This summer, the Tampa Bay Times and the City of Clearwater Community Redevelopment Agency teamed to present True Florida, a photo and essay contest. It was inspired by two art exhibits on display at the Clearwater Main Public Library: the “America’s Everglades Through the Lens of Clyde Butcher” photo exhibit (which ended in May) and the “Daydreaming: Niki Butcher’s Hand-Painted Photography” exhibit (through Jan. 31, 2023).
We asked: What is your favorite natural resource in the Tampa Bay area and why?
For the essay contest, Times Editor Mark Katches, Enterprise Editor Claire McNeill, Investigations Editor Rebecca Woolington, columnist Stephanie Hayes and I read more than 40 submissions. From that list, we chose our top four, which included a tie for third place.
For the photo contest, Times photo directors Chris Urso and Martha Asencio-Rhine and I picked our favorite five images from more than 60 submissions to send to the Butcher family, who then selected the winner and ranked the runners-up.
We all hope you enjoy the creative efforts of your fellow Floridians as much as we did.
Essay winner: Eric Roseland
Water, wind, and waves are some of my favorite things. I moved from dry country and have come to love ‘em.
Warm Gulf waters wash along our beaches luring us to relax and rejoice in the good land around us. Open sands and empty dunes stretch down linear beaches; sea grasses sway in synchronicity; offshore winds and incoming tides breach the shoreline, kept in company by sandpipers and terns racing along mud flats. Laughing children race incoming waves, shrieking in delight as frothy water curls around tiny toes. Quiet moments as others soak up sun on big red beach towels, warming on the sand, renewing strength.
Personally, I go out to the beach in the middle of the week and when it’s low tide and not so many folks and bring my metal detector to sweep the sand. I am the unintentional King of Bottle Caps.
Grinning people pound the waves on shiny jet ski monsters, carving “S”ess in water as rooster tails fly behind. Like white confetti on dark water, legions of leisure boats cut and weave through waters, their hyped up outboards roaring, skiers pulling behind jumping over wakes. Other friends party loud, parked on causeway sand strips, booming music, cooking savory food under pop-up tents, relaxing in beach chairs, the bay waters calm as a mirror. All in a day in Tampa. I like my chicken with mesquite rub, maybe some Kickin’ Chicken on it.
Nearby, the Hillsborough River is a proud lady, parading her currents and eddys over rocks and shoals. Canoes grace her surface in single line expeditions; alligators hug her shorelines; river grass hides her shrimp and fish. She empties her glory into the bay, a shallow estuary that flows into the Gulf, elegantly dancing under the Skyway Bridge. For a fun time go to Hillsborough State Park and hike along the river. Bring extra water.
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As night follows day, glorious sunsets follow grim summer thunderstorms, forming turbulent thrusting clouds pierced by angular light rays; clouds are painted by palettes of poster colors, etching memories in tourists and homies alike, awed by the end of day. Sunsets are felt, not just seen. I have hundreds of pictures of sun-over-clouds, sun-under-clouds, sun-on-water, people-blocking-sun, you name it.
The coming night is a blanket of black settling over the bay, a marriage of fresh and salt water where grouper and tarpon and redfish circle hidden in the eleven feet of water. Like water-bugs, boaters still ply her surface trolling for fish below. A quiet echo of horns and night sounds travel over calm waters. A crown of city lights encircle the bay, pinpoint reflections of diamonds sparkling off waters. Gotta warn you though to get your fishing license. Was on the water once without one and the game warden came floating by and saw my poles but not any fish (lucky me, it would’a been worse). Still handed me a ticket.
A new morning sun sees the night out. She inches up over trees in the East, tracing fingers of light over somnolent land, shining through marshy mists, raising flocks of birds off still waters. The roosters crow; the people stir; the temperature rises. Yip, it’s a gonna be a hot one today in Tampa.
Essay 2nd place: Randy Goggin
Twilight cast its glow across the preserve. An armadillo was muscling its way across the understory of the scrub forest behind me. I felt the stillness of evening creeping in, as I lingered on the last stretch of road leading out — everyone gone, the gates now closed. I took in the sheer beauty: the golden grasses, St. John’s Worts, clumps of palmetto, an assortment of eudicot blooms. A single pawpaw stood tall beside the apron of a gopher tortoise burrow about thirty feet out, its white flowers glowing like paper lanterns in the slanted light — the slash pines now silhouettes to the west.
A prescribed fire had opened up the landscape here, maybe three or four years back. The burn had left a mosaic of distinct upland habitats — meadows, flatwoods, shaded oak hammocks. The slash pines were heat-scarred monuments of fire-adapted life. It was like looking back in time to when lightning started fires, and the flames shaped and replenished the land — no houses, roadways, or 911 calls to hinder the natural flow of things.
A scream lifted my attention to the sky — a turkey arcing upwards like a beachball kicked from the Earth, then plummeting down again with gravitational force. It smashed into the meadow, sprinting my way. I didn’t move from my place in front of my car. Again, it screamed, flapping hard off the ground, gliding, then crash-landing into a slide across the asphalt. My eyes instinctively scanned the meadow in search of its pursuer. A single cat head emerged above the cover of grasses, its distinct, tufted ears aimed forward to listen for its prey. Lynx rufus floridanus. Its head disappeared, resurfacing again about six feet closer to the road.
The turkey crashed off through the scrub in the opposite direction. Within seconds the bobcat was crossing too, moving wraith-like across the road, then out into the oaks and crowded saplings. There was another struggle down in the cypress swamp — then one last, wild scream. The turkey was flying up over the tops of the pond cypress trees — its trajectory taking it out toward the cow pastures across the highway. I imagined it out there by the Duke Energy powerline towers, breathing hard and watching the distant tree line.
A sharp, two-syllable whistle broke the silence, an avian call that reverberated through the air. A bobwhite quail, Colinus virginianus. The bobcat was right there on the shoulder of the road, its posture one of rapt attention — listening. I could see its lust for a meal in how it stretched its neck upward — awake for the night and ready to kill. When it saw me, it stared — indecision in its Felidae eyes. I stared back, not daring to move. Then it was running, keeping close to the ground. It slipped past a clump of saw palmetto and disappeared back out into a darker meadow — becoming one again with the land.
Essay 3rd place (tied): Raubi Perilli
It’s easy to take the Florida sun for granted. Like a car engine that turns over every morning or youthful good health, it’s something we expect to be there and only really notice once it’s gone.
I know what it’s like to live where you can’t rely on the sun. I grew up in western Pennsylvania, living beneath low-lying clouds that cloaked my town in a gray blanket and blocked the sun for days, and sometimes weeks, at a time. When I was a kid, I thought it was normal, this lack of access to the sun. I thought everyone spent their days aching for even just a crack of sunlight and then celebrating the few, rare moments when the clouds would peel apart and let a glimpse of gold shine down. It was all I knew until I came to Florida and realized how wrong I’d been.
As one of the sunniest places in the country, the Tampa Bay area wakes up more than 200 days a year to a ball of radiance rising up over swaying palm trees, soft sandy beaches, and homes filled with residents who don’t always realize just how good they have it.
In some parts of the country, like where I grew up, people wake up to the complete opposite, more than 200 days a year of heavy cloud coverage. On these days, there’s no vast expanse of free, wide-open blue space. Instead, there’s a colorless canvas sagging down from where the sky should be. The muted grays feel so close that you want to reach up and push them away to find the secret sun hiding on the other side.
The Florida sun rarely conceals itself in such a way.
It’s reliable and bold, generous and friendly, and always eager to offer up its bounty. Every morning, the sun sends light streaming through blinds, rousing our minds and bodies and boosting our moods. Some scientists say sunshine has more impact on mood than any other environmental factor. It increases vitamin D, nitric oxide, and serotonin levels which in turn decreases blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. The sun makes us feel good. When we step into its ray, it transfers heat and energy to our bare skin with a fierce, invisible force sent from millions of miles away. It’s healing. It’s magic.
I feel lucky to live in the Tampa Bay area. I no longer live under a bleak blanket of clouds. Instead, my community is framed by a high teal-toned backdrop, clear and bright, endless and optimistic, and always featuring our favorite star. It’s easy to overlook the sun when it’s always there for you, but I never do. Even on rainy days, I don’t worry about it deciding not to show up. It’s always ready to take the stage.
Essay 3rd place (tied): G. Shane Morris
The cicadas drone in the moss-draped live oaks as a cloud veils the May sun. Gravel crunches underfoot as my boys and I make our way to the edge of Lake Hancock. In front of us, the oaks give way to scattered sabal palms, then a dense grove of bald cypress. Our path slips between the sleepy giants’ trunks, descending into cool shadow. As we enter the gloom, a low roar greets us from somewhere to the left. I recognize the throaty rumble as a bull alligator’s love song. It is breeding season, and he is announcing his presence to all willing females. Florida’s swamp dragon is bellowing, and it reminds me that my home is a place where myths still live.
Not everyone shares this sense of wonder. An 1845 U.S. Treasury Department report memorably dismissed Florida as “suitable only for the haunt of noxious vermin, or the resort of pestilential reptiles.” The largest of those “pestilential reptiles,” Alligator mississippiensis, has long suffered from poor public relations. Admittedly, its charm is an acquired taste. With a maw sporting dozens of bone-splintering teeth and a back armored like the biblical Leviathan, gators look like something from the age of dinosaurs. And their fearsome reputation lends credibility to tales of Florida Man and his headline-grabbing exploits.
But alligators aren’t monsters. In fact, they stand out among their relatives as docile. The late Steve Irwin of “Crocodile Hunter” fame once referred to alligators as “frogs with teeth.” Everywhere else on earth where large crocodilians haunt the water, people dread to enter. The dragons of other continents claim hundreds of human lives a year. The American alligator, by contrast, has killed eleven people since last millennium. Yes, this reptile is potentially deadly. But for a creature with such power, it is a remarkably good neighbor.
As my boys and I stalk the raised swamp trail, we spy half a dozen gators of different sizes — some teenagers gliding half-submerged through duckweed, some lizard-sized youngsters with yellow-striped tails and bright eyes hiding among the Carolina willows. We round a corner and spot a larger dragon, perhaps ten feet from snout to tail, floating parallel to the trail. He is no giant. But he is big enough to demand respect.
Slowly, ominously, he opens his jaws. Wider and wider they part, until his teeth gleam in the sunlight and we can see the fleshy valve at the back of his throat. I snap the photo a second before he closes his mouth. The whole display seems lazy — like a yawning dog. After a last look, we move on and leave this Florida swamp dragon to rule his kingdom.
Once, people drove alligators to endangered status. Today, they are again common throughout the Southeast, including the Tampa Bay area, where I grew up seeing and photographing them. Their presence reminds me that Florida was once a wilderness, and in some pockets remains so. And their benevolent reign testifies that a world with mythological monsters is better than one without. In this high-tech, safe, and developed age, I’m glad my kids and I can still hear dragons roar — and see them yawn.