A Childhood Remembrance of Florida
E. Allen Stewart III P.E
April 22, 2018
In his book "Beyond the River of the Sun" Fredric Hitt refers to the Limpkin as "The Crying Bird". He suggests it was sacred to the Aboriginal Indigenous People who occupied the region around Orlando and the Wekiva River just before the Spanish Intrusion in the sixteenth century. Today the Limpkin still inhabits the Wekiva River Basin searching for native apple snails which are becoming more and more scarce. It does appear the birds can survive on the larger invasive South American Island Apple Snail. However, while the Limpkin is not listed as a threatened or endangered species, I find their presence along Florida Spring fed rivers has declined, and no longer does its loud sorrowful cry dominate the soundscape as it did when I was a young teenager canoeing down the Alexander River.
It is Earth Day, 2018. I remember the first Earth Day in 1970. I was a student at the University of Florida, in Gainesville, having returned after a tour in Viet Nam with the 3rd Marine Division. I was a bit confused by the world, but was optimistic about the efforts being made to protect the environment. Marjorie Carr was on her wqy to having Nixon halt construction of the Cross-Florida Barge Canal; the University of Florida was becoming an important player in the expansion of ecological awareness and Systems Ecology; and I was expecting my first child and about ready to graduate with a degree in Zoology. There was hope in the air, and I felt we could protect much of Native Florida that was so important to my life and the lives of so many Floridians. Today, the Florida population is close to 21 million. Most of these people never saw Florida as I saw it in the 1950's, 60's and 70's. Recognizing this, and hoping to share my thoughts and experiences, a few years ago I wrote down things I remembered as a child growing up in this astonishing place we call Florida. I share this with you, and I hope it brings back some fond memories to my fellow septuagenarian native Floridians, and offers some insight to those from other places who now live in Florida.
Things from my Florida Childhood
Leopard frogs; apple snails; mud snakes; king snakes; blowfish; conga eels; limpkins; sirens; Carolina Anoles; brown skinks; six-lined racerunners; black swamp snakes; the hum of locust on a hot summer afternoon; massive flocks of winter ducks on the Indian River; and eel grass lawns in springs so clear it seems the fish were suspended in air. Stretches of dark green mangrove forests over turquoise water; Elkhorn and Staghorn Coral; oak toads; bob white; an abundance of butterflies; swooping night hawks at dusk; bats overhead on a warm summer’s evening; lightening bugs; the soft colors of a Polyphemus moth and the ghostly glow of a Luna moth; box turtles; a hoard of fiddler crabs scurrying around the pneumatophores of a black mangrove at low tide; gator trout stacked up like firewood around dock pilings on an October morning; brown water snakes nestled around cypress knees; the chorus of frogs after an evening rain; the brilliant blue of the tail of a male sailfin molly; shell crackers bigger than your two hands; spiny lobster clustered around submerged red mangrove roots; lemon sharks cruising over a lush turtle grass turf; an invasion of Spanish Mackerel; spoonbills and reddish egrets on the tidal flats; oak branches covered in Spanish moss, ghost orchards and resurrection fern; picking wild blackberries; a stand of newly emerged blue-flag iris; pitcher plants over a wet prairie. These are among the Florida companions of my youth, companions that are disappearing. And their disappearance rips at my soul.
Today the Florida landscape is characterized by the ubiquity of Brazilian pepper, melaleuca trees and soda apple. The Everglades stands as a vulnerable host to rookery demolishing pythons and ravenous cichlids. Lakes are abundant in tilapia, armored catfish, plecostomus, and giant island apple snails. Lawns of eel grass have been replaced by thick suspensions of blue-green algae, and the springs overtaken by mats of Lyngbya. Littoral zones are often dominated by torpedo grass and hydrilla. The reef corals are being obliterated by nutrient enrichment and the remnant of these reefs now serve as home to exotic lionfish, which ravage native fish populations. Fire ants have spread into the scrub and prairies, wreaking havoc on native insect populations, birds and other wildlife. Red tide blooms now appear to originate closer to shore, and are more frequent. And yet people still swarm to Florida as if it were paradise. They come to play golf, or watch anthropomorphic rodents at Disney World. It seems fewer come to see the remnants of the lost Florida, for it apparently is of no interest to them. In fact, they do not know about it, and have never experienced it. But when it is gone they will miss it.