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The view from a Florida mountain

Compared to the surrounding landscape, Cedar Key's five-acre Shell Mound is a mountain. Its 28-foot summit affords a panoramic view of marshes, islands and blue waters that has changed little since the time of the Timucua Indians, an early people who lived, loved and ate along the Gulf of Mexico for 2,500 years or more. The Timucua, generation after generation, built this mound from discarded oyster, clam and whelk shells.

People still fish these waters and harvest shellfish. In fact, Cedar Key clam farming — begun as a retraining program for out-of-work fishermen after Florida's commercial net ban went into effect in 1995 — is now a multimillion-dollar industry. Cedar Key bivalves continue to feed people as they did in ancient times.

The sea grass beds here along the Big Bend Coast are the most intact and expansive in the gulf, providing homes for a multitude of commercially viable marine species. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, a single acre can support an astounding 40,000 fish and 50 million invertebrates.

The rich marine life of the area has attracted birds through the eons. Wading birds, roseate spoonbills and great flocks of ducks, ibis, and white pelicans frequent the waters. Ospreys and bald eagles soar across the skies. Mullet leap inexplicably, and dolphins drive fish against marshy shores for easy feeding.

In the past few years, sea kayakers on both short- and long-distance journeys have paddled these productive waters in greater numbers, helping to create a robust ecotourism economy. They are reminiscent of early dugout paddlers, except most seem more inclined to take away memories instead of fish.

All of this could change with oil drilling, or with oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Ironically, the island town of Cedar Key juts three miles into the gulf, marking the boundary where oil drilling has recently been considered in state waters by the Florida Legislature.

Oil in these shallow waters would suffocate sea grass and shellfish, coat birds with crude oil, and harm the region's biological productivity for generations. Furthermore, the rigs, pipelines and support industries would likely change Cedar Key from an ecotourist haven to an industrial port, harkening back to the town's mid 1800s shipping heyday when bars, brothels and gambling establishments lined its wharf, and one travel writer labeled it "the toughest town in the South." Most men carried one or two pistols and a bowie knife. This was Dodge City, Gulf Coast style.

Cedar Key has a history of boom and bust, whether it was importing and exporting goods, harvesting coastal cedar trees for pencils, or capturing sea turtles for food. Oil is no different. Drilling will further enable our oil addiction until we are forced, kicking and screaming, into the post-fossil-fuel age decades too late.

We are at a pivotal point in our history, much like the Timucua faced with the Spanish onslaught. The difference? Our arrows have to be words that pierce greed and illusion, opening hearts that have been hardened by false promises.

The Cedar Key Chamber of Commerce has a motto for the area's relaxed atmosphere: "Where time stood still." Its public lands and absence of chain restaurants and motels hold promise that Cedar Key can become a "sustainable destination" — viable as a unique tourism magnet for generations to come.

Sitting atop the Timucua Shell Mound gives me perspective. Civilizations and towns have risen and fallen over millennia. People have peeled back the skin of Mother Earth to work the land and build their homes, only to have their works one day covered again by the wild green of life — or washed away by storms and the rising sea. Nothing remains of the Timucua villages except for this mound, towering above the surrounding marshlands like a beacon from the past.

What will we of the oil age leave behind for future generations in one hundred or one thousand years?

It is up to us to decide.

A winner of three national writing awards, Doug Alderson is the author of Waters Less Traveled: Exploring Florida's Big Bend Coast and other works. This piece was adapted from the author's essay in the recently released UnspOILed anthology. His newest book, Encounters with Florida's Endangered Wildlife, has recently been released by the University Press of Florida. To learn more, see www.dougalderson.net.

The view from a Florida mountain 06/25/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 25, 2010 6:32pm]

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