Beauty, Beasts, and Bells in Central Florida
The sound of Bok Tower’s carillon bells was so mesmerizing that I did not notice the snake. I stood at the far end of the tower’s reflecting pond, enjoying the ethereal music, until suffocating midday heat drove me to the shaded concrete benches at the edge of the semi-circular clearing. Suddenly, a movement. A black snake lying beneath the bench retreated a few inches as I approached. I stopped dead. Head up, the snake wove back and forth in the air for a few seconds before retreating into the bushes. Did I dare sit? He slithered back out of the bushes and curled around the base of a trash can. Waiting.
What if I had unknowingly sat on that bench? A simple black water snake, harmless, and yet…I don’t like to be startled by them. I am actually quite fascinated by snakes. But oh my God! To be sitting there and have it slither across my feet or wrap around my ankles; I shivered at the thought. His tongue flicked repeatedly from his snout. Brazenly, he inched his sleek black body closer. In the middle of the chipped-wood path he stopped, basking in the sunshine. Perspiration poured down my face and back. I needed to rest in the shade and dry my sweat-soaked pants and T-shirt, but the two-foot long snake barred my way. Again his tongue darted out, testing. Tentatively, I moved a step closer. He bolted into the dense foliage at the edge of the pond. Had he gone into the water? Crouching down, I peered into the vegetation and finally spotted the tip of his pointy tail protruding from the shrubbery. Had I not seen him go in, I would never have known he was there.
All the animals I encountered at Bok Tower Gardens seemed fearless. Rather than running away, squirrels chuckled and scolded. Mockingbirds serenaded from low branches. Gigantic weaver spiders tensed in the center of enormous webs, patiently awaiting prey. Even the resident swans swam right up, hoping to steal fish food pellets meant for giant carp thrashing about in the pond. Somehow, the animals know they are protected here.
Billed as, “A remarkable experience that will elevate your mind and spirit,” these exquisite gardens exist due to the efforts of Edward W. Bok a Dutch immigrant and humanitarian who came to the U.S. at the age of six. In 1889, Bok became the editor of the Ladies Home Journal, a position he would hold for the next 30 years. During visits to his Florida winter home in the 1920′s, Bok witnessed the beauty and dramatic sunsets of Iron Mountain, the highest point in peninsular Florida. Awed by the tranquility of the area, he purchased the land and commissioned renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. to create a stunning garden that would become a haven for native birds, plants and wildlife. Bok worked closely with Olmstead through the design process and after giving his final stamp of approval, left to tour Europe. Seeing the carillon towers in his native Netherlands, he was inspired to build a carillon atop Iron Mountain within the sanctuary already being constructed.
Bok returned home and commissioned famed architect Milton B. Medary and stone sculptor Lee Lawrie to construct a 205-foot neo-Gothic and art deco Singing Carillon tower of pink Georgia marble and Florida limestone. Upon completion in 1929, sixty specially cast bronze bells weighing more than 5,500 tons were hoisted into place inside the top of the tower. To ensure that his goal of providing mankind with “a spot which would reach out in its beauty to the people, and fill their souls with the quiet, the repose, the influence of the beautiful,” would be forever met, Bok created a foundation to manage the site in perpetuity.
The 1 p.m. carillon concert was so inspiring that I stayed for the repeat performance at 3 p.m. Each day, these 30-minute performances resound throughout the grounds, although the best place to listen is at the foot of the tower. For the entire day, I wandered blissfully through displays of flowering plants, strolled across lush lawns, and availed myself of numerous shady nooks secreted along meandering pathways.
One of the best spots to observe the native wildlife and wetland plants at Bok Tower Gardens is inside the nature observatory known as “Window By The Pond.” Situated on the edge of a pond, the small wooden building has benches that face a large picture window where visitors can observe birds, reptiles, butterflies and native species in their natural habitat. It was here I ended my day. Hoping not to disturb any animals at the pond, I quietly pried open the heavy wooden door and sneaked into the tiny observatory. But the ducks feeding just beyond the window, spooked by my movement, took off in a blurred fury of beating wings that filled the picture window. For half an hour I sat motionless. Gradually, the wildlife returned: red-winged blackbirds, doves, and ducks descended en masse to fight over grain set out by park personnel, tortoises climbed back up on logs, and squirrels dropped nuts on the shack’s roof. Then, a sudden flurry of wings and they were gone again. A thick black water snake glided into the water and with fluid, serpentine motions, quickly reached the posts on which birdseed had been set out. I took comfort in the thought that I am not the only one who is startled by snakes.
Note: Bok Tower Gardens is located approximately 50 miles south of Orlando in central Florida, in the small town of Lake Wales. The gardens are open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and admission is $10. There is even a wonderful little cafe on the grounds that offers very affordable, delicious vegetarian options.