warning sign at the trail head that read “Alligators Free Roaming Do Not Feed Or Approach”.

At first, the trail took the form of a board walk, railed, and, thankfully, a few feet above the swamp surface; and, soon enough, we began to see the long dark forms of alligators, still in the water or drawn up to bask along the banks. The first I saw were distant, but then we saw one almost directly below us, drawn half out of the water, basking. It was eight or nine feet long, its magnificent, muscular tail curved back towards the water, its head resting in the mud, its eyes gazing on us with cold indifference, water and sunlight gleaming on its intricate scales, some of its fearsome teeth just visible.

Then the boardwalk gave out, and we found ourselves walking along a thin peninsula, with nothing but a few yards of open ground between us and several of these extraordinary survivors of a prehistoric age. There was something so compelling about them that I wanted, at once, to draw closer, and, at the same time, to retreat. Standing about ten feet from one of these awe-inspiring creatures, I thought of those probing questions that the Spirit puts to us in Job 41:

Can you draw out Leviathan with a fish-hook,

or press down its tongue with a cord?
Can you put a rope in its nose,
or pierce its jaw with a hook?
Will it make many supplications to you?
Will it speak soft words to you?

I think the answer is “Probably not!”

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