Landscape, Texture, and Detail: Elinor-Klapp Phipps Park

(The road running along the edge of Elinor-Klapp Phipps Park outside of Tallahassee, Florida; this is a long post, so get the heck out while you still can.)


Sounds: Cicada firesong, reaving stacatto through the trees, the pinhole chatter of a transmission none of us can understand; recursive bobwhite harmlessly piercing; distant intelligent yarple-yap of coyote (maybe fox?); whirring kung-fu of a dozen different species of grasshopper; nervous rustle of spastic squirrels; hard fall of nuts falling from trees; cheeky call of various woodpeckers; soft crack of tree bark sundered a dozen times in rustle-bushes; sharp smack of rain drops against oak leaves, against sedgeweed and blackberry bushes; cheery peeping bark of tree frogs as soon as the rain hits.

Smells: Something dead, definitely, that’s still turning and wanting to be alive; loamy thick dead wood; stench of heat expelled from the throat; fresh-quick scent of rain coming on quickly, overtaking the heat; sour of unripe fruit; stale must of Spanish moss.

Textures: Bark, pebbles, grasses, leaves, dirt, mud, empty turtle eggshell, fungi, tufts of fur…

Oddly, this:

Led to this (a lowering of the guard)–yes, that’s right, the imbibing of special vodka by surrealist animals created by Svankmajer.

Which led to a hike to get the vodka out the next afternoon, at Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park. Now, Klapp-Phipps is in a strange position–at the edge of Tallahassee, not truly in the wilderness proper, like St Marks, which I’ve written about before, but also not really in the city. You can immerse yourself in a long hike at Klapp-Phipps, but you never really feel that frisson of possible danger or adventure, because…well, you just don’t believe you’re gonna get et by a bear while walking there. And unless you really feel in the marrow of your bones that you might get et by a bear while walking somewhere…you ain’t in the wilderness proper. Still, it’s a fair distance, and an honest one, and for long moments you might be forgiven for mistaking this park for an Experience. Even if you do get to it by passing Tom Brown Park’s tennis courts and this curious building:

Then, too, you pass an impromptu cemetery, to remind you just where you’re walking to eventually.

Unlike St Marks, which is all about distance and remoteness and being et by bears, Phipps is all about labyrinth–there’s nothing about it that’s honest, and if you don’t take a map with you, you might easily get lost. Sometimes, without a map, you feel as if you’ve entered a feral house that’s bigger on the inside than on the outside. There’s no other explaining it: the careless hiker who decides to plunge into the interior trails could easily wind up turning a thirty-minute walk into a three-hour WTF. (Sometimes I feel as if somehow I am trapped in Elinor’s brain, and that the paths and their meandering reflect her personality.)

Er, butterfly checklist? Screw yer butterfly checklist. And yer dragonfly checklist. And yer trainspotting list. If it ain’t bigger than a butterfly or small and made of gold, I won’t be noticing it this afternoon. Do you know why?

HEAT. Can I talk a little about heat in North Florida during June, in the afternoon? As much as I wanted to sweat off the vodka, the vodka was gone through my pores within two minutes and spiriting its way back to Mother Russia or wherever. You eat the heat in Florida in the summer. You eat it grimly because you know you have no choice. It’s firmer than sponge cake. It’s more real than the Pope. There’s a communion of humidity that converts you to the cause of air conditioning faster than a fascist facing a communist firing squad. You move slower because of the heat, engaging in a kind of mirage in your mind of economy of motion that doesn’t really help…but you think it does. There’s that sun baking you, but it’s really the air that marinates you. You’re gonna sweat, and there’s no getting around that. And while you’re sweating, biting flies are going to take their ounce of flesh. And even while all of that is happening, you’re looking at the trail ahead and thinking, no pun intended, “Hot damn–this place is beautiful!”

Landscape is all you’ve got at three in the afternoon, because you’re not going to find an animal larger than a squirrel standing out in that heat–except for other humans, and if you’re lucky, you misanthropic curmudgeon, you won’t see any of those miscreants, either. What ho! Is it the finish line already? Not bloody likely.

All hail solar power, even out in the middle of nowhere. I have a sudden vision of Elinor Klapp-Phipps in a capsule deep underground, being kept in cryogenic suspended animation, half-human and half-robot–alive only because of the hundreds of solar-power panels that feed into her underground declavity. (Hey, I haven’t done my research–it could be true. I have no idea who EKP is or was.)

In the absence of animals, the mind is drawn to detail and texture, divining the signs and symbols found in the dirt and along the side of the trail. Is that a goiter, or do you just wish I’d go away? And maybe that there filigree has some deeper universal meaning? Er, no. (Note the little black sporling fruiting bodies feasting off the dead wood in the last photo. They’s my buds; we had a long, interesting conversation about decay.)

Eventually, the trail leads out toward Lake Jackson and opens up onto a scene that just a few months before, in winter, was almost as barren as a desert, with just the pine trees pre-existing. It’s a startling transformation. The whole area looked so different than I remembered that it was like opening a door onto a parallel universe. One bursting with life, almost overwhelmingly so, like having a shouted conversation at a crowded party that you finally just have to flee.

On the opposite shore of the lake: a series of expensive houses. I have to admit, I’ve ditched my car near a forbidden trail head more than once and snuck past those houses in the underbrush while birdwatching. It’s not a great idea, though, because the “beware of dog” signs almost invariably lead to rottweiler sightings and sudden flight.

The way out to the lake that used to be so clear–no vegetation–is now blocked by all kinds of weeds and other undergrowth. Which makes me think my decision to wear shorts was stupid. Klapp-Phipps has trails along its other edges broad enough you can wear shorts without fear of snakes. But now, to get out to the lake, I’m gonna be trudging through calf-high grass. What fun.

At least now the sun has disappeared and it looks like rain will come soon.

Even better–blackberries line the trail now, and they’re delicious. Even if to get to them, I have to wade through sedgeweeds, seeding my legs. (Yes, a rather horrific sight.)

Er, so then I reach the edge of the park, meaning everything beyond these signs (facing in toward the park) is private property–and huntable. Clearly, the right decision is…keep going! That’s why I’m wearing red. No deer with red skin, thanks. No hunter’s gonna blow me away wearing red.

It looks promising, like I might actually make it to the lake, despite all of this unexpected undergrowth. Then: a huge pool of fetid black water in a shape a little like the Incredible Hulk fell and died there…and no way past it. I’m not getting to the lake, and it’s beginning to rain. (Oh yeah, and some kind of discarded egg and some kind of mushroom…)

This is the closest I get to Lake Jackson, but I’m glad I tried because of these strange little plants in the mud…

By then, it’s raining–a huge relief from the heat.

The next part of the trail has southern gothic written all over it. A premonition of what six months in Florida without air conditioning or pesticides would mean to most inhabited areas. It’s a heady mixture of growth and decay. Or something out of Herzog’s South American movies. (And: a lightning-struck tree…)

Finally, I make it to my favorite part of the park–this lake that’s right up against verboten private property. It’s hard even in this video to explain just how beautiful and serene and calming this place is…

There’s an osprey on the nest across the water. And from the sign, I’d imagine not much maintenance has been done here recently. Someday, I’ll jump that fence and see what’s beyond…

I particularly like the bench overlooking the lake…

…and the little dramas of damaged butterfly-attacked-by-ants and millipedes (centipedes?) going on in the dirt below.

Unfortunately, that’s about the apex of the journey. A few minutes later, as I rejoin the main trail, I hear what sounds like hyenas, except I soon realize it’s a person talking on a cell phone. So much for solitude. I pick up the pace. If she passes me I will not see any wildlife whatsoever. Having left the cell phone weirdo in the dust, I come to a cross-hatching of trails, only to stop short when something that looks like this comes running along the dirt in the front of me. WTF?! It might as well have been a shambling luck-dragon. It’s so eager it runs right by me, intent on some distant goal that probably involves lots of water. I’m so surprised I forget to take a photo.

The dog is promptly followed by three other dogs and two loud-talking humans wearing clothing that has nothing to do with hiking. One of them is wearing dress boots more appropriate for a dance club. Somehow, this totally destroys my mood. I am not pleased. Mood not improved by finding huge arrows on what are already broad paths–how stupid would you have to be to not know which way to go? And one of them leads to a porta-potty. A porta-potty out in the middle of…nowhere. As if dropped by airlift.

Happily, texture makes me calm again.

And my mood is entirely restored by the discovery of a log-dwelling toad!!! Possibly the most unexpected wildlife I’ve discovered on a trail. I was taking a photo of a log with a hole in it as far as I knew, and then this little guy poked his head out. And stayed that way…superstah!

Can’t see him? Here’s a detail shot…

On the way out, I discover this steampunky pump that’s seen better days. At least, I hope it has, because if these are its best days…

Regardless, when I get home and tell Shosh about it all, she’s not impressed. “Why the heck did you even go outside this weather?” she asked me before going back to sleep.

The entire set of photos, including many I didn’t post here, can be found on flickr. The originals are very large and high-res if there’s anything you want to see further detail on…


  1. Hellbound Heart says

    beautiful beautiful pictures……
    what kind of camera do you have? it’s a little ripper, whatever it is!

    peace and love…..

  2. says

    Wow, what an adventure you documented here, Jeff. It felt poetic and Southern Gothic to me most of the way through. Great shots! I am very curious about that house off in the distance. It tugs at my imagination.

  3. JeffVanderMeer says

    It’s just a Canon PowerShot SD790 IS, 10.0 mega-pixels.

    I’ve taken to keeping it on really high-res, which helps. The zoom on it is tremendous–the osprey nest photo and the one of the house across the lake were at 11x magnification. On the old camera, those shots would’ve come out as blurs.

    I still revert to my cellphone camera for certain kinds of indoor shots, though.


  4. D says

    The arrows are from a 4-mile trail race that the Gulf Winds Track Club recently organized in the park. And the property you were tempted to trespass on is private land owned by the Phipps family. Violating their privacy does not exactly show the respect that thanks them for the generous donation to the city they made to allow you to do any of this hike. Please stay on the designated trails in the public park.

  5. jeff vandermeer says

    First, someone has no sense of humor. Second, I didn’t trespass and wouldn’t. Third, there are no signs on the way leading out to the lake. Fourth–who the heck are you?