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"Losing It All To Sprawl: How Progress Ate My Cracker Landscape"
Feb. 2006


When I step into my back yard at 8 a.m., I see the mist rising from the ground, everything all silver now from the reflection of the new sun, small cobwebs left in the shape of tents between the blades of grass from last night's tiny business. The dew is heavy and splashes when my little sheltie runs through it, leaving a wake like a boat keel does in water. I see his warm breath puff out in front of him as he romps, a little dragon breathing smoke, looking for the rabbits that forever taunt him, at least two hops away before he smells them.

The saucer-sized white blooms that burst open on the giant cereus cactus by the coolness of late night have gone black and fallen. A monochrome of green, the cactus reigns over a corner of the yard like a thick, stocky tree. Back inside its limbs, mockingbirds flit about, chasing the anoles, little lizard chins all puffed up with red to impress each other.

The vines of the wild blackberry trail back into the sub-tropical thicket that consumes the rear of the yard, winding back through the elephant ears and guava bushes. Under the broad banana leaves, the small fruits there are fat and green, while the Hamlins and sour root stock have turned just like the little pumpkin-colored kumquats that fill the two trees in the front, near the coral vine that meanders up the side of the porch.

During seasonal changes here in Florida, the leaves of the sweetgum go yellow and red and the fingers of the golden polypody fern become streaked with burnt umber. Up high, the berries of the sabal palms hang in clusters under the lowest fronds. In the small coquina rock pond, native gambusia move about more slowly just below the water's surface, amidst the hydrilla and the roots of the river iris I once collected from the St. Johns.

I don't spread bug poisons about so I see lots of caterpillars everywhere, have to pick them off my habanero pepper patch by hand sometimes. They don't die or go away, but sneak off and hide somewhere, spinning a chrysalis of silk and inside, perhaps dreaming of one day waking up with wings with colors and the chance to fly. And then suddenly, here they are, bright aerodynamic leaves, rising and falling in the yard, a newfound surprise every time: the black swallowtail, the Gulf fritillary, and the zebra longwing, as dazzling as they were when William Bartram first saw them over two hundred years ago, blown up fresh from the tropics.

This is the last remains of an old farm spread in northern Seminole County, barely an acre left now, at the end of a dirt road. The two-story house here is mostly of heart cypress, so dense that I have broken circular saw blades and countless nails as I've gone about the never-ending chore of keeping it livable.

It is a fine old Cracker-style home raised up off the ground a few feet, molded steel roof overhangs, gables everywhere, porches to the front and back, richly aged hardwood floors and brick fireplace. Built solid in the late l920's, it was designed to be be naturally insulated, cool from cross ventilation and the shade of well-planted trees, bushy magnolia and water oak, back in the days when it took resourcefulness and common sense to live in Florida and not air conditioning and bug spray.

It is a place where I can go and sit quietly on the worn stone bench with the hearts in the side, next to the massive stand of bamboo, and listen to the wind coax music from the hollow reeds, hear the first sounds of the chuck-will’s-widow at dusk, wait for Orion and the Pleiades to appear. Falling stars arrive as a hat-trick of a surprise, streaking their way across the night sky with no preamble.
Now that the leaves of fall have thinned, I can see abandoned nests in the low boughs of the trees, close up. Cardinals, who seem to be smart, brave birds, make fine ones, weaving thinner threads of plants atop thicker ones, nice and soft for the eggs.

Blue jay nests seem tossed together from twigs as an afterthought, mindless squawks manifest. Of them all, it is the intricate, cocoon-like assemblages of the little marsh wrens that always stop me in my tracks. Once, a mamma wren built an entire one inside the utility room next to the big old wooden garage, flitting in and out from the open space under the rafters with pieces of her home in her mouth. I found her there one day, back on a dusty shelf at eye level, resting on her eggs, and I felt like an intruder.

Another time, I watched in fascination as a screech owl, a tiny raptor with horn-like tufts on its head, raised a family of four owlets in the hollow trunk of an old queen palm. Sometimes, right at dusk, I would sit outside on the worn concrete bench and see her swoop in low, something wiggly in her mouth to feed the brood. Later, at least two families of ladderback woodpeckers used cavities in the palm for the same purpose. I could hear their sharp calls there, morning and just before dark.

Sometimes the confrontations of nature evolve before my eyes, a nature documentary with no on or off switch. Once I saw an orange-and-black corn snake up high in a cedar tree with a massive bullfrog in its mouth, the frog screaming like a little kitten. I shook the tree, the snake opened its mouth, and down came one fat, grateful bullfrog with a resounding thud and a croak. On another day, I watched a half-grown gopher tortoise come barreling through a remote portion of the yard in his distinct wobble-crawl, entirely perplexing a baby possum that had strayed too far from its nest.

Being part of an experience like this requires a dose of commitment, a desire to slow down and leave things as they are. I have a country neighbor who lives in another old cracker house nearby. He's connected here, and understands. He is a big, heavy man who does big politically incorrect things like hunt and fish and drink Jack Daniels whiskey and eat too much of all the wrong kinds of food. We have brief conversations in the street in passing every few months, and recently, during one of those, he stopped midway in a sentence and said "red shouldered hawk."

We both looked up then, searching for the shrill whistle the hawk makes, up high in his orbit as he searches the ground for little things that move. And sure enough, there he was, in the midst of a wide elegant swoop, like a finely-crafted Chinese kite, except without the string. We both smiled then, at the hawk and each other and the notion that something that wild can still exist here, just over our heads.

Yet this picture I've just painted has begun to change in the last few months. The bulldozers have been scraping the epidermal layer off the earth not far away, preparing for a brand new mall, a shoppers' paradise that will bring jobs and money and people and their cars. The road my dirt lane connects to is being paved and widened to accommodate all this busy commerce.

You can hear the high-pitched buzzers go off and on all day as the heavy machinery moves forward and then back into reverse. Up from the ground go the palmettos, the sabal palms, the southern red cedar and the sweet bay, shredded and piled and burned like rubbish. The few gopher tortoises that weren't buried alive made a run for it, lighting out across the new highway for safe ground, trying not to become road kill. I've rescued three of them so far, turning them loose at the edge of my back yard where they march off into the 20 acres of dead citrus grove next to the house.

Someday, the old grove will go too; there is a proposal for it to become a multi-family development of some sort, probably to hold the swarms of minimum wage workers who will staff the retail stores in the mall. The hawk has suspiciously disappeared, although I hope not for good. I wonder how much longer it will be before the flood of new mall lights dim the blackness of the sky, snuffing out the constellations, the falling stars.

The other day, a fast-talking Realtor called to see if I wanted to become part of a "package deal" for some big retail business that had its eye on the area. Before he even heard my answer, he told me that he knew for a fact that everything in Florida was for sale. Even if I stayed, I would be up against the back of one shopper paradise or another, dumpsters full of consumer detritus, lots of noise. Just wouldn't be the same.

And I couldn't argue with him on that one, because I knew that it wouldn't be, knew that growth with no natural ethic to accompany it is a maelstrom, knew that's why this state was losing its connectedness, its link between people and the land. Florida is for sale, has been for a while now and it makes me sad as hell.

I'll stay as long as I can, but one day soon it will all go: the marsh wrens and the butterflies, the cactus and blackberry vines, the old cracker house, the feeling.

And I wondered if the hawk should ever come back, just on a random fly-over one day, singing its high, sweet whistle way up in the sky, if anyone here where this dirt street once was will even remember the kind of bird he is, or care enough to stop, just for a moment, and smile.