The Lesson

The leathery young alligator eased into the syrupy brown stream with grace, barely creating a ripple.

Nearby, I floated face down in two feet of water, peering through my portable window while breathing air through a rubber snorkel. Inquisitive minnows approached my dive mask cautiously. A shy red-bellied slider turtle took refuge behind a submerged rock.

My unexpected visitor glided into formation less than three feet from my shoulder. I should have been startled, but as a fossil hunter, I was too focused. My mind and vision were transported a million years back in time, where a tropical short-haired mammoth had occupied a similar space. The big beast sauntered majestically past stately palms and bristly palmetto shrubs. The flora was distant kin to the same vegetation I traipsed through to find this private Pleistocene preserve.

I knew a mammoth had been here. I knew it probably drank from the same recycled stream I was now sharing with this ancient-looking reptile. The chewing surface of the massive herbivore’s tooth, looking like the sole of a size 15 Air Jordan tennis shoe, poked up through the white powdery sand. Were it alive today, the behemoth would share grazing rights with cattle. I thought of a popular southern bumper sticker with a minor rewrite: "EAT MORE MAMMOTH".

Near the tooth were bones of a primitive horse not much bigger than a border collie. Scattered along the bottom were fossilized plates of bony armor that once protected a two-ton armadillo nearly the size of a VW-Bug.

I moved upstream, aware my companion was moving with me, pausing when I paused, dipping its head underwater when I dipped, turning when I turned.

I sensed no threat. Where did that sense come from? I am still a rough work in progress, a rapidly changing Homo sapiens. I represent a late-blooming species. The infant reptile had been perfecting its senses for over 150 million years, practicing survival techniques about the same time dinosaurs first began to munch on each other.

We humans are quick learners, even if we’re equally quick to forget our lessons. A numbing thought crept slowly from an obscure file in my brain, picking up speed as it spread through my body.

“Where’s momma? A baby alligator has to have a momma.”

As the fine hairs danced about on my back (a feat I am only able to demonstrate when frightened), I assured myself I was safe. There were no signs of large adult alligator tracks on the flat sandy beach where I entered the water. Nothing had matted down the grasses in a nearby clearing. Best of all, junior was not screaming to be rescued.

Moving on, searching the gravelly bottom for more signs of the past, my shadow stayed with me. Who was I to this creature? Was it lonely? Hungry? Did it think I was its mother? Was its vision clear enough to tell I wasn’t her? Could it not smell me and tell I was one of those inferior terrestrial species?

I tried to look at myself from the alligator’s perspective. My “shorty” wet suit is gray-black. I suppose it could pass for skin. My long hairy legs with black booties covering my feet might embarrass my fellow Florida Crackers enough to disown me. But did my legs and feet look like a tail to junior? Was my silver-streaked beard and hair just floating Spanish moss I picked up while cruising along on the surface?

I glanced slowly in the direction of the alligator, being careful not to make direct eye contact. Then I pretended to focus on a spot in the woods. It was the same action I took in the presence of a stray dog when I was unsure of its intentions. Act indifferent to its presence. Let it get used to me. Don’t come across as a challenge or threat.

Still face down, I half-floated, half crawled around a bend. My companion followed, never getting too close, never lagging too far behind. Ahead, tree branches blocked my watery path, completely covering the stream. Should I climb out and go around, or swim through? I didn’t want to inconvenience my companion, so I held my breath and went under.

On the other side, I gently fanned the bottom where a fossilized turtle shell was partially buried. Inadvertently, I stirred up an Eastern Dobsonfly larvae that spends the early part of its life in water. Was the infant reptile learning from me? Did it think I was searching for food? Or, like my cat, a wise-looking fur ball with wide green eyes, was there a light on but no one was home?

I reasoned that my brain is the size of a coconut and I’m perched at the top of the food chain. I laughed recalling that an alligator’s brain is about the size of a thimble and amounts to not much more than a nerve ending. Then again, if I’m so smart, what was I doing in the alligator’s dining room? Doesn’t the toothy reptile also hang out at the top of the food chain? Is this how its kind has managed to thrive for 150 million years while mine is struggling after just a fraction of that time?

The sun had rolled directly overhead and was reflecting off something shiny. I loosened the pointy object from the sand, recognizing it as the tooth from an ancient shark that once grew nearly as large as two school buses. Known as Carcharocles megalodon, or “Meg” by its rabid followers, the toothy beast fed on primitive whales, dolphins and dugongs. It may have tipped the local fish scales at 100,000 pounds.

At different times and in different settings, Meg shared the same space as the mammoth, horse and armadillo. Florida has been submerged by oceans many times in the past five million years. Meg was another creature that dominated the food chain. What went wrong? Where is it today?

One by one, I scooped up the remnants of other ancient beasts, recognizing each by its unique shape or texture. The mammoth tooth was flat and tailored for a diet of open grasslands. Further upstream, a bulky mastodon had also left its badly worn tooth. The rounded chewing surface, or cusps, were shaped like the twin humps of three camels walking side by side. The teeth were useful for browsing on shrubs and tree leaves.

Some of my own kind also lived here thousands of years ago, but it wasn‘t a tooth that provided the clue. A large translucent spear tip made of high grade chert was mixed in with the bones. It had been crafted with the greatest care; part tool, part art. I could tell by its design that it was fashioned several thousand years after mammoths had become extinct. It wasn’t unusual for fossils and artifacts from different time periods to get washed into the same sediments.

I wondered where the tool’s people were today; a race so much like mine, but with a whole different set of challenges. Gone like the mammoth, the giant armadillo and the megalodon shark. Still, the thimble-brained alligator lives on, in spite of an attempt by my species to exterminate it in the 1960s.

I was aware of the alligator’s advantages. What other animal can survive for a year without eating, living off the fat in its tail? I marveled at the strength of its jaws, its dense bony armor, and how easily it can adjust to extreme heat and cold. It may prefer live fish, but will stuff a dead racoon under a submerged log to marinate for a few weeks before dining.

I glanced again at my companion. Did he see me as I saw him, a totally different critter than me? Or was I one of his kind? Would he have bonded with any living creature, including an inanimate one, such as a floating log? Why not? Even I, a lowly mammal, have been accused of hugging trees.

Why do I say ‘he’ anyway? Eanie, meanie, miny, mo, I guess. An alligator keeps its gender a private matter. To really know, one has to poke and prod. I’d rather fight a professonal boxer in a phone booth without gloves.

Were we that much different, this alligator and I? We had somehow been drawn together across species, genre, families, orders and classes. If we both evolved from the same DNA, how far back were we more closely related? Why did we drift apart? Or have we? I am constantly reminded that there is a special bond between all life forms.

By day’s end, the stream had twisted and turned through a mile of dense upland forests and cypress swamps. My companion was always a few feet behind or beside me.

I stepped out of the water and watched as he climbed onto a log near me. I didn’t want to leave but had to. It was a long hike back through the woods to my car, then an even longer drive to my home habitat. I thought about bringing him with me. Stupid. Illegal too.

“You’re on your own,” I heard myself say to the alligator. “Remember what I taught you and you‘ll do fine.”

Then I paused.

“Who am I kidding?” I said. “You’re the teacher, aren’t you? Thanks for today’s lesson.”