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Open your senses to paradise in Florida

Sure Florida has issues, but reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated. Florida’s natural beauty thrives all around us.

Sure Florida has issues, but reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated. Florida’s natural beauty thrives all around us.

Is paradise lost?

That's what a long essay in last week's Time magazine suggested. "We're facing our worst real estate meltdown since the Depression,'' Michael Grunwald, a Miami resident, said of Florida. "We've got a water crisis, insurance crisis, environmental crisis and budget crisis to go with our housing crisis. We're first in the nation in mortgage fraud, second in foreclosures, last in high school graduation rates.''

And so on.

As a Florida old-timer, I can't dispute that things look bleak. The let's-pretend bubble we've been living in for years is about to pop. You can't do things on the cheap forever.

At the same time I cringe when someone suggests that Florida — the Florida of dreamy postcard fame — is kaput. I wonder if all the gloomy folks named Gus are getting out enough. Maybe they haven't heard the frogs since they bought that satellite dish.

Florida is dead only if you lack eyes, ears and a sense of adventure to go out and explore. If you don't know what's there, you may think it is gone. If you spend your day in your condo, in your car in bumper-to-bumper traffic, at the strip mall, you might miss seeing the bald eagles and the alligators.

Speaking of eagles and gators, I rarely saw them a half-century ago.

Today, thanks to the elimination of the pesticide DDT from the food chain, Florida has more eagles than any state except Alaska. I see eagles almost every day as I drive through my hometown, St. Petersburg. As for alligators, which are no longer hunted indiscriminately, Florida is home to more than a million. They invade not only our swimming pools but, on one occasion this spring, a kitchen in Tarpon Springs. I remember when my mother used to complain about palmetto bugs in the silverware drawer.

Even the rarest of the rare, the American crocodile, has staged a remarkable comeback. The state now has a program to remove "nuisance crocodiles" from golf courses in Miami.

You have a better chance of seeing a Florida panther or a black bear now than a half-century ago. You have a better chance of catching a redfish in Tampa Bay than two decades ago. Hunters in the plume trade shot almost all the roseate spoonbills at the end of the 19th century. I see roseate spoonbills all over the place now, but no men carrying shotguns in skiffs next to the mangroves.

Still, Florida has major problems, mainly too many people. If the Time article discourages folks from moving here I'm all for it. We don't need another golf course or shopping center. We don't need another new neighbor complaining about the heat, the humidity, and the grizzled commercial fishermen who dock their boats at the marina.

You know what I fear more than the dunderhead developers and the make-me-rich politicians who do their bidding? Popular culture gives me the willies. Like a bulldozer, it shoves aside the local, the eccentric, the unique. Our kids know Pirates of the Caribbean but not Chief Osceola.

When I was young, I spent a lot of time in the Keys, as a visitor and a resident. I loved the tropical climate, the trees, the birds and the fish. I loved the people and how they made do under harsh circumstances. The climate, the trees, the birds and the fish are still there. But many of the Conchs, their stories, and their unique living-off-the-land businesses are gone — along with the groves of key limes. There was no room for them in modern Florida. They didn't have the money. They were expendable.

There seems to be no shortage of chain hotels and restaurants and faux Florida bars such as family-friendly Margaritaville in today's Keys. Ironic, isn't it? When Jimmy Buffett lived in Key West three decades ago I'm guessing he gravitated to the dumpy little juke joints, where the guy on the closest stool had fish scales in his hair, smoked mullet on his breath and a tale to tell.

Authentic Florida culture is still alive, if you're willing to do a little work.

You can still drink fresh-squeezed orange juice, though you may have to squeeze it yourself. You can still swim in a crystal-clear spring in North Florida, though you may have to fight traffic as you drive through Ocala. You can still see a ghost orchid if you don't mind the moccasins and mosquitoes and a long, wet trek and the possibility of getting lost in the awesome Fakahatchee Strand swamp.

Thomas Barbour, a scientist I have long admired, wrote a wonderful book about the flora and fauna of our state.

He called the book That Vanishing Eden: a Naturalist's Florida.

It came out in 1944.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727.

Open your senses to paradise in Florida 07/19/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 21, 2008 5:13pm]

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