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Recalling Florida's beauty as it's ruined

Published Apr. 15, 2013

A Land Remembered is one of those great books that might not seem all that great at first; you just keep turning the pages.

In case you haven't heard of it, and I'm embarrassed to say that I hadn't until a few days ago, it's by a Mississippi transplant named Patrick D. Smith and it's about a fictional family named the MacIveys. More specifically, it's about this family's life in Florida over the course of more than a century.

Which means it's about wide-open natural prairies and stands of giant cypress trees — about the Everglades, feral cattle, wolves and monster alligators, and about a time when horseback riders in the swamp flushed sky-darkening numbers of ibis and herons.

And, though I'm just coming to this part of the book, it's about how it all got messed up.

Or at least started to get that way, because the span covered by the book ends in 1968, when the characters couldn't know what messed up really was.

As plenty of people have pointed out, including the Tampa Bay Times' Jeff Klinkenberg — whose 2012 story about the ailing, aging author I stumbled upon last week, prompting me to find a copy of the book — Smith wasn't a great prose stylist. You root for the characters, but sometimes they're a little too earnest, sometimes not all that believable.

So what?

It's the land that carries the story, that gives the book its somewhat mysterious appeal. That's my theory, anyway.

People can't believe that this beat-up, built-up state used to be so pretty. They can't get over that it was once so full of life that a shotgun, a fishing pole or even a bullwhip was a guarantee against starvation.

That's why the book has sold more than 200,000 copies since it was published in 1984, why it's the perennial winner of a favorite-book poll conducted by Florida Monthly magazine, why, according to his website, Smith has been nominated for Pulitzer and Nobel prizes for literature.

The message?

People like nature, even people who'd rather sit with a book than hike. And they see it as a tragedy when it's ruined.

Okay, so this is not exactly a revelation.

But the way I reacted to the book, and the way people who love it really love it, tells me our leaders might need to be reminded how strong this feeling is — especially now that lawmakers are at work in Tallahassee.

The House of Representatives has budgeted more money than in recent years to buy natural land, but it's a little alarming that so much of the money might come from unloading existing land. So far, the Senate has been a lot less generous.

There's a big effort to water down permitting for a long list of industries and a bill to set new standards for controlling levels of polluting nutrients in some bodies of water, which sounds like a good thing until you realize it means the feds won't be doing it — and that these standards aren't nearly as tight as many environmentalists would like.

I thought about this on a short trip last week to a part of North Carolina that does a good job attracting tourists without ruining the scenery that draws them in.

In fact, all I hear from Floridians is how pretty it is there. So was Florida, I thought as I read Smith's book. And it could be still if we don't keep messing it up.

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