Posted by: floridanature | June 12, 2008

Why You Should Care About a Little Cabin in the Woods

It took a journey to Nicaragua about 15 years ago to remind me how important the great naturalist Archie Carr and his work had been to the preservation of wild places—wild places in Florida, in Nicaragua, everywhere. I was there to write a magazine story, and although I had a working understanding of ecology, it didn’t dawn on me to use a single species to help others understand concepts like animal migration, habitat protection, and the need to use science to “manage” our natural world.

Dr. Jeanne Mortimer, who had studied herpetology under Carr at UF, was working there at the time with the Miskito Indians of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast. The Miskitos, known locally as the “Turtle People” because they hunted the sea turtles, were involved in a project to set up a massive marine preserve along the coast. Rather than excluding native people from such management plans, this one meant to more fully include them. Poor countries like Nicaragua have little funding to help support such high-minded strategies; when you’re hungry, a turtle is no different than a grouper or a lobster or a queen conch. It provides immediate food, and for a certain overseas market, cold cash.

“Sea turtles are very political,” Mortimer told me one day in Puerto Cabezas, pushing her matted blonde hair back from her face. It was hot and we were both sweating. We were having lunch in a little bodega with no windows, and a barefoot young man tried to sell us some green turtle eggs. The egg vendor didn’t faze Mortimer. “It’s a poor country,” she says. “People have to eat.” By night, this Puerto Cabezas was lawless and marked by gunfire. By day, I would walk the dusty dirt main street and see shop owners picking out maggots from their supplies of dry rice.

As for the “politics” of the sea turtle, the biologist explained that a species that migrated such vast distances to feed, to breed, and to nest was a working example of ecology. “Turtles depend on a multitude of geographic places to survive,” Mortimer said. Despite the turtle hunting along the Miskito Coast, it was more likely that very wealthy people elsewhere were contributing to the demise of the sea turtle by building seafront homes on beaches where the animal had historically nested, and polluting the waters in which the turtles spent most of their lives.

Fastforward to today and to an unexpected email I just received from Ray Willis. Ray’s a good ol’ Florida boy who also happens to have a doctorate in archaeology. I met Ray a few years ago at Silver Glen Springs when producing a state PBS film on the early naturalist Billy Bartram and his travels to Florida. I had earlier called the USFS office and asked if there was anyone there who could speak to the history of Florida on camera. A woman with a soft drawl told me the entire USFS archaeological staff would be glad to help me out. And then she chuckled. The entire archaeological staff turned out to be Ray.

We walked around the edge of Silver Glen Spring that day, and Ray helped me understand the lifeways of the native people who had lived there long before the Europeans arrived. Ray had always struck me as someone who cared very much about Florida, and who wanted others to understand a state that was so often misunderstood.

Ray’s new email told of a situation that was both a dilemma—and a blessing. A little Cracker-style cabin and 46 acres of land in a corner of the Ocala National Forest had been donated to the USFS last year by Dr. Tom Carr, a noted physicist in his own right and the surviving brother of Archie. The tin-roofed cabin near Lake Nicotoon was iconic: It was built by the parents of Tom and Archie when they first moved to Florida in 1938. Subsequently, three generations of Carrs had spent a great deal of time there.

Although Archie later had his own home on Wewa Pond in Micanopy, this Cracker cabin gifted him, his wife Marjorie and his children with the opportunity to deeply experience the nuances of the Florida scrub and hammocks without the filter of civilization. But now the cabin was dilapidated and in need of the sort of urgent help that the USFS could not provide. Ray wondered if a “Friends of the Carr Cabin” might be formed to rise to the moment.

Not ironically, Archie earned his doctorate in zoology from UF the year before the cabin was built. Although he later traveled widely through Latin America following his beloved sea turtles on the “windward roads” of distant shores, the little cabin in the Ocala woods could be thought of the place where the spirit and ethic of the Carr family was nurtured. Of the need for preservation, Archie once wrote: “If this difficult saving is done, it will (be done) because man is a creature who preserves things that stir him.”

And that is what this little cracker cabin in the woods needs today—for the people who were stirred by Archie’s legacy to come to its rescue.

Certainly, I can be counted among those because Archie’s writing has surely stirred me. When I was researching my book on the St. Johns River a few years ago, I sifted through hundreds of articles and research abstracts on the river and its science. Archie’s insight on the St. Johns stood out like a wild river iris in a dark swamp because it both moved and humored me. And it also did what every great teacher wants the students of the world to do—it made me think. Archie was not just a good teacher; he was a courageous man who broke away from the herd, and that’s an increasingly rare trait in our modern Florida.

And so, today, the ideals of “conservation biology” once developed by Archie and others have come home to roost. Like his wide-roaming sea turtles, they have migrated between Bartram, Silver Glen Springs, Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, Sanford, and now Nicotoon Lake in the Ocala National Forest. The little Carr cabin in the woods hasn’t moved an inch over the last 75 years, of course. But the ideas born there have been around the world uncounted times.

And like a star you wish on at night as a kid, this little dilapidated physical structure provides a steady beacon in our crazy, ever-shifting modern world —and it does so as a place where the very best part of the human spirit, caring and imagination reside.

It’s the sort of illumination that anyone who cares about our besieged natural Florida can hardly do without.



  1. I must say this is a great article i enjoyed reading it keep the good work 🙂

  2. Archie Carr did so much for seaturtles and wildlife conservation in general. If you ever get a chance Tortuguero National Park is a unique place to visit. He did much of his early green sea turtle work there.

  3. sea turtle is nearly to extinct. as a human being, we should appreciate this creature before it goes to extinct.what can we contribute?
    ‘don throw away plastic bag into the sea would be helpful’ enough. maybe it sounds simple, but we never know the effects of our action.

  4. our sea turtle is nearly to extinct. as a human being, we should preserve this precious creature from being extinct.
    what can we do?
    ‘don throw a bag plastic into the seawater. maybe it sounds simple, but we never know the effects of our action.

  5. kuala abang is no longer known as a port for turtle landing. why do this happened?is it because of human activities effects?

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