DUCK SOUP: Have You Seen the Rainbows?

"They have money. So I hear." The voice is as weathered as the grey stubbled, tanned face. The dark eyes scanning the marsh are as direct as the speech. "Their families pay 'em to stay away."My partner observes, "They sure leave a mess.""Yes, mam. At first they were real neat. Years ago their sites were spotless when they left. "Three of us surveyed piles of garbage strewn across the camp area: Wet blankets, disposed diapers, empty BeanieWeenie and Spagetti-O cans, bottles, filthy pants and underwear, a seatless office chair, an empty tin of American Spirit tobacco, milk jugs, boxes, bags and toilet paper confetti in the scrub."They," are the Rainbow People.The site is Hopkins Prairie, a lovely marsh in Florida's Ocala National Forest. Hopkins is home to Sand Hill Cranes, countless lesser birds, numerous reptiles, amphibians, insects, and diverse mammals, lately including 400 or so Rainbows. Most of them had just departed our favorite Ocala campground, and we found it trashed."Hangers on, maybe," the old man speculated. "Used to be real nice folks. Tell you anything you want to know except where they're from. These days I keep my gun beside me." He tapped a leather case, his eyes shifted from ours to the garbage and back to the prairie. "I love this place. Been here since 1947."If the Forest Service would let me live here, and somebody would bring me food, I don't guess I'd ever leave."Same for the Rainbows, I thought. The fourteen day campsite use limit moves them along. Their Winter presence in the Ocala woods has increased over the years, but this was the first time we had seen the aftermath.We had approached our informant to inquire about back roads, canoe runs and alligators -- old-timers are usually an intelligent source for such arcana, even in a place familiar for decades -- and we'd hit paydirt. Gib had boated, hiked, hunted, fished and poached every part of the surrounding territory, made a living at it before he worked for Marion County, and had now retired to it for good."Are the gator numbers up?" I asked. "There seem to be more.""No, sir. There's plenty, always were. We hunters had 'em beat back into the swamp pretty good." There was pride in his voice. "You see more now because they hunt less."I made my living at it in the 50s. What else could you do back then to fetch a hundred dollars a night, year 'round?""Wasn't there a hunting season?""Yes, mam. But the fine was only $50. They could catch me every day and I'd still be money ahead." Gib's eyes wrinkled, lit. "But they didn't. Later on, that changed. Five hundred dollars and five years -- that was the day I quit poaching gators. You put time on it and it gets a man's attention."He looked toward a brightly painted van parked under the oaks. "You want to put a stop to poaching, or thieving, you just put some time on it. I love this land," he added as an afterthought. "I still hunt, but I don't much want to kill anything. I just want to be out here."Strange intersection, that. The previous evening Rainbows had wandered past, even directly through our campsite. In family groups, the stern faced male led, warrior-like, pregnant woman following several steps behind, mud-smeared baby in arm, filthy toddler in tow. I felt sorry for the kids.The common greeting was, "Welcome home," which sounded odd coming from kids not born when I first camped there.A fellow bivouacked next door had a bad trip. He shouted, screamed and cursed all night long. Running footfalls. "It's alright, man. We love you." More curses. All night.I am not unsympathetic with the Rainbows' search for a new paradigm, a society run by consensus. But, they are really mucking up.I am not sympathetic with poachers, or most hunters for that matter. In an era of vanishing wild places and wild creatures, I think they should back off. And, yet ...Gib was honest. Like him I love the woods. And I would damn sure rather camp in a place he had camped than in the site I cleaned up that day.Colors everywhere.


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