Posted by: floridanature | May 23, 2008

Imagining a Florida Landscape

The power of narrative has long played large in the imagination. We were telling each other stories around an open wood fire for thousands of years before we started writing them down. Some anthropologists say we’re genetically inclined to need a narrative—that we insist on having a story to explain circumstances that can not otherwise be explained.

Recent books like “The Accidental Mind” suggest we follow unconscious signals —and then later, “confabulate” wonderful stories to explain our inexplicable behavior to ourselves.

Surely, if you’re in the business of storytelling—if you’re a writer or a politician— then there’s no better stage than Florida, home of mermaids and manatees and salubrious myth. We’ve been making up stories here for thousands of years now, dating back to the paleo-memories of the first Floridians who followed herds of mastodons here because the spirits told them to.

Today, we yearn for stories more than most because our history has been so haphazard and uncertain, and our population just so darn new. We have grown so quickly that few have been here long enough to describe just what did happen 50 years ago. Three of every four people in Florida come from elsewhere. A few years ago, the Orlando Sentinel selected the Floridian of the Century. The choice? It was the “newcomer.”

In a subtropic state—where natural realities are subtle and exotic anyway—it’s always been easy for a flamboyant story to trump reality. Ponce De Leon first put ashore in 1513 expressly seeking gold. By 1575, Hernando D’Escalante Fontaneda reported hearing of the curative powers of a river called “Jordan” in Florida. But even then he explained it was highly unlikely Ponce was in hot pursuit of it.

Nonetheless myth went to work, and today the intrepid explorer’s name will forever be associated with a St. Augustine tourist attraction (“Drink from the World Famous Spring”), the “Ponce De Leon Mall”, and a natural artesian vent west of DeLand that not so long ago had a perfectly good name (“Spring Garden Spring”).

Early Florida colonists created stories with flair: Jacques Le Moyne, the artist with the French Colony at Ft. Caroline in 1564, drew alligators 80 feet long with large human-like ears and massive hands. His fellow colonists told of unicorns that came down to the river to drink and a supernatural animal that carried its young on its back. Hearing descriptions of the later in 1575, Andre Thevet drew for us the “Succaranth”, a fierce and grotesque animal that was half lion and half monkey. The supernatural animal turned out to be a possum.

When it became clear inventive stories could actually lure investors, fables took a commercial turn. By the 19th century, tourist guides promised a Florida that was “salubrious”—-able to cure everything from tuberculosis to insomnia, as long as you bought land. Even when they tried to stick to the facts, it was challenging. “There is malaria here, wrote one handbook for potential newcomers in 1885, “but not to the degree commonly expected.”

The “Handbook of Important and Reliable Information” added: “In Florida, the poor man becomes a lord, for Nature serves him. He knows no dread of long winters, frost and hunger.” When not lazing around as a lord, the poor man could also search for the “lost” Lake of Ockeechobee, where other stories told of floating islands of wealthy Indians. By the early 20th century, selling swampland to Yankees was the natural decedent of promising a salubrious experience in a sort of tropical neverland.

Modern writers have tried to take up the slack. Excellent storytellers like Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, Archie Carr, M.K. Rawlings, John D. McDonald, Thomas Barbour, Rachel Carson, and others gave us precise descriptions of people and place.

But faced with a Florida that has great patches of bizarre and unexplained history, others take great glee in defaulting to myth.

Novelists of black humor, like Carl Hiaasen, benefit because their fiction is launched from Florida’s unique landscape of implausibility. People do sometimes chase each other with Weedeaters, although not grafted to their arms, and politicians sometimes act like they do in movie farces. (Not so long ago, the mayor of a small central Florida town was accused variously of beating up a carnival barker, threatening the police chief, and stealing dirt. His response on local TV: “I ain’t never stole no dirt in my life.”)

Possums or Succaranths, buggy swampland or paradise, healing waters or natural spring ? Welcome to Florida, where the story is just about anything you want it to be.

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