Nature, once inspiration and solace, has hurled thunderbolts at Floridians. In the last three decades, Florida has been in the crosshairs of nature’s fury: a killer freeze, Category 5 hurricanes, global warming, sea level rise, Red Tide, king tides, toxic algae bloom, polluted springs, Zika virus, vanishing numbers of sea turtles and songbirds and an invasion of Burmese pythons, green iguanas and snowbirds. A popular bumper sticker summarized our predicament: “Nature Bats Last.”
It was not always so. Florida was once one of the most glorious places on earth. Writers and visitors waxed eloquently about untouched and awe-inspiring beaches, the primitive beauty of surging springs and the simplicity and harmony of prairie and hammock.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings moved to Cross Creek in the 1920s. She fell in love with North Central Florida’s lakes and savannahs. In The Yearling (1939), she introduced the Baxter family, eking out a living on the scrub. Penny Baxter had fought for the Confederacy and endured the scars of war. Rawlings understood Penny’s pain and the therapeutic powers of nature. “The peace of the vast aloof scrub had drawn him with the beneficence of its silence. Something in him was raw and tender. The touch of men was hurtful upon it, but the touch of pines was healing. ...The wild animals seemed less predatory to him than people ...”
Rawlings was acutely aware that someday her beloved Florida would be discovered and overrun. In a letter to her fabled editor, Max Perkins, she insisted, “My dear sir, do not let us hustle and deny out of existence the last of Florida’s frontier. The state will so soon be just like any other ...”
Rawlings was not the first to be bewitched by Florida’s landscape and bounty. In 1823, George Archibald McCall was present at the creation, participating in the establishment of Fort Brooke. Modern Tampa was born.
McCall was insatiably curious as to the flora and fauna of Tampa Bay. “My dear father,” he wrote on March 28, 1823, “Our camp extends under a canopy of the most superb trees I ever beheld ...” But it was not the majestic live oaks that bedazzled the young army officer. It was the bountiful waters of Tampa Bay. “By and by, the lower bay is the finest oyster-ground on the continent. ... I have not eaten such oysters anywhere. The fishing is also marvelous.”
Streams of soldiers, sutlers and mule skinners succeeded McCall. Fort Brooke served as a hub during the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). One of its most literate and curious observers was Private Bartholomew M. Lynch. He arrived in Florida in 1837 and kept a meticulous diary. “Never were soldiers happier than we Florida warriors,” he wrote, noting he had never seen a hostile Seminole. He expressed gratitude for “the beautiful, virtuous ladies of Tampa.”
In a literary flourish, Lynch scribbled, “Tampa Bay is too romantic and lovely a place for one to attempt describing it.” Of course, he then proceeded to describe it.
“I wish some perfumed, cigar smoking, novel writer, city man was here, he could not describe it, he would die of a fit of reality. Tampa is a perfect Arcadia. It is impossible to form any idea of the climate of Fla. It must be seen and felt. ... The more I see of T. Bay the more I like it, it is a romantic and truly picturesque place ... Tampa, Tampa, what a beautiful heavenly and luscourious (sic) spot thou are.”
What hath we wrought? The world wanted a slice of paradise. At the beginning of the Seminole War in 1835, the Territory of Florida contained about 30,000 inhabitants. Paradise was not enough. Generations of Floridians “improved” nature. Today, the Sunshine State hurtles toward a population of 22 million, not counting 110 million tourists.
The environmental challenges of preserving a place that meant so much and drew so many of us here should serve as a rallying cry for all Floridians. Isn’t leaving the world a better place taking care of one’s own backyard a democratic principle and a republican virtue? Politicians and elections come and go, but the environment is forever.
Like Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, we stand at a crossroads. Haunted by spirits, Scrooge asks the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, “Are these shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of the things that May be only?”
Gary R. Mormino is scholar in residence at the Florida Humanities Council. He was recipient of the 2015 Florida Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing.