I really, really wished I had paid more attention in my Nature Writing class with Dr. Hallock, because here in north-ish Florida there’s all this Bartram stuff. We just left Ravine Gardens State Park, pretty in its own right thanks to the last Depression America had, and on the way out – after touring the loop encircling the ravine and enjoying a quiet lunch by the terraced amphitheater – I see a cabin with a sign, “William Bartram Trail.”
For those of you not familiar with early Florida literature (although I’m not certain that Bartram, who wrote shortly before the Revolution), let me put it to you this way: Bartram was a breath of fresh air compared to the flat out lies told to the crowns financing Florida expeditions. See, “early Florida literature” is really just a euphemism for “reports to my boss to justify my large government travel budget.” That’s right, folks, besides from providing graduate students with scads of archaic language to wade through, these writers weren’t writers at all – they were government workers who had to justify their jobs. 500 years and nothing’s changed, except for the lack of brave new lands to visit and irrevocably alter in the name of “keeping your job.”
When you consider this body of – we’ll call it literature just to give it a name, if not an accurate one – literature consists of self-serving accounts of what the king’s money was doing for the home country, you start to realize that these books are aggrandized reports home designed to make the explorers look good (and therefore stay employed, because if your explorers look good, you look good.)
Consider the narrative of LeMoyne, who explored La Florida in the mid 16th century with a group of Frenchmen: the pictures contained in this government report include water dragons and reptiles (I’d guess alligators) with snake-like heads and man-like arms (for those of you not intimate with crocodilians, gators have comically small, useless arms.) There’s also a touching sketch of the Indians (yes, I said it) stabbing a man through the penis (clearly the source of all his power) and sawing off his other extremities with Stryker-like precision.
Fun stuff, good times, but wholly inaccurate as far as I can tell. Of course, that’s just how Europeans described the natives. Couple that with how a few Europeans can beat down limitless earlier Americans (don’t believe me? Read Pizzaro’s account of what he did in Peru) and you’ve got yourself pretty much every exploratory account of the New World.
Enter William Bartram. The guy liked plants, mostly, and as nifty as they are, it’s hard to make plants into man-eating vicious beasts. Well, mostly. It also helped that he explored Florida well after the Spaniards and the British wove themselves along the eastern coastline of America; it’s harder to lie when there isn’t an ocean between you and your boss. They could pop in any old time and see that those dragons were, indeed, tarpon. Fun to work on the end of a line, but not exactly fire-breathing beasts.
I like Bartram. He wrote real words. I mean, he’s no chamber of commerce travel writer, but I like that, too. He wrote about what he saw up and down Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas in what I consider more realistic terms. He loved his birds and plants, so that was a lot of his work, not massacring injuns.
Sunday morning before I left the house I took one last look at my bookshelves. I have great bookshelves in the house I rent: they cover one wall from floor to ceiling. My hand paused over my copy of Bartram’s Travels. I wanted to take it. I knew I would want it; knew I didn’t remember half of his expedition. All the same, I had packed a lot of stuff. I ended up leaving the book.
So, of course, within two days we’re at Manatee Springs State Park, with a spring so blue and encircled with knobby-kneed cypress that I never want to leave the waterside. As I take it all in, I notice a plaque that tells me William Bartram discovered this spring in the late 1700s. The plaque bears a transcription of his notes about the springs, but says nothing of how he happened across the cerulean oasis. I assume he navigated his way down the Suwannee River to find it, but that’s just a guess.
It is also just a guess how today’s lunch stop ended up on the trail. I’m not surprised, mind you, just curious. I can picture my copy of Travels sitting on the top shelf of my bookshelf, right hand side. Taunting me.
What a fun thesis it would have been, following Bartram. Of course, that would have taken me out of Florida, and we all know that I turn to stone if I look directly at another state’s history. Also, I’m having a lot of fun now. After lunch we stopped at Angel’s Diner, Florida’s oldest diner (it opened in 1932), and had milkshakes (pusalows, actually).
Bartram, I would like to note, never stopped there. I’d like to believe either Stetson Kennedy or Zora Neale Hurston did.
The east coast of Florida in Fernandina is simply breathtaking: high coastal dunes and creamy buff sand meets blue over and over again. A1A, a road not included in the original Guide to the Southernmost State because it didn’t exist in one long form yet, is a thin ribbon cutting through the oaks and pines and twisting through beach houses and flats. Florida’s northeast coast of Florida deserves more than what I gave it today on my eager way to my camp site in Little Talbot Island State Park.
The park is one of seven state parks that comprise Talbot Island State Parks, and is a typical Florida state park. By typical I mean well tended with breathtaking vistas. We pulled into our campsite about an hour ago. The sun was just dipping into our line of sight over Myrtle Creek, and I clipped the leash on Calypso so she could stretch her legs after a long day of stops-and-goes in the van. We’re about 150 feet from the water, so I thought she’s enjoy a good roll in the sand.
As she did, I noticed a fishermen crouched by the water’s edge, fiddling with something in the water. Curiosity trumped my disgust at finding people near our camp site (I’m not a chatty camper) so I approached him and asked, “What’d you catch?”
“A snake,” he said. I moved closer (I like snakes) and saw it appeared to be a young rattler. It also appeared that he was holding the snake’s head underwater.
“I caught it with my rod and reel,” he said, then explained how snakes could swim if they wanted to (really, Darwin?) and that the storm made them swim to shore from islands. He intended to drown it.
“But don’t tell no one, ’cause it’s illegal,” he said.
“I know,” I told him. I watched. He was trying to drown the little guy by holding his head in the sand under the water. It didn’t appear to be working.
At this point I walked back to the camper; the snake was gorgeous and it was making me sad to watch this city dweller disguised as a redneck. I told El Cap what I’d seen and he wanted to see the snake, so we walked back down to the water. He talked to the guy and asked why he was killing the snake.
“Well, you wouldn’t want it waiting for you when you walked outside your camper, would you?” he said.
“No, but he wouldn’t want to be there, either,” he said and walked away. You can’t argue with assholes. I didn’t say anything but listened as the guy’s buddy came over and asked him why he didn’t let it loose in the woods surrounding us. I guess the peer pressure was just too much, because the guy finally walked away from the camp sites and water and tossed the snake into the grass. The snake slithered away, I assume, gasping for breath and trying to figure out what just happened.
As I understand it, rattlers can hold their breath for up to 45 minutes, so, you see, you can’t drown a rattlesnake.
Because you can’t drown a rattlesnake, asshole.
After about 10 minutes or so, the snake was holding on to life with a tenacity seen only by overweight men at an all-you-can-eat buffet, so he brought it on land and tried to stuff its head in the sand. Still, no joy.
If Sanibel is the prom queen of gulf coast islands, think of Pine Island as her mangrove-encrusted tomboy little sister. Instead of beaches, walls of state-protected red mangroves surround and prop the 34-square mile island up on green water, preserving the calm, slow lifestyle of the 9,000 folks who call Pine Island home.
There’s nothing to see here. Nothing on Pine Island calls to mind other Florida coastal towns; those root-heavy trees protect, too, the island’s roots from developers and droves of tourists seeking New York, Ohio, or Michigan-ified Florida.
This is the Florida that our ancestors tried to bury in the muck of shopping malls, time-shares, and miniature golf courses. These are the people mocked by our Yankee heritage. Here is the land we forgot to love and then just forgot.
Nothing to see here, really. Instead of “cuisine,” folks serve platters of food, and you can get grits but not gourmet or pork in lieu of Pacific Rim. You can fish the World’s Most Fishingest Bridge but don’t even think about asking for sushi.
Here we now seek solace, the waters that calm the noise in our head and quench the thirst in our soul. Here is a dolorous souvenir of yesteryear’s Florida, a nugget of land we forgot to offer the highest bidder before the government hit the brakes on the dredge-and-sell dream.
Nothing to see here, not really. Go south and you’ll find Sanibel, Fort Myers, and Naples. You can take a boat west to Cabbage Key or head north to Sarasota and Venice. Go east to Palm Beach if you must, but Pine Island’s too far off the interstate to travel, especially since it foolishly lacks shopping malls, Holiday Inns, and putt-putt or other golf courses. Just a bunch of crusty fishermen and shopkeepers, not much else to see here.
Nothing to see here, nothing at all. Just the present the rest of us traded for the future, and the past we sold before we knew we had it. Green and red and aquamarine and silver explode around the island as the sunset lights the streets, palm groves, and trailers. Shrimp nets draped across the boats behind homes remind Islanders of their heritage and, hopefully, their future.
Nope, nothing to see here.