Mother Nature, garbed in her brightest holiday style, outshone the Christmas lights on a recent Freedom Plaza Holiday Excursion to Fort Myers and vicinity.
Group members enjoying an evening cruise gawked at the elaborate lighting displays on homes and yachts as their excursion boat glided along an inland waterway. They marveled at the singing and dancing on stage in Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre’s glittering show, Swinging Christmas. They were enlightened on their visit to the Ford and Edison Winter Estates, where they wandered through an outdoor exhibit of decorated Christmas trees.
Yet all agreed that the trip’s most spectacular Christmas display was discovered as they took a tram tour through the J.N. “Ding” Darling Nature Preserve on Sanibel Island. Sparkling sunshine, balmy weather and clear blue skies provided the perfect setting for Mother Nature’s show. Instead of traditional Christmas trees, however, she featured acres of mangrove designated red, white and black for their vibrant coloration of the water. Replacing Christmas trees’ usual shiny balls were exquisite wild flowers, including wild poinsettia. Mother Nature’s ornaments came in a kaleidoscope of color with views of sand bars hosting hundreds of multihued water birds: blue heron, roseate spoonbill, yellow-toed egret, brown pelican and their cousins, the American great white pelican boasting a 9-foot wing span.
Masquerading as the tour’s naturalist-guide, one of Mother Nature’s Christmas elves pointed out these various “decorations” as she explained the intricate ecosystem of a tidal estuary.
If Mother Nature was the generator of all this natural splendor, the “Santa Claus” who delivered her gifts in this particular locale was a man called “Ding,” born Jay Norwood Darling in 1876. A nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist by trade, signing his work “Ding,” Darling was a naturalist at heart and concerned about threatened wildlife. He used his artistic ability and professional stature to bring public awareness to the situation, initiating our nation’s conservation efforts. In 1935 President Roosevelt appointed him director of the U.S. Biological Survey, forerunner of today’s Fish and Wildlife Service.
Ding Darling’s love affair with Sanibel Island began when he vacationed there to enjoy his hobby, fishing. He was outraged to find that large tracks of fragile wetland were being sold to real estate developers and through his efforts some 6,400 acres on Sanibel was put under government protection. In 1967 a portion of it became the Ding Darling Nature Preserve.
Freedom Plaza residents are already looking forward to next December’s Fort Myers Holiday Excursion and especially to experiencing, again, Mother Nature’s Christmas Show on Sanibel.
Peggy Burgess is an associate of Freedom Plaza and columnist for The Sun.