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  • Writer's pictureBlair Butterfield

On the Edge of the Everglades: In the swaying Burma Grasses

I’m standing about shin-deep in a field of freshly “bush hogged” Burma weed or Neyraudia reynaudiana. The sky is a surreal and vast blue. But what is even more surreal is the juxtaposition of the golden color of dry cane grass and the scaly sheen of an 8-foot-long, dark and dappled Burmese python body. It is nestled amongst the grass and is clearly severed. Burma weed is a very resilient, invasive, and tall grass. Our field before this moment contained islands of it that were about 7 feet tall. Making it nearly impenetrable but great for the life of a Burmese python. The grass was introduced in the 1900s by the USDA’s Plant Introduction Station in Coconut Grove for erosion control. By 1993 the grass had taken over 75% of the native Pine Rockland landscape and an unknown percentage of the Everglades, and when invasives start to change the landscapes at this scale, it makes way for other species to take up residence.

To Deigo, the local man who is routinely hired to clear fields like this one, it was no surprise to find that his machine stumbled upon a snake of this size, it happens to him all the time. He tells me there was another one in the grass that got away, he swears it was female due to its size and that she is now very angry because her mate was killed. This makes sense because the Burmese python is known to be solitary except in mating season. South Florida provides such perfect conditions for so much life. It is like the Amazon of the United States.

As of 2022, there is an estimated 30,000-300,000 Burmese Pythons living in Florida. The numbers vary due to the undetectable nature of the snake. However, I once met a man who had grown up hunting these pythons with his father and claimed that he knew their smell. That when he was out at night on his boat sitting on the grassy shallows of the Everglades, it finally happened, after about 10 years of hunting, his olfactory senses and brain were able to isolate the specific scent of a Burmese python. A right of passage he had hoped would be delivered to him. He was delighted to exercise this new advantageous skill for the next hunting season. Yes, there is a python hunting season in Florida. Some might ask why would one want to hunt such an animal? One reason might be for food, although the python is among many creatures in the area that bioaccumulates mercury at neurotoxic levels. They are basically poison. But the most popular reason to hunt a python is the official Florida Python Challenge.

Every year the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida puts on a hunting competition with cash prizes for the biggest or most pythons caught on seven public land sites in south Florida that includes about 1.5 million acres of wildlands. It is an effort to involve citizens in the regulation of this highly invasive species, which has been blamed for the disruption of the ecosystem and the diminishing populations of many unique local Everglades and Florida species, including wood storks, Key Largo woodrats, limpkins, and Key deer. The Florida Python Challenge draws a unique crowd of all ages and from all over the world. On the website, you can see past winners, many standing, smiling with a dead python draped around their neck. Last year's grand prize winner won $10,000 for capturing 41 pythons.

There is something so macabre about so many smiling faces and all the appearingly prehistoric-sized dead snakes. The Burmese python is the third largest snake in the world, it can grow up to 23 or more feet and weigh about 200 pounds. They are native to the jungle and marshlands of southeast Asia, where ironically, they are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) list of threatened species. The snake has been a popular export on the exotic pet market, with over 100,000 imported into the US between 1996-2006 according to a University of Florida study. In the snake's native home, they have long been utilized as medicine, specifically in Indonesia, where the bile is used to treat respiratory disorders, fever, aches, and to boost immunity.

The IUCN reports that the species is under threat due to illegal trade, habitat loss, and in Vietnam and China for food, snake wine, and skin. In China, the skin is used in the manufacturing of traditional musical instruments such as an erheen, a sort of upright violin with a long neck. Of course, you can find one on made of Burmese python skin stretched around another endangered species, Brazilian Rosewood. Other instruments include the sanxian, (a sort of lute) and various hand drums, according to a 2011 report by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora or simply known as the acronym CITES. Other parts of southern Asia have a huge decline in the species, but IUCN has no data to list specific reasons, but it can be assumed the pet trade is one driver, but the loss of habitat through slash and burn agriculture practices is by far the largest.

In Boga, Burma exists Buddhist snake temples or pagodas, in which daily visitors come to make offerings to Burmese pythons with hopes that their wishes will come true and good fortune will arrive. The Tantkyitaung Pagoda currently has one of the largest captive pythons, and it is believed she is a reincarnation of a Shan princess. She is named Daw Saw Nan Wei, and you can find images of her with stacks of cash on her back across the internet and on social media. The python, to some, represents power, it is associated with some voodoo practices and in 2012 an article came out in the University of Oslo’s research magazine Apollon, that evidence was found of a python ritual that took place more than 70,000 years ago in a small cave in Botswana, in which spearheads were sacrificed to the python. The article explains that local San people hold a creation story that man descended from the python and that the land and river beds were all formed as the python circled around searching for water.

Meanwhile, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is standing at an outdoor podium wearing a suit and tie, holding a football made out of python skin as he gives an opening speech to launch the python hunting season. He speaks about recent funding injected into the Everglades restoration project and how the Florida Python Challenge is a great endeavor to eliminate this invasive species that is ruining the Everglades. After everyone gives their formal speech, a camera pans down to the ground and we see a woman is holding the head of a writhing, modest-sized python. The governor and other speakers reluctantly pick up her intelligently designed body from the ground and pose for several pictures. Another handler holds the snake’s tail as the python’s instinct, as I have seen in the myriad of python catching videos, is to start to coil around the catcher’s hand or arm and constrict. It is interesting to watch the background of the video as one can see a wall of about 7-foot tall Burma weed swaying in the wind. An invasive plant for an invasive snake.

Once Diego left the farm, the snake just lay in the fresh-cut field, my kids came to take a look, touch the skin, and were in awe of its large and unusual body. They were genuinely feeling sad about its death. They were looking at a mythological legend laying unanimated and severed. All of its superpowers, its mystery, biblical mysticism, all laid dead. It wasn’t long before the neighbors came to look at the body and asked if they could skin it and cook the meat. They grilled the meat with barbeque sauce and brought the skin back over to us. I placed the skin across the top of the wooden field fence, and it stayed there as a respectful reminder that my children and I were living in a new wild place.

Life in and with "Burma Weed" on the edge of the Everglades Florida

Dancing with Burma, Video Work 2017

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