Riding the Perfect Wave

For some South Floridians, civilization does not exist west of I-95 or south of UM. But for others, this is the very region where life is nurtured.

Hiking and canoeing through this once-rich realm of magnificent tree hammocks, piney rockland forests and stiff sawgrass, local naturalist and botanist Roger Hammer is partly driven by a passion for native orchids.

After doing a couple of solo, 100-mile Glades treks (with more on schedule), there’s “hardly a plant” he can’t identify, and he’s written parts of books like Butterflies Through Binoculars and other articles in varied media. The first book he has authored alone is a native wildflowers guide (due out soon). With only an estimated 25% species overlap, Hammer notes a definite difference between Keys and Everglades botany.

Incidentally, the naturalist points out, the Keys are a little more exciting to explore – there, the bars are much better than the Everglades (which has practically none).

Frequently a volunteer teacher and trip-leader for groups and parks, such as Fairchild Tropical Garden, Hammer’s full-time job is directing Castellow Hammock in Homestead, a Miami-Dade County park. Castellow is a tropical hardwood hammock, a rarity in urbanized South Florida. Interestingly, the park’s plant-life has overgrown its original boundaries to become a 102-acre mass of interconnected wood.

When Hammer talks about how he got where he is, one can’t help but smile. As a boy in Cocoa Beach, he was partly influenced by the surf culture, and competed in some amateur titles. But his mom had also “noticed [his] inquisitiveness about wildlife” and gave him a bird book one Christmas.

He watched shorebirds intensely, correcting friends based on the avians’ tail-bobbing. They thought he was weird. His grandfather taught him how to create gardens and how to fish , and Hammer also hunted, which “pressured” him to identify wildlife on the spot. But, he notes, “It’s harder to photograph a duck than shoot one.”

One of his stirring stories from the bush was in being chased by Big Cypress wild hogs. Hammer recounts this only briefly: “I sat up in a tree as they circled below.” He served in the military, then returned and worked at Turkey Point, first to gauge the commercial feasibility of a saltwater-shrimp cultivation project, then in raising native plants for the area. From Turkey Point, Hammer made his move to Castellow, which he has overseen despite deep funding cuts. Among his other accomplishments: The radiant, endemic Atala butterfly was once thought extinct, but through a non-scholarly effort Hammer helped restore its red-orange-bellied population.

The feeling Hammer has for the outdoors may be likened to the groove musicians reach; albeit Hammer’s is one of contemplative quiet, vivid scenery and smells. It’s that inimitable, bright wildness: the glory of a sun-kissed lake, murmuring and rapturous under a morning sky; or the syncopated tangle of red and black mangroves trembling at us, roots and leaves and branches enriched with life-forms.

Yet, these days, rather than being outside to hunt, Hammer goes outdoors for no other reason than to be and enjoy it. He happily reports that in the time in takes us to reach South Beach without traffic, he can be at Castellow, or either Biscayne or Everglades National Parks. Nearby, too, are Strand and Big Cypress, which in his opinion proves there’s no place with more state and federally protected lands.

Still, Hammer remarks, “It’s hard to imagine that here you are, as far away from civilization as you can be in South Florida… and there’s the glow of Miami in the distant horizon.”