Saturday, December 31, 2016

Florida Roadside Attractions

Florida's Sasquatch
Florida is well known for its roadside attractions. Gatorland, various warm springs, Weeki Wachee Springs (complete with "mermaids"), the Skunk Ape Research Center, the worlds largest orange, and too many more to mention. Last week however, SD and I experienced a whole new level of Florida roadside attractions when we joined the Timucuan Preserve staff in a roadside cleanup. Along with the usual detritus you'd expect; beer cans, fast food containers, there were a few unexpected items that made the work part archeological expedition and part botanical fieldwork.

While Florida does have liter laws and fines, they're not prohibitive or even
47 bottles of Sutter
Home on the road
47 bottles of wine
you pick one up
and throw it away
46 bottles of Sutter
Home on the road
punitive. "Any person who dumps litter in an amount not exceeding 15 pounds in weight or 27 cubic feet in volume and not for commercial purposes is guilty of a noncriminal infraction, punishable by a civil penalty of $50." It's a litter law that's not good for the environment but, archeological speaking, great for learning about the local human inhabitants. Take for instance the 4, half out of the wrapper condoms. Try as we could we could not image a scenario where a couple is driving down the road at 45 miles an hour, decides to put said item to use, then completely rules out the possibility and throws them out the window.

Also intriguing were the 47 empty mini Sutter Home wine bottles, and their cardboard containers on both sides of a 200 ft stretch of the road. Sure there were a few Coors Lite, and Budweiser cans but why all the Sutter Home? Why are they thrown only in that location? Certainly the littering party is trying to hide their drinking but Sutter Home?..there are just more questions than answers.

More impressive however, were the botanical findings. Squirrel skulls, armadillo armor, and a gopher tortoise shell. Like many places there are lots of squirrels in Florida. They're still generally wild, foraging for acorns from the oaks and eating other wild plants. They're only interested in people as something to occasionally scold and they seem amazingly car smart. They're not the kind of squirrel that waits on the side of the road then darts out, daring the driver to stop or swerve. That's why the three squirrel skulls, along with various vertebra and limb bones were surprising. The skulls were fully intact. Gleaming white, they were almost cute enough to take home and display. Maybe a new type of Christmas ornament?

Actual living, but not moving, armadillo
The armadillo armor and skeleton was even more interesting.  Not Christmas decoration quality, but uniquely southern and an amazing roadside find. Armadillos are here, you just don't see them that often. SD saw one in a field at the Kingsley Plantation. It was so still he thought it was an interpretive statue. The funny, and actually deadly habit they have is that although usually still, when startled an armadillo will jump 4 to 5 feet vertically, and right into the underside of a car or truck that could roll over them.

The last of the clean up day roadside attractions, the Gopher tortoise shell was pretty special. Gopher tortoises are a protected, keystone species. They dig holes and tunnels (hence the 'gopher') that are used by over 360 other creatures. Gopher tortoises are endangered. so finding a large shell on the roadside was a nice surprise. The wild creatures, especially in the Preserve, are still surviving.

Compared to giant apes, oranges and Florida's other roadside attaractions, gopher tortoise, armidillo and squirrel skulls along with some intreguing litter might not seem exciting. Admittedly they aren't, but the certainly do provide a brief glimpse in Florida life.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Thankful for the Wild Places

Giving Thanks
Thanksgiving this year was shared with our fellow RV volunteers at Fort Caroline. We spread beach towels over the picnic tables, arranged a centerpiece of swamp pine cones and magnolia leaves, assembled our assorted silverware, plates, turkey, gravy, stuffings, turnips, and sweet potatoes, and gave thanks for family, friends and Willie Browne.

Willie Browne is my Jacksonville hero. Some of the best times we've had here so far are due to Willie, a pseudo-hermit and forward thinking wildlife lover who came to Jacksonville when he was six, and lived, died and is buried here. Early this
Willie Browne and family stone on the Refuge Property
Thanksgiving morning, like other mornings over the last two months we've hiked the four mile trails that meander over the maritime hammocks, 30 foot deep oyster middens, and along the banks of Spring Creek out to Round Marsh. There are very few wild places left in the sprawling megalopolis, and port city that is Jacksonville, Florida. That fact that this walk is possible is all due to Willie Browne. While he lived he lived off this land, refusing countless offers from land and water developers. When he died he willed it all to the public stipulating that it not be developed and that it remain as a place where people can get out and enjoy the wilder side of Florida.

Sunset at Barn Island, CT
Thinking back over all our travels, and even before we realize how many other wonderful donors and land conservation organizations we have been thankful for. Back in Connecticut, the Avalon Land Trust preserved so much including my favorite Barn Island, in Massachusetts it was the Trustees of the Reservations. Established in 1890 it now manages over 27,000 acres. Throughout the United States we often ran into properties either managed by the Nature Conservancy but also National Park or USFW land purchases that had been facilitated by them. I'm sure this is only a very small fraction of the folks and organization that have saved wild places, but for them, and for all others I am forever thankful.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Cultural shift

Ariel View - We're living at the little blue dot.
Note the small green area surrounded by development
The distance between Alaska and Florida is measured in more than miles. We physically arrived at our new volunteer gig at the Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve in Jacksonville, Fl on October 28th. It's been just under two months and psychologically I'm still grappling with the enormous cultural distance between here, Alaska and for that matter, the previous year out West.

As per usual, I've been reading books about our latest location. Starting with history texts but seeking comic relief in Carl Hiassen's Razor Girl, Skinny Dip, Sick Puppy and more. (All highly recommended for their perspective on Florida and for humorous ecological anarchist insights.) Dave Barry's Best State Ever, is also a good read. It's the subtitle, "A Florida Man Defends His Homeland," that brings us back to the cultural issues.

Some say Florida is a paradox. The Sunshine State, they say, is being ruined by the very things that
The Paradox - Salt marsh's and container ports
make it so special. That it's wonderful climate, long sandy beaches, palm trees, orange groves, abundant waterfowl and fish are what everyone admires and praises about the state. At the same time, Florida is the epitome of the both the car and consumer culture. Both of those, along with a unregulated manufacturing push threaten the states very uniqueness.

After living for over a year in places that preserve and respect their wild areas, Florida has been a real shock. Currently our trailer is tucked into the Preserve. Live oaks, swamp pines, and sable palms tower over the trailer, owls, ospreys and eagles fly overhead, turtles, little lizards, and various snakes are underfoot. Less than half a mile south suburban sprawl begins. Less than 2 miles south the strips begin. Actually it's more like a giant grid that expands over 20 square miles. Repeating Starbucks, Publixs, MacDonalds, CVS's etc, every 5 or so miles. Every weekday morning, precisely at 8:00 am a line of sand hauling trucks rumble down the road past the Preserve to a sand pit. A sand pit that is filled from St. John's River dredging. The trucks fill up and soon rumble past, off to fill in some other wetland somewhere for a new road, a new housing development, or a new shopping center.

Home - where a family of bald eagles are our neighbors
They say there is nothing like travel to a foreign country to help you learn about yourself and what you value. After two months in Florida, not to mention the drive thru the midwest, I've learned that it's best to treat this experience as a trip to a foreign land.

We had become accustomed to places where people value preserving and enjoying nature, local produce, sustainable livelihoods, recycling, low impact living, even not littering. I'd even come to take it for granted that everyone does. I love wild places, small friendly towns, gardens, local traditions and pride. So far none of those seem to be valued here. Having spent a month and half coming to this realization however, I vow to keep an open mind and spend the next month and a half getting to know more about this foreign land - and searching out the pockets of resistance.