During a visit to Louisiana back in the 90’s I heard about a great place to photograph wildlife. A pristine, privately-owned sanctuary called Pine island. I heard that there was an amazing egret rookery and tons of other critters in a spectacular wetland environment, with some pines growing on the higher patches of ground. I decided that I had to get in there to see this place and do what a wildlife photographer does. There was one problem: the caretaker. He was reputedly a trigger-happy, mafia-connected, curmudgeon who let no one in. That “problem” was Vincent Licata.
As luck would have it, I met one of his friends, Arthur, who said that he needed to make a visit to Pine Island and agreed to take me along. My luck continued when we arrived and Vincent honed right in on my Italian surname, Cancalosi, and decided to give me a chance. Given Vincent’s Italian background, it was strange that he always butchered my name, introducing me to his friends as John “Casiopi”. I would have understood if he called me “Canneloni” since he ran an Italian restaurant for years before retiring to the swamp at the invitation of the former owners. However, “Casiopi” it was and I never bothered to correct him.
Thus began my photography on the refuge. I started by taking a canoe out to a platform that Vincent had built near some of the egret nests. To get to this platform I had to spend hours clearing out the water hyacinths, which Vincent called “lilies”, that clogged the way. Since then I spent untold days over nearly two decades, photographing the birds and other wildlife at Pine Island. It became a refuge, not just for wildlife, but for me and later my son. After a while, my visits became less about photography and more about my friendship with this “swampman”, unlike anyone that I’ve met before or since. Apparently, the Discovery channel had asked Vincent to be part of their “Swamp people” series, but he declined. In any case, it soon became apparent that beneath his gruff exterior, Vincent Licata had a heart of gold.
Vincent’s constant companion was an overweight Chihuahua called “Big Mama”. One of his friends, who owned a used car dealership, babysat “Big Mama” for a week or two. One day, a black couple, the female half of which was shall we say “large” arrived to look at cars. The dog ran off and Vincent’s friend yelled out something like “get over here Big Mama.” When the man heard this he assumed that “Big Mama” referred to his wife and he became irate to the point of physical violence! Fortunately, he realized who Big Mama was before things got ugly!
Vincent had a very exciting and checkered employment history. He was a professional diver on oil rigs in the Gulf and was part of a professional salvage operation in the Caribbean. He ran a large and successful Italian restaurant, “Licatas”. He hunted alligators professionally, having helped the Louisiana Fish and Game successfully bring back the once endangered gators in the State. The most “colorful” of his careers was that of a bookie in New Orleans. I’ll never forget the time when he told me about how he collected his debts. He had a rather large associate named Ernest Thibodeaux. I surmise that Mr.Thibodeaux might have been a failed professional baseball player in his early career and later turned to using the bat on uncooperative debtor’s knees, a skill at which he was apparently quite proficient.
Vincent had many friends which ranged from “redneck good old boys” to dentists, television sports personalities, game wardens and police chiefs to name a few. I suppose you could say the the dentists , sports personalities, game wardens and police chiefs were god old boys as well. Let’s just say that they were not the kind of people that you would expect to see in a trendy coffeeshop in New York City ordering a double laté and a scone… and that is a good thing, if you know what I mean. Vincent was married twice, but he never talked much about that, although he did mention the sadness that he felt when his second wife died. When I recently asked him what he did for female companionship he said that he knew some local “oldies but goodies”. In his trailer-house, he proudly displayed a photo of himself posing with a bevy of scantily clad young women that made a beer commercial some years ago at Pine Island.
Vincent often patrolled the property and helped game wardens nab more than a few poachers. He had a couple of boats befitting a swamp man of his caliber: an airboat and a “mud boat”, both of which somehow ended up on the bottom of the lake. He did a lot of hunting and fishing. The giant, walk-in freezer at his house was always filled with the harvest of the swamp: buckets of crawfish, sac-a-lait, and huge alligator gar, alligator snapping turtles and alligators. As his obituary read, “The alligators of Louisiana are now breathing a collective sigh of relief.”
Vincent was from the old South. He would refer to blacks in a way that “refined” white folks simply don’t do these days in more northerly latitudes. From this I concluded that Vincent was a racist. Then we went to eat at a local restaurant where the cook, Ronnie, was black. When we arrived Ronnie came out and showered Vincent with free food as if they were brothers. Apparently Vincent bailed Ronnie out of jail on many occasions and it was extremely appreciated. Every time we went back to that restaurant the fraternal scene was repeated. So much for racist Vincent.
For a couple of years Vincent took in a troubled, homeless housemate named Mike. He was the kind of person whose problems had problems, not someone that I would want as a housemate, yet Vincent took him in. He also played host to one of his best friends, Ronnie Walker, while he was ill with cancer. He eventually died and Vincent constructed a cross to mark his final resting place. I assume that he buried him where the cross is tacked to a cypress tree. However, upon reflection, I wonder if the alligators were well fed the day Ronnie died.
One family member that he often spoke of was his son, Nick. He was immensely proud of his university soccer career , his education and his family, complete with Vincent’s grand children. He was also fond of my own son Nick. One of the more memorable times that the three of us shared was when we went into the cypress trees in the middle of the lake and bedecked 10 year old Nick with Spanish moss, had him pose in a tree, and photographed the “swamp monster”. My Nick learned to drive, starting at the ripe old age of 7 on the dirt road that circled the lake. When my son became a teenager Vincent counseled him. He let him know that teenage years are for eating, sleeping and what I shall politely translate as “pleasuring oneself”.
Vincent was very fond of his brother and sister and was deeply saddened by their recent passing. He helped his brother through a long bout with cancer and it took a lot out of him. Very unlike him, he recently described himself as “depressed” by these events. He hung a picture of the three of them taken many years ago. It struck me how handsome Vincent was as a young man. I kind of had a feeling when we talked about his brother and sister that he thought that he might join them soon. I think that he said as much. His health had been giving out for years; diabetes, car accident, broken foot… I tried to get him to quit smoking but it was a lost cause. I gave him a bike to ride around the lake for exercise but it was stolen.
The last time I saw him was the summer of 2014. I was having some problems of my own at the time and Vincent knew it. He also knew the healing effect that the refuge had on me so we spent around a week together and braved the deer flies and mosquitos in the swamp. My son also joined us for part of the time. I paddled Vincent’s hydro bike though the cypress trees while he patiently waited on the shore. When I last left Louisiana he called to check up on me and spoke with my African fiancé in the most tender tone possible and invited her to visit when we came down next.
Then he had major heart surgery and stayed in the ICU for over four months. There were medical explanations for his passing but I think that it was more about the passing of his brother and sister, plus being cut off from his beloved outdoors and stuck in a hospital room for months. He passed away peacefully the other day in the arms of his beloved son Nick.
I don’t think that the loss will fully hit me until I return to Pine Island. There simply aren’t many people like Vincent Licata and he will be sorely missed. Louisiana won’t be the same without him. If there are alligators in heaven, they better watch out!
Maybe its none of my BISMUTH, but I think its BASIC, we in the modern world take MINERALS and the ELEMENTS they contain for GRANITE, which I don’t think is very GNEISS. If you think that MINERALS are a BOR, AX yourself if you could survive without them. Although its not your FAULT, every guy or GAL EN A typical classroom has been LEAD by modern society into a life dependent on technology, all of which couldn’t exist without using MINERALS. However, the things that we know about how we use MINERALS and ELEMENTS AR GON and because of this we SULPHUR. Of QUARTZ its TUFF but I will do AS BEST OS I can to show why I like ELEMENTS AND MINERALS so much. I have such a great APATITE for learning about them my SULF, I’DE say they really ROCK! Its ELEMENTary, when you see how beautiful minerals are and AD IT to how much we depend on them, you will METAMORPHOSE into a MINERAL fanatic like me. If you FLUO RITE into the study of MINERALS, UL EXCITE your senses, I AZURE ITE! Before I get any BOULDER, AL BITE my TUNGSTEN, ORE I BRECCIA I’ll start to sound a little WACKE as I RON on without letting your thoughts CRYSTALIZE. So check out these MINERAL photos if you WILLE. MITE I get a little BOULDER and ask you to read about them and your APATITE for learning about them will be as great as MINE. MINERALS ROCK! FAC ET, they are the original ROCK STARS!
By far the most well known cactus in the Sonoran Desert is the saguaro. These desert giants are especially important to the Tohono O’odham, one of the Native American tribes that have inhabited the Sonoran Desert for thousands of years. Saguaros feature prominently in their beliefs and legends and they treat them with great respect. I also view these remarkable plants with great reverence. They never cease to amaze me. No two mature saguaros are the same. Like people, each has its own personality. I never met a saguaro I didn’t like.
Saguaros provide housing for many animal “guests”. Many birds, like Harris’ and red-tailed hawks, great-horned owls make their nests on saguaros, where the arms meet the trunk. The saguaro’s great arms shade the nests, and, being off the ground, they are protected from ground-dwelling predators.
Besides the birds that nest outside saguaros, there are also those that nest inside its protective trunk and arms. Safe inside, they are shielded from the hot sun and most predators. Gila woodpeckers and gilded flickers are hard-working woodpeckers that chisel out nesting cavities in saguaros where they raise their young. These cavities are then used for nesting in later years by other birds like elf owls, western screech owls, kestrels, purple martins and others.
My favorite Sonoran Desert lizard is the psychedelically colored collared lizard. Collared lizards often perch on large boulders on the lookout for a meal. They prey on other lizards but also eat insects and other invertebrates. I once spent two weeks photographing collared lizards in an isolated canyon. They moved so little from their boulder perches that I might have imagined they were statues. Suddenly, one rocketed off on its hind legs! Skidding to a halt, it grabbed a darkling beetle and quickly gobbled it down. It then went back into statue mode until the next unfortunate creature wandered by. Good things come to those who wait – both collared lizards and photographers.
I spent an eventful week photographing a nest of gilded flickers in a saguaro deep in the desert. When I first knew these birds, they were considered their own species. Later, they were lumped with the Northern flicker and demoted to a mere subspecies. Recently, their status as a full species has been reinstated. I own three different bird guides of various vintages, which reflect the flicker’s changing fortune. If the flickers weren’t oblivious to the ornithologist’s debate, they would be the most confused birds in the desert. I found my flicker nest by mistake when following a friend’s directions to a great horned owl nest. The situation was ideal: the nest hole was low and there were two 7 foot yuccas positioned perfectly behind which I could hide myself so as not to disturb the birds. More importantly, the location was remote enough that I was sure I would never be disturbed. I spent the first few days in blissful tranquility. On the third day, a bright red helicopter passed overhead. It went back and forth over me, which I thought was rather strange. To avoid detection I wedged myself between my protective yuccas. Then it flew so close over my head I felt I could almost touch it. Suddenly it stopped, turned in my direction and hovered, facing me from a stone’s throw away. Having a helicopter hovering right over you in the remote desert is not a very relaxing situation. Were they looking for illegal immigrants? Drug dealers? Flicker photographers? In any case, it appeared to me that I had certainly attracted their attention. Finally, the helicopter flew off, as did my birds, and I decided to return to my car and meet whatever fate awaited me. On the road out to the highway I saw a cowboy on his horse on top of a hill, a scene right out of a western movie. I stopped and asked him what was going on with the chopper and he told me that they were rounding up cattle for branding. It was just as well I asked, because when I returned to my house, about ten miles away, the same helicopter hovered nearby. Had I not known about the roundup, I’m sure I would have suspected that it had followed me. I wonder what the pilot thought when he saw some lost soul wedged in between two yuccas out in the middle of nowhere.
The smell of the desert after rain, especially in areas with creosote bush, is one of the nature’s most pleasant aromas. However, my personal exposure to desert smells is balanced by the odors which arose from a javelina carcass I placed near my house one summer to attract turkey vultures. It didn’t bring in many vultures but produced a mountain of maggots and was an unforgettable olfactory experience.
There is a wild corner of the Sonoran desert where I often go to do my work or simply reflect. Only a few hunters, prospectors, biologists and cowboys know the area. In all the years that I have gone there, I have rarely seen another person. It is a landscape of rugged mountains and broad sweeping valleys. As I go there now in my imagination, my mind’s eye surveys familiar territory. Looking out over the saguaro-studded desert, a flood of memories comes to me. Each portion of my view reminds me of a different part of the rich tapestry of experiences I have had here. Each adventure had its own challenges, successes and failures. Places like this are rare and I feel lucky to have this refuge. Its wildness gives me the freedom to make my own choices and learn my own lessons. Whenever I go to this sanctuary, either down the rutted, dusty roads, or in my thoughts, my spirit is renewed and I am reminded of the magic the Sonoran Desert has shown me.
I learned about the Sonoran desert’s ability to change its mood suddenly while I spent the night on one of my photography towers, awaiting the morning light. I was awakened by an approaching lightning storm. It occurred to me that being on top of a metal tower was not the right place to be at that time. I quickly climbed off the tower and tried to find my way back to my truck, which was about a mile away. I got hopelessly lost and wandered around the desert the rest of the night, in the dark, doing my best to avoid cacti and rattlesnakes. When the sun rose, I got my bearings, and finally found my truck.
Some of the most outrageous adventures I have had in search of photographs happened during trips to the Gulf of California. With all my gear loaded in a kayak, I explored the desert near the coast in Baja California as well as a number of remote islands for up to a month at a time. Some of the highlights of these trips included seeing desert bighorn sheep near the summit of Isla Tiburon and endangered chuckwallas on Isla San Esteban. I paddled on mirror flat waters one magical day next to a fin whale and her calf. After weeks of living like a cave man, I met with a Japanese squid fishing boat, and was invited aboard for a steak dinner washed down with Japanese beer. It was strange to climb the ladder down to my boat in the dark and return to the stone age. On the last day of one of the longer trips I encountered a line of dolphins swimming in the opposite direction. I passed them for hours and never saw the end when I pulled in to Santa Rosalia. There must have been thousands! I had to cope with intense storms, called chubascos, which instantly turn calm seas into treacherous white-capped waters. I often hiked for miles in search of water. Before figuring out how to catch the local fish, I ate gulls to stay alive. I caught them with a handline baited with the guts of the the fish I had caught. I reeled them in by hand as they struggled to fly away. There must have been thousands! Instead of photography as I’de hoped, these trips usually involved mostly paddling and survival. Although the memories from these trips are vivid, there are few photographs to show for months of effort.
Harris’ hawks have always been one of my favorite desert dwellers. They have been called wolves of the desert because of their habit of hunting in “packs”. I have often watched two or three of them chasing rabbits near my house. They are also remarkable in that young from previous breeding seasons often help their parents raise their brothers and sisters in the following years. I have often photographed Harris’ hawks and other birds of prey in their nests in tall saguaros. I did this by carrying heavy metal scaffolding deep into the desert, building a tower and placing a blind on top, from which I took my photos. On one calm spring day, having just completed one of my towers, I stood proudly on top. Suddenly, a violent dust devil arose nearby. It moved closer, picked up steam and came directly over me! I held on tight and the tower began falling toward the cactus covered desert floor! Fortunately, we met a palo verde tree on the way down that broke our fall. I felt very lucky to walk away unharmed. Imagine what would have happened if the tree hadn’t been there and I had landed on a cactus instead! The tower wasn’t so lucky, and was badly bent. I now secure my towers at each level as I build them. Whenever I travel down the dusty road where the nest was, I stop to kiss the palo verde, which didn’t fare so well when the tower crashed on top of it. I learned an important lesson that day– expect the unexpected — because the Sonoran Desert is predictably unpredictable. This event also supports the adage that “pride goes before a fall”.