Posted by: floridanature | July 30, 2008

The Writers’ Challenge: Figuring Out La Florida

I was eight and as spellbound as a kid can be when confronted with the unexplained. With my family, I was aboard one of the glass bottom boats at Silver Springs. Around me was a world both mysterious and oddly illusory —under us the water was as clear as my guppy tank back home. In it, I saw an alligator so perfectly still it seemed fake. White sand was sprinkled like snow near the dark maw of a spring mouth. Our guide narrated with a theatrical rhythm, like a Slinky stepping its way down the stairs.

The cave from which this wondrous spring surged was “bottomless” and the water “99.99 percent pure.” Both the “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “Sea Hunt” were once filmed here —indeed, part of an old set was still submerged. . On the jungle-like shores around us, monkeys left from a decades-old Tarzan movie shoot still romped The air was thick with fictional celebrity.

We had driven the blue highways, all the way down from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, to get here, stopping at the roadside attractions not yet run out of business by corporate theme parks—places where men still handled snakes and rassled gators, and if you wanted, sold you a live baby caimen..
I had just read the “Pink Motel” about a young boy whose average American family inherits a funky Florida beachfront motel full of wonderfully eccentric guests. On our own real-life trip, we were just coming for a vacation, but I was no less dazzled with the possibilities of Florida than my counterpart in the Pink Motel.

There was something at once seductive and outlandish about our whole experience that day, as if we —having brushed up against the fame of the Tarzan monkeys and the Sea Hunt set and the ghost of the Creature—were all part of some Saturday movie matinee. And I felt a little famous myself, just being here. In my eight-year-old mind, I dreamed someday of returning to Florida, of learning more about its odd, odd mysteries. And one day, as a young adult with dreams of becoming a writer, I did.

Like other writers who have connected with this Florida, I was enchanted by the promise of a place where nearly anything could happen, at any time. It was as far removed from my linear Beaver Cleaver childhood as I could imagine. The whole green, sunny state, in fact, seemed like one giant Pink Motel, a place where it was perfectly okay to be peculiar. An imagination was not even required —you just needed to pay attention..

Which explains why Florida has always been such fertile ground for writers for centuries—particularly for those who muck about in its woods and waters.

Of Florida’s writers, two things can be said: While they have roamed all over the state, most seem to prefer the warmer regions, particularly the coasts and the islands; and, hardly any of them were born here. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, before she re-invented herself in her cracker home, was a Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Wisconsin. Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, as synomous with the Everglades as sawgrass, arrived as a young divorcee from the northeast. Even Archie Carr, arguably the greatest modern naturalist to have written about our state, arrived here via Savannah and Alabama to go to grad school at University of Florida

John James Audubon, although he visited New Smyrna, the St.Johns River, and the Keys, never really lived here at all, yet his work was profoundly affected by the place. So it was for Rachel Carson who researched her precisely written “Edge of the Sea” in the Keys, and New York botanist John Kunkel Small, who first alerted us to Florida’s impending water crisis in 1929 in “Eden to Sahara.”

Tracing a literary roadmap here can mean visting the places written about—say, the labyrinthal western Everglades of Peter Matthieesen’s Watson triology or the Fakahatchee Stand of Susan Orlean’s “Orchid Thief”—or it can mean going to the homes where they actually wrote. If the writers are active, it is unlikely they will be inviting you inside— as they are usually trying to write and you’ll get in their way. When departed, it is a different story. No longer inhabited by sometimes cranky, sometimes manic, sometimes unpredictable artistes, the homes become safe, inspirational symbols of the writer’s distanced art.

It may be just as well. Ernest Hemingway has become a cottage industry in Key West, with his Whitehead Street house and his former drinking holes heavily promoted.. But the volatile author fled Key West for Cuba as his fame grew in the 1940’s. Confronted with ques of tourists with fanny packs filing through his yard, Papa would likely go for the Manlicher

Perhaps the best way to approach house visiting is to look less for how the writer arranged their décor, and look more for the remaining vestiges of how they were inspired to write in this place—including what about the climate, the neighborhood, the local culture drew them here. Some universal truths remain. Or as Papa once wrote in a letter:

“I wish you could come down here. The weather is wonderful now, like the finest sort of spring day and it is wonderful out in the Gulf Stream. I am going to fish tomorrow and write the next day.”

Once, I sat in the conch-style Key West home of writer David Kaufelt as he tried to explain the allure. Outside a window, red bouiganvilleas glowed under the tropical sun. Kaufelt saw writers as pilgrims, coming to worship at one of two distinctly different shrines—in search of either the artistic chest-beating machismo of Hemingway, or the more sensitive, doomed gayness of Tennessee Williams. Kaufelt had a point, but there was certainly lots of room in between.

Indeed, poet Richard Hugo once said writers often gravitate to “the edge” because they gain the perspective needed to do their most incisive work—whether the geographic edge of a continent, or the edge of mainstream culture and “normalcy.”. Tom McGuane, who with novelists Jim Harrison, Phil Caputo and poet James Merrill also lived in Key West, described it as the “scrambled edge” of American culture. This might also be said for much of peninsular Florida.

But there is a more innocent side, too, something close to the restoration of the child within.. The novelist Joy Williams, who with her husband Rust Hills (fiction editor of Esquire) lived in Sarasota and Key West, once told me the simple activity of peddling her bike on the streets—surrounded by the sentinmental wooden “conch” architecture and blooming tropical trees—took her back to her childhood. It’s like a sunny Saturday morning when you’re a kid, when the whole world seems a free ride

During a particularly odd time in my own life when I was considering leaving Florida, I rented such a conch house for a month. While there, I rode a bike and scuba dived on the reef. One night in a bar, I stood next to Hunter Thomspon and treasure salvor Mel Fisher, who was wearing a necklace of escudos salvavged from an offshore wreck. Just a few houses from mine on White Street, the great poet Elizabeth Bishop once lived. In the evening, I would sit on my porch and read about places she loved: In “The Bight”, she wrote:

At low tide like this how sheer the water is.
White crumbling ribs of marl protrude and glare
And the boats are dry, the pilings dry as matches…

And so, given an entire country to explore, I ended up staying in Florida after all. But the longer I stayed, a greater irony begin to reveal itself. The more I learned about the nuances of this strange natural environment, the more I realized how vigorously real estate developers were demolishing it. And that too provides subject matter for authors like the lat) John D. McDonald (Sarasota), Randy Wayne White (Ft. Myers), and Carl Hiassen” (Miami and the Keys)

I once worked with Hiaasen on a daily newspaper, so when I ran into him on the streets on Key West a few years ago, we commiserated about another theme, the blur between fact and fiction here. Hiaasen had just finished a novel in which a psycho tough guy grafts a Weed Eater onto his arm. I told Hiaasen about a rural politician in northeast Florida who—in a dispute over a shared fence —actually went after his neighbor with a Weed Eater. Around this same time, another small town mayor had been accused of: beating up a carnival barker, threatening the town police chief, and stealing a dump truck load of dirt. (The mayor’s public defense: “I ain’t never stole no dirt in my life.”) “See,” said Hiassen, gleefully. “I don’t have to make any of this up…”

For Harriett Beecher Stowe, who settled in Mandarin in 1867, the reality of Florida was just as fluid, even then. She reported living in “a tumble-down wild panicky kind of life—this general happy-go-luckiness which Florida inculcates…” In part, this “wild panicky kind of life” might be explained by the subtropic and warm temperate climate, which—with heat, humidity and mosquitos—did much to keep Florida unsettled for most of its first four hundred years. One visitor to Miami in 1867 wrote that “the original wilderness everywhere covers the state, and (is) as nearly primeval as in the time of Adam.

When modern infrastructure begins to smoother the primeval, all you have to do is let it sit for a couple of decades and watch the warm, moist natural world reclaim it. That’s what “Alas Babylon” did after the fictional bomb dropped in Florida. Today, environmental writers tell us a good hurricane will wipe it all clean and let us start over again, maybe do it right this time.

For deeper insight, you can read John Rothchild’s “Up for Grabs”, in which the Miami writer offers the seminal explanation for our made-up culture and our stage-managed natural resources. Florida, says Rothchild, was always this way because the first explorers—and the early tourists who followed close in their wake—came looking not for what Florida was, but for what they wanted it to be.

Or as seventh generation Florida professor Diane Roberts wrote recently in The New York Times: “Florida has [always] been the focus of earthly desires, far beyond what the natural beauty of the place could deliver…

Over-reaching in Florida, which might be considered gaudy and tasteless elsewhere, becomes an intricate part of the weave binding culture and place. Fact or fantasy? Tarzan monkeys or bottomless springs? The way the sun settles over a crown of cypress and turns it luminous or varnished cypress clocks sold at roadside? Who cares?

For writers, it all makes a great story.

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