Roger Hammer leads the way into the claustrophobic thickets of Everglades National Park, bobbing and weaving, watching for beauty and danger. "Don't let the leaves slap you in the eye,'' he hisses. "That's a manchineel tree. Poisonous. You could go blind, at least for a while.''
Tabloid Florida, as we know, has no shortage of dangers. They include gun-toting motorists, trailer park pornographers and hungry souls who believe they just may be zombies. Real Florida, meanwhile, has its own set of perils to keep us awake nights, among them Cat 5 hurricanes and house-eating sinkholes.
With my worry plate already full, I glance apprehensively at the innocent-looking native plant that might be among the most dangerous on the planet. If I were hiking without Hammer's expertise, I might be tempted to crush one of those shiny leaves in my hand and out of curiosity breathe deeply. After lunch I might sample one of those sweet-smelling little apples for dessert.
"The Spanish conquistadors liked to call the tree el arbol de la muerte — 'the tree of death,' " he says. "But they were probably exaggerating.''
Hammer is Florida's crazed botanist. At 68 he will go anywhere, anytime, risking a bite, a tree branch in the eye, or even something worse, to see something green and spectacular.
Hammer, who wears his white hair in a long ponytail, lives minutes from a tropical wilderness where he stalks otherworldly plants while dodging cold-blooded critters with fangs as sharp as a Turkish scimitar.
The modern Florida of Disney and South Beach? It's not on his radar. By choice he wades into swamps and photographs some of the rarest plants on Earth while breathing in mosquitoes. "You're in more danger in the city,'' he says.
Not long ago, when he was fishing for mahimahi in the Atlantic Ocean, a Coast Guard vessel stopped to check on him.
"Are you all right, sir?'' asked the federal mariner.
"Sure,'' Hammer answered. "Just catching dinner.''
He was 7.2 miles from shore — in a 16-foot kayak.
A few years ago, Hammer stood under a manchineel tree in Everglades National Park and made some photographs. Then he began wondering: Was the sap as dangerous as the conquistadors feared?
The crazed botanist plucked a leaf. Liquid glistened from the broken stem. He dripped the sap around his wrist. Crazed botanists are curious.
At first nothing happened. Then he noticed a burning sensation.
Two weeks later the enormous welt stopped oozing blood and pus.
Born in Cocoa, he was a wild Florida boy who was more interested in fishing, hunting and surfing than school. He ate snook, ducks and rattlesnake. He enlisted in the Army before he could be drafted. He survived Vietnam, returned home, worked at a shrimp farm, let his hair grow, dressed in tie-dye and smoked a well-known plant.
He read The Native Orchids of Florida by Carl Luer. It's out of print now, but orchid fanciers still regard it as their bible. Not only does it feature beautiful photographs and natural history, but prose that flirts with poetry. Hammer decided he was going to find every one of the 102 orchids featured in that book.
So he traveled for the first of hundreds of times into America's greatest orchid swamp, the Fakahatchee Strand, in southwest Florida. It's 70,000 acres of animals and plants, some found nowhere else. He took a compass and a backpack and started wading. He slept in a hammock strung above the black water and the venomous cottonmouths, the only thing he feared. If bitten — this was before cellphones — he might die out there, alone.
"After a while I appreciated the cottonmouths because they make you pay attention. When you are looking for orchids you learn real quick that you can't be looking up in the trees all the time. You have to look down, too.''
Mostly he looked up. And saw: ghost orchids, clamshell orchids, night-scented orchids. He found 89 of Luer's 102 orchids, and some Luer had never seen. He is among the few people on Earth to have seen Lepanthopsis melanantha, the so-called tiny orchid because the purple flower is less than an inch wide.
It took him five years. When he found one he stayed for hours in its company. He wanted to yell in triumph, but nobody would have heard him. He took notes and photos. He asked the orchid, "Where have you been?''
It's possible the tiny orchid has disappeared from the Fakahatchee. Anyway, nobody has reported it for years. Extirpated, the orchid experts say.
Here's what it is like to travel into Roger Hammer's world. The Grateful Dead is on the truck stereo. Sugar Magnolia. Stories about snakes, panthers and plants — with Latin names, of course.
He feels most at home in the Everglades. The sun is disagreeable, the mosquitoes whine, the deerflies are seriously hungry. It's his paradise. He begins identifying hidden birds by their songs and distant butterflies by their flight patterns. He points out poison ivy, thank you, and another bad plant actor, poisonwood, which will give you an unpleasant rash.
Vines grab our feet. Hurricane-toppled mahoganies block our path. All the while Hammer's eyes are roaming for orchids.
Now he points out a mule's ear, a fabulously rare orchid. Now he points out something even more outrageous, a cowhorn orchid larger than Jerry Garcia's afro.
He is never bored here. He sees bears and bobcats, crocodiles and coral snakes. One 120-mile kayak adventure ended on a wilderness beach where he saw three deer in the surf.
"Anything can happen in the Everglades,'' he says.
Someone he knew was stung to death by bees. Somebody got lost during a hike and was never found. Hammer suffered an infected leg after standing in dung-contaminated water while photographing a roseate spoonbill rookery. One time someone asked how he had photographed a vanilla orchid and he answered: "I threw a rock through the mosquitoes and took a picture through the hole.''
He lives in a Homestead house that was a jelly factory in 1926. He shares his tropical refuge with wife No. 3, Michelle, whom he met at one of his plant talks. Sometimes they drink rum, eat smoked mullet and skinny-dip in their spring-fed pond.
They have a rare lignum vitae tree. They have eggfruit, jackfruit, lemon-scented bay rum, soldier wood. They have their own menagerie of parrots. A barn owl nests in their yard. They built a tower from which they sometimes watch northern yellow bats fly into the day's fading light.
One morning Hammer drove over to the McDonald's on U.S. 1 for a coffee. In the parking lot, a desperate woman had a question: "What can I do for $20 that will make you happy?''
"Come over and paint my house,'' he answered.
He returned home alone to Michelle and their four dogs, Zachary, Bailey, Sandy and the one named after his favorite rum, Pyrat. The oafish dogs are always investigating something or other.
Back in the past, the crazed botanist had planted a manchineel in his yard. It was beautiful, it was dangerous, like having a hungry cheetah. He wasn't stupid: He avoided standing under the tree canopy in the rain. The Carib natives, historians say, tied unlucky conquistadors to the trunks of manchineels. Rain dripping from the leaves seared their skin.
One morning Hammer noticed his beloved dogs playing with the death apples.
He dressed in his good raincoat and a hat. He protected his eyes behind a swim mask. He covered exposed flesh with Vaseline.
He revved up the chain saw.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] His new book of essays is "Alligators in B-Flat."