The First Step is a Doozy

When I quit my job at the St. Petersburg post office, my friends and co-workers said I was crazy. They said I would regret giving up a job with such great benefits. When I told them I was going to move to Tallahassee, take a one year course in horticulture and look for a job in the nursery industry, they knew I was certifiable.

During that year at school, while I was living on a combination of savings and credit, there were many times when I was sure they were right. What was I thinking . . . a forty-something-year-old woman with too many years and too many pounds on her and way too many years out of school? Wingless, I had jumped off a cliff, and I wasn’t confident of my ability to bounce.

Lucky for me, a parachute appeared just as I was graduating in the form of an opening at Native Nurseries. There were holes in it (I thought), because Native Nurseries is a retail nursery, and I am not a people person. I get along with plants way better than I get along with the average person.

Lucky for me again, most Native Nurseries customers are not people . . . they are gardeners, nature lovers and bird watchers. It is fun and sometimes even a joy to help them choose just the right plant, find an organic solution to a landscape problem or identify the bird they saw that morning. So as it turns out, the one aspect of this business I was sure I wanted nothing to do with has turned out to be my favorite . . . almost. My very favorite are the National Geographic moments.

Those are the times when the nursery comes to a stop for a few minutes to watch some wonderful happening of nature. Employees and customers suspend their busy running, buying, tasking to watch a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis in one of our butterfly cages, two male pileated woodpeckers performing their odd territory-claiming dance round and round a large pine trunk, snakes mating(!) or dozens of zebra longwings flying in from all directions to roost together, like Christmas ornaments hanging from the Spanish moss in a dogwood out by the parking lot.

But the best nature sighting of all occurred on a Friday in the spring of 2008. A wood duck had chosen a cavity at the top of one of the topped water oaks in our bird garden for her nest; and late that morning, the nursery came to a complete stop when Jody ran through shouting ‘the ducklings are fledging, NOW!’

Customers and employees poured from all parts of the nursery; my customer and I rushed away from the counter leaving the credit card machine waiting in vain for the transaction amount. We crowded around the office window, lined the west side of the building and packed the back porch—anywhere with a view of the bird garden. What an amazing sight. Wood ducks hatch fully feathered and fledge within hours, jumping from their nest to the ground whether the drop is six feet or sixty! In the office we passed the binoculars around; and there they were—at least four ducklings peering from the opening at the twenty-five foot drop to where their mother and the rest of the brood were waiting behind the moss covered rocks.

Did they look nervous? You bet! Through the binoculars I could see them jostling each other and working those beaks. And you didn’t have to speak duck to get the gist: ‘your turn’, ‘no, no, after you’ and maybe even ‘go ahead—jump—the career change will do you good’.

Finally one of them took the leap, and dropped like a rock (those are some pretty useless wings on Day One). It bounced once and joined the rest of the family to watch as the rest of its siblings followed. The luckier ones landed on the spider lily, one bounced off the suet feeder; but they all finally joined mom in the march to the creek behind the nursery. That is, all but one joined mom.

For those of us who grew up in large families, we get this. There’s always one sibling who just has to go her own way. So once the west side of the nursery was taped off so the new family would have a clear shot to the creek without human interference, Donna and Jody chased ‘Following my Own Drummer, Thank You’ through the secret garden, the native azaleas and the mountain laurel under the close scrutiny of one of the resident hawks. Donna had the butterfly net, but Jody finally caught the little truant with his bare hands. I heard he dived head-first into the brush to do so.

You’d think after all that the little AWOL duckling would be home free, but by the time Jody reached the creek, the others were so far downstream Drummer Duck didn’t stand a chance of catching up. So once again Jody helped her out. He threw that duckling as far as he could in the direction of her family. She was the only one of the brood to drop from the sky twice that day, but at least her second landing was on water. Mom swam back to collect her and that’s the last any of us saw of our wood ducks.

We spent the rest of that day grinning and telling the story to everyone who came into the nursery. For myself, I couldn’t wait to get home and call my St. Pete buddies to tell them just who had the job with the great benefits after all.