Sunday, May 2, 2010

This Time the Dragon Wins

As I munched on plates of fajitas with my friends the Minnesota Twins pitcher and his family who happen to staying next door, the talk, unaccountably, turned to dragons. Or maybe not so oddly at all, given a week that for me was filled with visions of a Komodo dragon in Florida—a literary nightmare.

 A female Komodo dragon has made her debut on the New York Times bestseller list thanks to the recent publication of Deep Shadow by Florida novelist Randy Wayne White, starring the nerdy but resourceful marine biologist Doc Ford. Madame Komodo is accompanied in the story by a royal court of lesser monitor lizards, who at six feet or so, are startling enough, as I happen to know, having once encountered one in my own sedate Fort Myers backyard.

As I consumed more than my share of my neighbor’s wonderful fajitas, she recounted how she took her tots, ages 3 and 7, to see a very cute new DreamWorks release, “How to Train Your Dragon.” The following morning came a wire story in the Fort Myers News-Press announcing that a new monitor lizard has been identified, lurking in the canopy of the dense northern forest of the Philippine Island of Luzon.

I also happened to be working a weekend book event with my friend Sandy Lender, author of the amazing Choices Meant for Gods and Choices Meant for Kings fantasy novels where a scaly, bird-sized dragon by night turns princely lover by day. “Sometimes you just want the dragon to win,” is Sandy’s mantra of her work, and I believe Sandy has neatly pegged our passion for—and wariness of--assorted denizens of the reptile tribe. The dragons in our literature, not to mention those in our zoos and nature preserves, are at least as endearing to us as they are appalling.

On a Pacific crossing with my husband in our sailboat back in the mid-seventies, I once spent my watery weeks afloat in the deep ocean devouring In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents by the Belgian French naturalist Bernard Heuvelmans, father of the science of unknown creatures, which he dubbed ‘cryptozoology’. Heuvalmans’ compelling accounts of Komodo dragons, bizarre but documented sightings of strange creatures at sea, and the possible identity of the Loch Ness Monster, took on deep meaning; we’d had a very close encounter with a monster whale at the time, and so I very much empathized with Heuvalmans’ reasoned attempts to sort sea myths from reality. Consequently, once I realized Randy Wayne White’s novel starred put a Komodo dragon in a starring role, I lapped up his novel in a couple of all-night readathons.

Deep Shadow takes us beneath Florida’s fragile surface, honeycombed with underground rivers and unstable limestone caves. Doc Ford and his friends dive into a sinkhole of a central Florida lake in search of a plane gone missing in 1959. The B-26 in question is rumored to be loaded with Cuban gold. The lost plane is one of four cargo planes bearing the contents of the Cuban national treasury that ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista supposedly sent from Havana to Tampa, the better to finance his exile. Meanwhile Fidel Castro assumed the dictatorship of a bankrupt country. This might explain why Fidel, sans gold, has been left to dress in nothing but serviceable khakis to this day.

As for Doc Ford, the treasure hunt proves to be the least of his problems. His buddy and polar opposite the bud-addled Buddhist, Tomlinson, and a tough Native American teen with a cool head are trapped in an underwater dive accident when a limestone bridge collapses. This pair eventually claw their way to the underside of a fetid lair of a creature you definitely don’t want to meet in the dark—or the daylight for that matter, a Komodo dragon. The world’s largest lizard, known for halitosis of epic proportions and a lethal bite, is a holdover from the dinosaur era. The two desperate divers with empty air tanks take turns sucking in the stench of the Komodo’s nest, in no position to complain about air quality at that particular moment.

The Komodo dragon is named for the remote Indonesian island where its tribe thrives to the tune of some six thousand critters; all of Komodo is now a wildlife park. As White points out, a Komodo monster might well flourish in Florida’s lush and swampy countryside. Fortunately, outside the pages of White’s thriller, Floridians have yet to see a live Komodo in the wild.

 We make do with such cheap thrills as a monster Burmese python some sixteen feet long, weighing in at some four hundred pounds, seized from its owner in the Central Florida city of Apopka after it got loose once too often. The town of Marathon, sprawled the length of a half dozen Florida Keys, has its own python patrol doing its best to keep down a burgeoning Burmese python population hailing from the Everglades to the north, where some 30,000 of this non-native species threatens the ecosystem, though the population may have been decimated due to the record breaking cold winter Florida suffered through.

Meanwhile, back in the menacing world of Deep Shadow, murderous characters of the human variety arrive at the dive site. As darkness falls, weird hissing noises arise. The high powered lights that the superbly equipped Ford has brought along paint a pack of carnivorous monitor lizards against a background of gnarly cypress trees. The monitors are stalking the humans, looking like “pit bulls with scales.” The eyes glittering in the dark send chills down the spines of all the two-legged observers, the good guys and the evil types alike. Not to mention the reader’s, I might add.

Monitor lizards in Florida are one of the non-native species turned loose in roadside ditches by pet owners or animal traders who perhaps tired of their feistiness, or maybe their feed bills. The monitors have multiplied, there’s no doubt about that. One such monitor that I met up close and personal was flashing his tail around our Fort Myers neighborhood last fall. Our cluster of condos situated on a narrow bridge of land between the Caloosahatchee River and a lake, is well stocked with various lap-sized pooches, which might, on a bad day, serve as a monitor’s appetizer. This is why our owners’ association sought a judicious way to get rid of him.

If you’ve ever watched a three inch gecko on the finial of a lampshade, warming himself by light bulb as I have, then blow him up a couple of dozen times, turn him as green as the lakeside cattails, that’s what our “Monty Monitor” looked like. In the peaceful daylight of a Florida morning, “Monty” appeared to be just about as menacing as a beanbag monster straight off the shelves of Toys R Us. Unfortunately, however, Monty was having a grand time flaunting condo rules. He refused to prance into the progressively larger traps set out for him.

One afternoon, an alarmed neighbor called, warning me that Monty was right outside my door. I found him lolling lakeside in broad daylight, as much at home as if he were paying the maintenance fees. A team of licensed hunters arrived in a pickup truck with the intent of moving Monty to a more suitable locale, which, I now realize, might well have been a sinkhole of a lake somewhere in Central Florida, the setting for Doc Ford’s encounter with Monty’s kin. Suppose Monty went wild and joined a pack of his ravenous cousins? By the light of our sunny morning, our Monty certainly didn’t resemble any pit bull with scales, but in the deep shadows of swampy darkness, who knows?

Monty’s thick skin warded off a tranquilizer dart that was supposed to have lulled him into submission. Monty became too agitated to let a snare loop his neck, whereupon the frustrated game handlers dispatched him with a round of shots from a light rifle, a twenty two caliber, if I recall correctly. The faces of my neighbors gathered to watch Monty’s roundup registered shock and dismay. All we wanted was our dragon to win—or at least to draw a new lease on life.

 In Deep Shadow, the monitor lizard pack soon takes a backseat to a truly scary creature, a Komodo dragon, a monster of some thirteen feet that swims like a heat seeking missile, has the snaggle teeth of a shark, and a lethal bite. Madame Komodo was perhaps given her size by dint of literary license, but White is a careful researcher. Doc Ford knows that an Indonesian Komodo at ten feet is a large one; however, if I recall my Heuvelmans correctly, there is a biological rule of thumb that a given member of a species may be half again the size of its normal members and is classified as a monster.

 Madam Komodo of White’s novel is a true monster, worthy of her adversaries—or at least of Doc Ford’s murderous enemies. Ford turns the Komodo’s ability to see infrared light into an asset, whereupon Madam Komodo becomes dragon turned defender, winning big time; or at least she gains a new lease on life.

As for that new Philippine dragon among us, it bears a royal sounding name: Northern Sierra Madre Forest Monitor Lizard. This six-foot black and gold lovely weighs in at about twenty two pounds. Sierra’s home at the top of the forest canopy explains how this elusive creature stayed out of the record books for so long; rumors of this new monitor’s existence swirled about in biological circles for at least a decade. Unlike the Komodo, and the common monitors such as Monty, Sierra happens to be a fruit eater. This beautiful creature is apt to show up as a cuddly beanbag on the shelves of Toys R Us, but, unlike Madam Komodo, is unlikely to star in a thriller anytime soon.

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