Posted by: floridanature | May 29, 2008

What Would the Timucua Do ?

The shells were unmistakable. They were small, not quite as large as a quarter in diameter, and bleached white by time. They were gastropods (or univalves) , which simply means they have one shell rather than two that are hinged, like the bivalves of mussels and clams.

I was standing on these shells, on an entire mound constructed largely from them. The mound rose up out of a flat floodplain hardwood swamp to 10 and 15 feet high. A back branch of the Wekiva River was nearby—the river flowed around an island here, and the “inside” branch closest to the shore was obstructed with heavy foliage at both ends. It was so well hidden that few paddlers on the main river even knew this branch existed.

If I hadn’t walked in from a trail—about an eight mile trek—it would have been easy to miss. A spur on the trail led directly to the mound here, so there was no mistaking it. There were actually two mounds, and archaeologists who earlier surveyed this site called them the “Twin Mounds.” It was primal back in here, the way good Florida swamps can be, sabal palms and bracken ferns everywhere, magnolia and cypress and water oak rising high overhead, moss and vines of wild grape woven through it all as if a set designer had been instructed to create a pre-Industrialized vignette of the natural Florida landscape.

The shells were banded mystery snails (Viviperus georgianus), and like elsewhere in the Wekiva and St. Johns River basin, they comprised most of the middens. Archaeologists who once studied this mound found 3612 bone fragments. More to the point, those faunal remains help us understand how early Floridians adapted to the local environment. They ate anything on land that didn’t move as fast as them—or their arrows—and anything from the water they could hook or trap.

Did you know there are more such midden mounds on the St. Johns than anywhere else in North America? It’s true, and it is a testament to the bounty this river once afforded the Native Americans for thousands of years. The logic is simple: In the days before mall food courts and Piggly Wigglys and 7-11’s, people hunted and gathered their own sustenance. For them, this St. Johns was one giant Piggly Wiggly with its aquatic aisles chock full of snails and fish, turtles and alligators, and its nearby woods populated with deer, beer, possum, snake, mice and rabbit. There was enough going on in nature that they could even settle for a bit, sow seeds for crops, contemplate the heavens.

The pre-Columbians who seasonally hunted and fished here called the St. Johns the “River of the Sun”. During the days marking the seasonal changes, these Timucua and Mayaca gave thanks for their river bounty, and deep in their hearts, they knew all the animals sent to them for food by the gods were blessed. The spirit of each animal, if hunted with courage and respect, would return to the neverworld and then, one day, it would materialize again in the valley of the River of the Sun, and its presence would be celebrated.

Gods were worshipped then and the belief in the pantheon of dieties that ruled the sun, the wind, the water and the animals was woven into daily life. Organized religion in our country today pales in comparison, and nature seems more an accessory than an essential force in the metaphysical cosmos of our lives. In our consumer-driven society, one is judged largely by the monetary value of their lifestyle and the mirage of perceived ideals and ethics.

It’s common among self-professsed Christians today to ask: “What would Jesus do?” If he returned, it’s my guess he’d be kicking some serious butt, booting the money-changers out of the temple, and all of their toadies along with them.

In fairness, one must also extend that question to the spiritual people who lived here for at least four thousand years before Jesus arrived, and to ask: “What would the Timucua do?

I’m guessing they would sit down at the edge of this mound on the shore of this subtropic river that is now turning green from nitrogen and diminishing in size because of our selfish squandering of water resources. And here, under the canopy of cypress and oak, they would weep. And then then would push their heart-pine log dugouts silently into the water under the full moon of night and paddle far away, paddle until they could paddle no more.

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Responses

  1. Great title.

  2. This is a wonderful blog Bill. Alot of my feelings on the subject of Florida’s original people are expressed therein.

    In my travels around the state, whether by water, on foot or by vehicle, I always try to keep in the fore front of my thoughts, that I am treading on the blood of the ancients. I have found a reverence in this, and I try to express this to others. Especially our young ones.

    Good meeting you the other night at Fred’s gathering. Many thanks for your warm reception and your kind words regarding my “Timucuan Eyes” song. Really appreciate it.

    Ben

  3. Bill,
    Should be required reading for all the voters who cede power to the enablers of blind development,
    those money-changers who value short-term financial profit over the land and it’s nourishing waters.

    The Timucua and Mayaca lived in harmony with the land, and marked it before they passed with gently rolling middens. But they left the land and rivers intact, and beautiful, unspoiled, teaming with life.

    What will we leave behind? The land paved over? A river sucked dry to green up a carpet of St. Augustine grass?

    Keep it up.

    Fred

  4. Another fine blog piece. When one cares as much as you and your readers about the anti-nature/anti-eco forces in FL, one understands how it would be easy to go a little over the top about the issues, like Skink
    or some Tim Dorsey character. Anyway, I like the idea of finding ‘beer’ in wilderness. That is a miracle of nature!


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