‘Wilder Heart of Florida’ beats with writers’ love for the state

A new anthology explores our shrinking natural places in essay, memoir and poetry.
Wilder Heart of Florida cover
Wilder Heart of Florida cover [ University of Florida Press ]
Published April 15, 2021|Updated April 22, 2021

Earth Day, that annual reminder that our environment is under attack, has special resonance in Florida.

More than many places, Florida is synonymous with its natural setting, from the seductive (Ooh, beaches!) to the scary (Yikes, alligators!). The Sunshine State may be the world’s largest irony factory: So many people throng here to enjoy its natural beauty that their numbers threaten that beauty’s survival. (Insert joke about suburbs named after the species wiped out to build them here.)

What’s more, as Temperince Morgan, executive director of the Nature Conservancy in the state, writes in the foreword to The Wilder Heart of Florida, “In Florida, nature isn’t out there — it’s right here.”

From the micro, like the palmetto bugs that scurry across our floors, to the macro, like the hurricanes that knock our houses down, nature reminds Floridians constantly that we are not separate from it.

The Wilder Heart of Florida: More Writers Inspired by Florida Nature is the sequel to The Wild Heart of Florida: Florida Writers on Florida’s Wildlands, published in 1999. The new anthology was co-edited by Jack E. Davis, a history professor at the University of Florida and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for history for The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea, and Leslie K. Poole, a professor of environmental studies at Rollins College and author of Saving Florida: Women’s Fight for the Environment in the Twentieth Century.

Related: Read a review of "The Gulf."

For this anthology, Davis and Poole have assembled works, most of them new, by 34 writers that range across several genres — history, nature writing, memoir, poetry — to capture Florida’s current precarious state of balance.

Author Lauren Groff isn’t a native, but she’s so deeply involved with her adopted home that her 2018 short story collection, Florida, has become a kind of unofficial state book. Her contribution to this anthology is “The Story Under the Story,” an essay that is both thoughtful and gorgeous:

“The fog rises in puffs off the grass and spindly sapling oaks,” she writes of a predawn run on Paynes Prairie, “and the moment the sun appears in full, the light slides from vague plum gleam into a stronger and more clarifying white, so the wisps are suddenly illuminated from within. Each fillip, in shifting, seems a living thing, or perhaps a once-living thing, a ghost making itself visible; it is true that Florida is the most haunted of states, a place where the membrane between the worlds is tissue-thin.”

Co-editor Davis turns in some evocative writing of his own in “The Seine,” about his free-range boyhood in Fort Walton Beach when its “downtown” was three blocks long. He writes of summer nights spent on a cot on an upstairs porch of the family’s house: “I slept in the Gulf’s cool breeze that carried over the island and dunes, across the sound and past our creosoted dock, snare-drumming the fronds of our one sabal palm, shushing through the salt-corroded screen. I slept to the distant white noise of the breakers, deeply in dreams, until birdsong woke me in the morning.”

Cynthia Barnett, one of our state’s best nonfiction writers, offers “The Quiet Song of Sanibel Island.” In childhood, she went there for the same reason so many people do: seashells. She quotes Julia Ellen Rogers, who wrote, “Sanibel is too popular. ... Too faithfully are her beaches scanned.” Rogers wrote that in 1908.

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Sanibel is popular, and if you’re one of its fans Barnett points out some of what makes it so attractive: strict development limits (no high-rises or chain restaurants) and extraordinary conservation protections. The island’s J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge preserves more than 5,000 acres, including “the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem left in the United States.”

But the most striking part of Barnett’s essay is what merits its inclusion in the book’s “Animals” section. She writes about seashells not as baubles or souvenirs but as the homes of living creatures most of us know next to nothing about.

Some of the essays note environmental success stories. “Gator!” by Eckerd College history professor Lee Irby looks at human-alligator interactions and mentions that as recently as the 1960s humans had killed off so many gators in Florida that only a few thousand were left — and then humans found a way to bring them back. In “My First Audubon Trip Hasn’t Ended Yet ...,” Audubon Society official Charles Lee writes about the bald eagle’s similar comeback.

Other essays look at invasive species, like Isaac Eger’s mordant “Feast of Pythons (Homage to Harry Crews).” In “Don’t Mourn the Orange,” University of South Florida St. Petersburg journalism professor Mark Jerome Walters takes on one of Florida’s pre-eminent symbols — which is an invader, too. Native to Asia, oranges and other citrus became one of the state’s most important crops, and in the process nearly wiped out one of its unique ecosystems, upland scrub. Seems oranges aren’t really suited to our soggy soil, so growers dug up countless acres of higher, dryer scrub to plant them.

Now another invasive, the disease called citrus greening, threatens the survival of the citrus industry, as does climate change.

What will take the place of all those ghostly, sweet-smelling orange groves? Suburbs, of course — homes for the next wave of Florida’s most common invasive species.

The Wilder Heart of Florida: More Writers Inspired by Florida Nature

Edited by Jack E. Davis and Leslie K. Poole

University of Florida Press, 196 pages, $26.95

This poem by Russ Kesler captures the human intersection with the wild in Florida. (From The Wilder Heart of Florida)

Sighting by the St. Johns

It took four lanes

in three low surges,

brown under the pink tongue of morning,

then was gone

in a hole it opened

in the roadside weeds.

Panther, moving north

with the coiling river

into miles of grass,

leaving a print slowly filling

with dark water.

If I’d been looking

in the rearview

I’d have missed it, perhaps

noticed the sedge quivering

and driven on.

But I was watching

the river mist over the road,

ready for the shadow

that rose and disappeared,

lean ghost with light at its heels.