Posted by: floridanature | November 15, 2008

A Florida Horizon, Exploding with Light

I’m on the grand asphalt stream known as I-4 today, headed for Lakeland, Florida to give a “lecture” there at Florida Southern College.

When I was younger, and people asked me to speak in public, I would do extensive research, write down ‘talking points’ on index cards, stress myself with other left brained- preparation, and then get up and repeat what I had rehearsed.

I’m guessing in the long haul that was relatively useless for folks, myself included. Today, I use no notes and simply talk about places and people, nature and art—relying on the great ecology of the moment to figure ways to twig it all together, creating a nest from the shards and twine of ideas and experiences.


I arrive at FSC a bit early, meet Dr. Mike Denham, and we go to the large circular room where I’ll be doing whatever it is that I do. Mike’s a historian who grew up outside of Orlando back when it was a real place, when the native landscape could still breath. Like many folks here, he went to Sanlando Springs when anyone could swim there in the cool waters, before it was locked away behind a walled and guarded portal. Mike’s a good guy, and I’m happy to be able to hang out with him if only for a little while.
The audience quickly filters in, filing up most of the seats in the mini-amphitheater, a mix of local folks along with a few students. The campus of FSC has the greatest collection of structures designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, including the room we’re in. Wright planned the buildings on spec, trusting in the great eccentric promise of the college’s president that funding would organically arise from the ether of art: If you design it, they will come. The prez, a man with the unlikely name of Ludd Spivey, kept his promise, and his dream of relocating the old college out onto the rolling orange groves of Florida gradually came to life.

For his part, Wright took great glee in railing against the “copy cats” of architecture who simply rearranged the historic Greco-Roman templates to recreate institutions of distinction. Here, along the ancient paleo-dune known as The Ridge in Florida’s interior, Wright predicted his uber-original ideas would arise “out of the ground, into the light and into the sun.” And so today, what we have is a sort of a freeze-frame glimpse into how a visionary in a more innocent time saw the future. It was sleek, it was modern, and—more than anything—it was “original.” In the years that followed, Wright’s own work was imitated, reworked, even parodied. Every sci-fi film of the 1950’s and 1960’s relied on Wright’s “Space Age” vision of circles and halos and spirals, cantilevered beams and porches and roofs. Even the cartoon worlds—like that of the Jetson’s—were populated with caricatures of his designs, little space ships zipping in and out of it all.
I get up, talk about rivers and springs, swamps and marshes, and how we’ve allowed them to leak away from our Florida landscape. When that once-sacred liquid goes, so too goes the culture that for centuries has relied on it to make sense of the world. Compared to more modern techno-visions, my perspective is hopelessly rooted in the atavistic senses of the distant, earth-centric past. My message is neither modern nor sleek, but at least it’s original.

I remind folks of the animals that have become “speciated” by the act of living here over time. Funny, but as I do, I also think of Wright’s own ‘speciation’ and how it once brought him to Florida— a place where eccentric dreams have been cloned onto this eccentric landscape for centuries.

* * *

Back home in Sanford the next day, the residual notion of Wright and his vision still linger. I am still awash in his plea for modernism when I remember that the very last night launch for the Space Shuttle is scheduled for this evening. It doesn’t get any more modern than that.

Since I am only 30 miles from the coast, I know it will be visible from my own backyard. Despite my pessimism about the promise of technology, there’s something about a night launch that goes beyond all the slick science and high tech gadgetry. And, like a little kid waiting for the night to light up at the Fourth of July, I much look forward to the spectacle.

It’s almost 8 pm now, fully dark. I check the NASA site on my computer and as the countdown for the launch hits the four minute mark. I walk out into the yard. Here in my enfenced wildlife sanctuary, I walk beyond the pond and the little garden to the most open area, looking to the east. The nearly full moon is visible just above the canopy of giant live oaks, and it hangs there like a beacon, steady, unmoving. There are a few stars still not diluted by the urban light, and they remain, mute, unconvinced.


And then the horizon explodes with light, a rumbling sort of illumination that expands across the entire eastern sky. It is no longer dark but brilliantly orange, and in the middle of the brilliance is a giant glowing cord of light. The cord rises above the moon to the north, leaving the glow behind. It becomes a meteor now, but one that rises rather than falls, and which does so in slow motion. Inside my gut, I feel at once humbled and awed, and my heart trembles, just as the sky has done.

The space ship that is a meteor grows faint now so that it is only the brightest star in the sky, and it continues to rise, up, away. Just before it goes behind a branch of a live oak and disappears forever, I do something I never planned to do. I wave, wave like a little kid might wave at an engineer in a train going by, or at a clown in a parade. I wave and wave until finally it is fully out of sight. Just standing here in the dark, by myself, waving like a fool. As Wright once envisioned for his buildings, this miracle has been launched, out of the ground, into the light, and into the sun.

And it occurs to me that Frank Lloyd Wright was especially looking not to numb his clients with safe, historic images. Instead, he was hoping they’d connect, maybe reach somewhere inside themselves, and find meaning in unfamiliar images in a deep and visceral way.

He summoned the energy of the spirit to do this important work. And perhaps, when all is said and done, that’s what we might yearn for as a species—to rise above the rehearsed safety of the ground, and to become ignited by the everlasting light.



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