Most couples spend Valentine’s Day at a fancy restaurant. In 1998, my wife and I spent it walking through 60 yards of marsh with Pete Carmichael.
We stayed in Everglades City the night before. While my wife and I were in our room reading, Pete was out in the world hunting, but he was not hunting deer or turkey, rather he hunted for insects and spiders.
Armed with a net, Pete snared moths, arachnids, and insects from the sides of brightly lit 7-11’s. I always expected the police to stop him when he did this, but they never did.
Some captured creatures he photographed that night in his motel room. Other captured prey went into film canisters with air holes punched into them so he could take them home for later studio photography.
This was a familiar event in all our travels. Pete out by the convenience stores, hawking bugs at night, and puzzling clerks across the state of Florida no doubt.
The marsh we walked thru on Valentine’s Day was on the so-called Bear Island Trail of Big Cypress National Wildlife Refuge. Because of heavy rains, it felt that day more like the Bear River, with neck-deep water and alligators. My wife, who does not swim, braved her way through for Pete. Somewhere her terror is captured on film.
This was but the first of many trips Pam and I took with Pete. We also appear in Pete’s photographs at Blowing Rocks on an early morning when we watched Atlantic sea turtles mating.
Those adventures took place during the first year of what would turn out to be six years of traveling with the master photographer about the Sunshine State in search of natural places, trails, and kayak journeys to experience and photograph (not to mention bugs on the sides of convenience stores).
Pete went first through the marsh on Valentine’s Day. He always went first. This was not only because he was intrepid, which he was. It was also so he could photograph us going through the marsh from the other side.
Why spend Valentine’s Day up to our necks in black water accompanied by alligators?
Wouldn’t my wife have rather had had a fancy dinner out at four-star Armani’s overlooking Tampa Bay? (Well, don’t ask, don’t tell, maybe she would have preferred that.)
One answer is that Pete and I were making Florida’s Fabulous Natural Places, the first of three books for World Publications on which we collaborated. But the true answer was that Pam and I enjoyed Pete’s company. Everyone I knew enjoyed Pete’s company. He was one of those special people that everyone likes.
Like us, everybody wanted to spend time with Pete. Waitresses chatted with Pete in restaurants like The Oar House Restaurant and tussled his gray hair fondly. He called the women “sweetie” and the men “man.”
Like in the TV series “Cheers,” everyone knew his name in Geckos on US-41 in Sarasota.
People were drawn to Pete by his infectious smile and friendly airs, although Pete often had more of people that he wanted. Even in his final days, so many people wanted to see Pete on his deathbed that he turned many of them away.
“But not you,” he said to me. “You’re on the A-list.”
A place I was honored to be.
The First Book
When I first met James H. “Pete” Carmichael, it was 1995. I had just published The World’s Most Beautiful Seashells, which contained Pete’s astonishing photographs. Details of shells in his pictures were remarkable, as were the colors revealed.
“Pete?” I said after ringing his doorbell.
A little taller than me, in as good a shape if not better than me, but sixteen years older, he reminded me of Captain Mac of my childhood, a television explorer who had an “adventure hour” during which he wore a pith helmet and greeted children who wanted to be fellow explorers on his television show.
“Tim?” Pete said.
Handshakes were exchanged at the door of his Sarasota home.
The Sarasota Herald Tribune in a review praised that seashell book and rightly compared Pete’s photography to works of art. Indeed the seashell images were absolutely awesome in revealing in both the complexity of shell patterns and bringing out their hidden colors. The endpapers of an abalone shell are so iridescent in the hardcover edition that they are almost fluorescent. Even now, I sometimes take out that remarkable book and page through it astounded that anyone could take such photographs.
Within less than a year, 24000 copies of Pete’s seashell book had been sold, not bad for a book that sold for $30 in hardbound.
Barnes & Noble ordered several thousand of its own edition for the bargain books sections of their stores when they saw the book displayed at the American Booksellers Convention in Chicago that year. I had the B&N edition custom printed and shipped into New York.
The book received Best Coffee-Table Book of the Year 1996 Award from the National Association of Independent Publishers. The plaque is still hanging on my wall where I write in my office surrounded by books and photographs of my loved ones, but maybe I should have sent it to Pete.
Based on this surprise success, I had traveled to Pete’s house on Lee Lane in Sarasota the first time to retain him for a second book and to photograph what would eventually become The World’s Most Spectacular Reptiles and Amphibians. This was another book that would win the Best Coffee-Table Book of the year award.
Being in Pete’s house was as interesting as talking with the man Pete. Tarantulas lived in his kitchen in terrariums. Sometimes he had poison arrow frogs and neon geckos borrowed from pet stores and pet-trade wholesalers. Remarkable slides were always on the light table ready to examined. There might also be snakes from South American or Africa brought home to photograph. Outside, possums and raccoons would join his cats when fed, and he could hear the vocalizations of a lizard he lost months before but could not find. He then had a fascination with North Carolina waterfalls and had waterfall books were spread out on his couch.
For me, the visits were a little like going to wonderland, because I never knew what I would find, but I did know it would always be interesting.
It was also rumored that at least one escaped snake roamed about the house. I have no knowledge of that, but one photographer swears it was so. Maybe it was. I’ll tell you why.
What’s in the Box?
After meeting, we drove away in Pete’s car to meet a prospective author for the successor to the seashell book, the world reptile book, and the author lived to the west of Fort Myers, about an hour-and-half trip each way, giving us plenty of time to become acquainted.
Oh, by the way, Pete had put a shoebox on the floorboard below my feet.
“Don’t kick it,” he said.
I meant to ask him about the contents of the box, but fueled by coffee we were yakking it up so much getting to know each other that I didn’t ask what was in the shoebox until we were well underway.
In fact, I forget the box for a long time.
During that drive, we quickly formed a friendship that would last the rest of his life and too little of mine.
We had things in common. He had been in the Air Force, while I had been in the Army.
He was divorced twice; I was too once, but it might as well have been ten times. He had lost a brother in a spectacular suicide. Some of his friends had gone the same way, which distressed him to no end, that they should be so unhappy.
I had lost a casual girlfriend once to the savage god early in my life and never knew what caused it. I had just lost a father to a slow and crushing cancer, and was losing a mother to dementia, but I had gained Pete, and this lessened my blows.
He had gone through a period of serious depression. I had gone through two.
Pete was a graduate of The Citadel and held an advanced degree in anthropology from the University of Mexico. We were both in the social sciences. I had gotten my degree in sociology from the University of South Florida.
We both spoke Spanish, Pete a lot better than I used to. In addition to living in Mexico, he had made a number of trips to South America as an airline photographer and for his natural science photographs of insects and the rain forests.
We chatted about girlfriends. We both over our years had a few. I had a few too many.
We both had too many cats; I think each of us five.
He was a political liberal, a scoffer. Me too, although I didn’t used to be. He wanted people to stop tearing up the natural world of Florida, to which I can only say, “Amen.”
This, I thought, was a man impossible to dislike. He was a better me.
There was only one thing that kept bothering me that first day I met Pete: the shoebox between my feet on the floorboards.
“What’s in the shoebox?” I finally asked Pete.
“Oh, don’t worry about that, Tim,” Pete said.
“Tell me, Pete, what’s in it?”
“Well,” Pete said, and got this sort of sly smile. “Don’t be nervous or alarmed, but there’s a coral snake in the box.”
I thought, He must be kidding me. But no, there was a coral snake in the shoebox.
A young kid in the neighborhood, owning Pete’s Florida’s Fabulous Reptiles and Amphibians, had brought the snake to Pete to ask “the snake man” if this red-and-yellow touching fellow was dangerous. Pete was taking the coral snake to the prospective author of our world reptile book as a sort of goodwill offering.
Most of you will be saying: a goodwill offering of a coral snake? It is a different mindset.
“Would it be alright if we put the box in back, maybe in the trunk?” I asked Pete.
“It’s a little snake,” Pete said. “It can’t possibly push out of that box.”
“But I might kick it over,” I said. “You might have an accident. And now I’m going to look at the box for the rest of the trip.”
Pete rolled his eyes, but he stopped and put the shoebox containing the small coral snake in the backseat until we arrived at the prospective author’s home.
The Road to Key West
Shortly after I met Pete, World Publications purchased my small press. I didn’t want to sell it, but World was owned by my lifelong friend, Winston Williams. He had given me the seashell book project, and I felt it wrong to keep it if he wanted it back.
Winston knew me well as a writer. He had read some of my earliest short stories and an earlier version of what would become my first novel (I would still rather write novels, but the world is not run by my intentions, but what people will pay me for).
I had written and edited parts of the first “Florida’s Fabulous,” Florida’s Fabulous Waterbirds at Winston’s request.
Winston also knew that every day since 1975 I was outdoors, then jogging, and had developed a true love for being in the wild (coming much too late for me to be the Eagle Scout my father wanted).
Eventually I wrote four books for Winston. Pete was the photographer for the first three. We would have done a fourth book together on the Okefenokee Swamp, but this book collapsed underneath us.
Nonetheless, Pete and I made hundreds of lengthy trips, during which we got to know each other even better. Toward the end of our traveling, some trips wore us down, particularly the Okefenokee, but through it all we enjoyed our trips, some of them qualifying for memories of a lifetime (bears, great rivers zooming underground in little known sinks, the splendor of Florida nature, Florida panthers, the mysteries of the Okefenokee Swamp, a trek into the Everglades – all of those just skimming the surface of our myriad adventures).
Let me write, though, of key lime pie.
Pete and I made an epic trip down the Keys in connection with Natural Places. The natural wonders we visited on that trip included Lignumvitae Key, Bahia Honda State Park, and Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge, where Pete actually petted a sleeping key deer, a diminutive version of the Virginia white-tailed deer.
Amazingly the deer woke up, looked up at Pete, and allowed him to continue to stroke his head. Pete certainly had a love for and way with animals of all kinds. At this point I must interject, never try this with any wild animal, unless you are Pete Carmichael.
Something else I learned about Pete on the trip to the Keys. He had a sweet tooth.
The Keys trip took twice as long as it should have because of key lime pie. Anyway who has traveled US-1 down the Keys knows that seemingly every single restaurant advertises homemade key lime pie.
When we cruised into Key Largo, Pete said, “Tim, let’s pull over up here.”
“Why?” I wanted to know, anxious to blitzkrieg the natural wonders of the Keys. What could be so important that we had to stop?
“You’ve got to try some of the key-lime pie made in Key Largo,” Pete said. “It’s the best key lime pie ever made.”
We stopped for a slice of pie and some coffee.
We drove on, but not too far until Pete said again, “Tim, you’ve got to have some of the key lime pie made here. It’s the best key lime pie ever made.”
Between Key Largo and Islamorada, we stopped for the best key lime pie ever made a number of times.
“Pete, how about the key lime pie here?” I would say when we came upon another restaurant.
“Best key lime pie they ever made,” Pete would say, as we stopped for another slice on our way to Key West.
Not to mention the trip back.
Although I feel very good about the words I have put into the books that Pete and I made (and the ones I have created without him), I am like Rodney Dangerfield if Pete has photographs in them.
“What wonderful pictures,” everyone coos.
“How about the words?” I croak. “The words are pretty good.”
“Look at this!” someone will exclaim and call over a friend or spouse when paging through one of Pete’s books. “Look at this picture!”
I am still waiting for someone to say, “Look at these words!”
When Natural Places published in 1999, I got my first taste of book signings. They were simpler then, because no one expected the author to speak or be eloquent. I just had to sit behind a counter or table, nod, smile, and sign books while chatting intelligently.
I could do that. Pete could do it better.
One thing became clear right off the bat. The visitors weren’t coming to our book signings to get my signature. They were coming for Pete’s.
At the first signing on Siesta Key, we were scheduled to sign books for two hours. Because of the crowds, it took almost four.
One of those coming asked for two books. He was a neighbor of someone else who wanted a book. That someone else was Stephen King. Or at least we signed a copy of the book for Stephen King, who would probably have been the only person at the book signing, if he had come instead of sending a neighbor, who didn’t know Pete Carmichael personally.
To the bookstore came Pete’s former photography students. To buy Pete’s book came friends with whom he had coffee every morning and neighbors who lived across the street. Sometimes buying more than one book were old friends, long-time friends. There were people wanting books who had been on expeditions with Pete to Central and South America. Some of those in line had gone on diving trips with Pete.
By 2004, when Pete and I signed our last book, Florida’s Fabulous Canoe and Kayak Trail Guide, things had changed a little.
“Hey, did you read this?” I could hear someone say once in a while over my words, but the “My God would you look at this picture!” comments were many more than those who cared for my words.
Could this mean that a picture is truly worth a thousand words? I guess it is true.
The appearance we made at Economy Tackle in Sarasota when that canoe and kayak book debuted was the busiest signing that I have ever been at. It was a combination of Pete’s friends, paddling enthusiasts, some people who liked my work, positive book reviews, and the email list of the store. We signed more than 300 books over several hours, but once again the largest chunk of the books sold were for loyal followers of Pete – former students, friends, traveling companions, and neighbors.
During the travels Pete and I made about the state, hiking its woods, going down its rivers, and out into its estuaries, we got into some tough and dangerous positions. Never once did I see Pete afraid, whether our danger was wild dogs, heat stroke, spilled canoes, hunters, or an alligator that nearly pulled me out of a canoe in the Okefenokee Swamp.
At Torreya State Park, I once saw him photograph a diamondback rattlesnake with Pete’s belly flat on the ground and his head about two feet away from the snake and while looking through the lens of his Nikon. This was the “Hollywood Rattlesnake,” as we called it because it didn’t move for two solid hours, but let us take its picture, and let video photographers from a national magazine, who happened to be in the park at the same time, shoot it on videotape. Pete’s image of Hollywood Rattlesnake is in The World’s Most Spectacular Reptiles and Amphibians.
There was nothing that Pete saw that he wasn’t curious about. I am always business-like and in a hurry to complete a mission, but Pete would stop because of curiosity on our trips, and when he stopped, it made me smell the roses (or maybe something like stopper or crushed wax myrtle).
One of Pete’s favorite places was the Fakahatchee Strand, where he got me to walk with him into the swamp. This kept me alert, for not only were there gators and cottonmouths to worry about, I also kept falling over submerged roots and fallen branches. While I was trying to keep from tripping and plunging face down into the murky swamp water, Pete was finding tiny orchids to marvel over and photograph. Scientist Mark Deyrup from Archbold Biological Station remarked that if we had a service for Pete it should not be held indoors and there should not be flowers; it should be held outdoors where bromeliads were growing.
When Pete was in the wilds, he was always at ease. Once on the St. Francis Loop of Ocala National Forest, Pete announced he was tired, stretched out on the forest floor, saying, “I’ll wake up in a half-hour.” He promptly went to sleep on the ground, woke up in exactly a half-hour, brushed himself off, and on we went.
While his photographic talents were immense, it was his natural good nature that was overwhelming and made Pete something special to people. He helped people up in the photographic world and welcomed people on board projects that were exclusively his. I would never have written the first of the four Florida’s Fabulous’ books if he had not wanted me to. Mostly I wanted to write fiction (still do). There are many people in the photographic world that wouldn’t have had the courage to pursue a career in photography if not for the encouragement of Pete Carmichael. Some of his students have won national awards and had successful careers.
If you think I am praising a famous man, you are right. There is nothing I can fault him for.
When Pete was ill and friends were calling me, time after time I heard that Pete was like the caller’s brother. That was how close everyone felt to Pete.
I’ll tell you one thing: my blood brother sure could whistle. On the land and on the water, wherever we went, he enjoyed life so much that he often broke out in spontaneous whistling. I miss that whistling now when I head down a wooded trail or put a kayak in the water. I miss being able to call Pete to chat about projects or zipping down to Bradenton to the Crab Shack for lunch.
To be brave and curious, to help others out, and to be a considered a brother to most: those are pretty good ways to live and qualities for us all to emulate if we can. To be thought of that way would be consolation to the families of most of us, but Pete accomplished more. He has given us his art, his fantastic glimpses into the natural world around us.
This is a probably a partial list of Pete’s books. I make no money if any are sold. But you can see Pete’s art in them. The books are available on line, through most bookstores, and at most Florida libraries. Books-a-Million and Barnes & Noble sell them in Florida stores and on line. Circle Books sells them in Sarasota. I know Pete would want you to enjoy them. Hopefully you will enjoy looking at them (but don’t forget the words). Pete had a lot of fun making these books.
The Audubon Field Guide to North American Shells, as photographer
Florida’s Fabulous Butterflies, as contributing photographer
Florida’s Fabulous Canoe and Kayak Trail Guide, as photographer
Florida’s Fabulous Insects, as contributing photographer
Florida’s Fabulous Natural Places, as photographer
Florida’s Fabulous Reptiles and Amphibians, as author and photographer
Florida’s Fabulous Seashells, as author and photographer
Florida’s Fabulous Spiders, as contributing photographer
Florida’s Fabulous Trail Guide, as photographer
The World’s Most Beautiful Seashells, as photographer
The World’s Most Spectacular Reptiles and Amphibians, as photographer