MAXWELL:  Florida’s best-kept secret is the strength found there

7/9/1995– Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


I come here to find myself. It is so easy to get lost in the world. _ John Burroughs

At least once a month, I drive here to beautiful Lake Mountain Sanctuary, known today as Bok Tower Gardens. It is in Polk County, 85 miles east of St. Petersburg.

Like writer John Burroughs, I come here to find myself, to ease the sting of the insults I receive in letters and telephone calls, to quiet the din of politics ringing in my ears, to temper the guilt of constantly falling short of my personal and professional goals.

Each time I visit Bok, I am renewed and emboldened to accept the next stint in the world outside _ a world where the respect you receive is determined mostly by the capriciousness of birth and wealth.

But at Bok Tower Gardens, the rules are sane. “Here,” reads a plaque, “all living things are respected, all people are welcomed.”

I feel a change even as I pull into the parking lot. I feel refreshed, deep down inside. At the cafe and gift shop, pleasant volunteers serve me, answer my questions and start me on an enriching experience.

From the visitor center, an authentic “Cracker” house, I walk only a few paces before the mixed fragrances and bright colors of native plants, and the songs of thousands of birds entice me into this 130-acre paradise. No matter which path I choose, I will walk beneath a canopy of live oaks draped with Spanish moss. If a gentle breeze blows, the moss sways, forming lazy semi-circles in the light streaming through openings in the foliage above.

On this day, I chose the North Walk, on which I passed a giant crinum with its lily-like flowers. Looking toward a patch of lantana at the base of a palm, I saw a butterfly flittering from petal to petal. I stood there, intrigued that this tiny creature could fill me with such wonder. I wanted to touch its beauty, to experience its freedom.

A mockingbird sang overhead, and two red-bellied woodpeckers dipped toward a petrified pine framed against the sky. A rabbit hopped within a few feet of me. A squirrel begged for food. A spider’s web, glistening silver and green, hang across two ferns. A hummingbird, like a friendly ghost, darted in and out of the shadows and alighted on a blooming abelmoschus.

The winding path was trimmed on each side with thousands of camellias and azaleas. As I paused to admire a flowering mussaenda and a row of coleus, my eyes were pulled to the darkest clump of leaves of a bay tree. The two big eyes there belonged to a great horned owl. I wondered if anyone else knew that it was there.

With my secret safe, I followed a trail that opened into a bigger one. Leaves crunched beneath my feet, and the sounds echoed for a moment. From here, I could see the reflection pool where two swans maneuvered effortlessly around a big lilypad. As they moved in the direction of the pink bell tower, I looked to the sky.

Music filled the air.

I felt as if I were outside of my body. I was at peace. The adults around me spoke in hushed tones. Even the youngest children apprehended that something special was taking place. They, too, were quiet.

The carillon was as melodious as ever. An older couple stood near the bench where I sat in the shade; the man’s eyes were closed; the woman stared at the goldfish in the pool. She embraced him. The two of them rocked back and forth, letting the music have its way. Watching them, I recalled a comment attributed to Edward W. Bok, the sanctuary’s founder: “Not only must the carillon be in tune, the hearers must be in tune with the carillon.”

From there, I walked to the Window by the Pond, my favorite place. No other spot, except the tower, represents Bok Tower Gardens more than this window in the small wooden nature observatory. It faces the pond, letting visitors view birds and water creatures undisturbed. A sign says it all: “Be patient here. This is nature’s show and it does not necessarily match our schedules.”

On this day, after about a 30-minute wait, I saw alligators, egrets, herons, kingfishers, blackbirds, thrushes, gallinules, wood ducks, blue-gray gnatcatchers.

By no accident, Bok Tower Gardens, Florida’s best-kept secret, is on the top of Iron Mountain, the highest point on the peninsula. From Lake Pierce Vista, guests can look down upon land that was part of the ocean floor half a million years ago. The fossils of prehistoric creatures _ dinosaurs, mastodons, tigers, camels and lions _ are buried beneath centuries of sawtooth palmetto, wild grasses, prickly pear cacti and scrub oak.

I was looking at humanity’s past. I felt small, yet significant at the same time. I felt alive. A breeze swept over me, wafting heat and the odor of magnolia. A dragonfly danced before me, pulling me out of my reverie. Turning to depart, I experienced anew the real secret of Bok Tower Gardens: its quietude, a spiritual presence that induces a feeling of contentment.

Again at the reflection pool, I stared at my image, this time silhouetted by the late afternoon sun. A swan passed, sending symmetrical ripples across the dark water. The infinite expanse of the sky shone in the pool, endowing everything with beauty. I was part of it all.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.