Posted by: floridanature | December 8, 2008

A Celebration & Lament for the ‘Trick of the Quiet’

Years ago, when I was trying to make the transition from a just-the-facts journalist to a writer more open to the world around him, I discovered Al Burt. Mr. Burt, a roving columnist for the Miami Herald, had a gift for turning ordinary Florida people and places into art. He could go into a backwater bar in Cedar Key or to a shrimp dock in Key West or to a Cracker shack in the countryside and help us actually “see” the spirit of what materialized around him.carrcabin

Mr. Burt learned what author Sherwood Anderson once described as the “trick of the quiet”—to slow down, to pay attention, to think and to feel. When other writers were courting celebrity and melodrama, Mr. Burt courted perceptive memory. And his style reflected that, more often than not using metaphor and almost poetic phrasing to match the depth of a rare experience.

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About a decade ago in Vero Beach, I was on a panel with Mr. Burt and another author to discuss writing. I was honored and a little intimidated, but I made a point to introduce myself, shake Burt’s hand, and tell him how much his own work had meant to me. He seemed to really appreciate that, and invited me to come see him up in Melrose, where he and his wife lived. I think of all who have touched me, or angered me, over time. I have tried to show appreciation when I could; and in some cases, apologize, when I have offended another. But that doesn’t always work with great precision; sometimes, the timing is wrong; often, Americans aren’t open to examining emotions. Except at certain times of the years—like Christmas—when its considered appropriate to do so. But Mr. Burt understood, and was gracious in doing so.
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As newspapers became more insular over the last decades, reporters moved even farther away from the Al Burt model to match the needs of their increasingly draconian corporate masters. Papers, like the local Orlando Sentinel, turned in on itself to produce a giant widget that would sell to the largest number of people. Instead of recognizing the irony in using the First Amendment to justify moral downsizing, the editors and staffers often became arrogant. They were uber righteous as the arbiters of information. To prove it, they used Orwellian logic to spin their own realities, regardless of what the landscape and its memories required.

Meanwhile, Al Burt once wrote: “I am one of those common folk who just occur all over Florida almost anywhere and everywhere . . like weeds and wildflowers, and make a statement by our presence. Some of us bring unexpected beauty into small places, and some of us just provoke itch and scratch in places hard to reach. But all of us stir the memories, provoke the consciences, and question the definitions of progress . . . and in doing this we frequently agitate the Babbitts.”

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When Mr. Burt died on Nov. 28, only a few newspaper writers, like the St. Pete Times columnist Jeff Klinkenberg, acknowledged the importance of his work. In lament, Jeff wrote: “Al thought that ordinary people were extraordinary. He wanted to write about the poetry of Florida life.”

Oddly enough, a couple weeks ago, I was part of a program down at Leu Gardens in Orlando to “Reconnect with the St. Johns River”. It was a noble idea, but because of the Babbittry of most other panel participants, it was a strange, strange event, and one that could have used Mr. Burt’s wisdom to fully process:
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The chair of the Seminole County Commission bragged about growing up on the river, and knowing “every square inch of it.” She observed that although she had seen a lot of changes on the river in 50 years, those changes could only be attributed to….”nature.” A state senator said the river was the only such waterway in the country to flow north (actually there are five others right here in Florida that do so). And he reminded all of the right the central Florida region has to suck surface water out of the St. Johns simply because it flows through our landscape first.

Finally, a former member of the St. Johns River Water Management District board, a snippy, clumsy man who has his own “environmental consulting” firm, made it a point to seriously debate a casual joke I made during my earlier prologue to the river. In explaining my research for “River of Lakes”, I told of how a geographer at the University of Florida had facetiously told me that the river flows north “because Georgia sucks.” (It was an old joke but got a nice laugh.)

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The enviro consultant, who spends great amounts of time representing developers rather than defending the landscape itself, then took great pains to say: “I’m here to tell Bill Belleville that the St. Johns doesn’t flow north because Georgia sucks, but because it falls 30 feet from beginning to end.” No one laughed, and in fact, several seemed noticeably uncomfortable by it all. Was this fellow—who once actually sat on the water management board and made decisions affecting the health of the St. Johns—really that obtuse ? Babbittry can do odd things to common sense, and apparently, even puree our sense of humor as well as our ethics.
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When readers ask me about my experiences in nature, I try to explain I find solace there—even atonement from my participation in our post-modern world. Like Mr. Burt—and William Bartram and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Sidney Lanier—I sometimes find enlightenment too, even when so-called civilized society withholds it. Al Burt knew of that stubborn sort of transcendence. Perhaps he saw it in the eyes of the people who still embodied the best of Old Florida, or caught a whiff of it in the tiniest of moments. The flick of a gambusia tail in a spring run; the unexpected call by day of a barred owl; the joy of a swallowtail kit swooping low. He surely knew enough of it to feel a sense of bereavement when it was lost.
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Once, Mr. Burt wrote about the dammed-up Ocklawaha, a Florida river that poet Lanier once described as the “sweetest water lane in the world.” As a younger man, Burt had even camped on the banks of this Ockalwaha.

Of this noble river— one that curled and bent its way through an ancient hardwood forest— Mr. Burt said: “The dam just doesn’t fit. It interrupts a dream.

And interrupted dreams make our hearts ache.”

Goodbye for now, Mr. Burt. Thanks for refreshing our souls, enlarging our courage, and reminding us of the need to reconnect our interrupted dreams. And thanks again for sharing that nifty trick of the quiet…

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(Thanks to all of those courageous and poetic souls who embody Mr. Burt’s ideals, especially conservationist Karen Ahlers of the PCEC, columnist Jeff Klinkenberg, professor Steve Phelan, and author Fredric Hitt.)

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Responses

  1. Really interesting post, especially since it was on Florida hydrology. Classic joke as well, and yes, it takes a 6th sense to understand a joke and more broadly, ones audience. Well done.

  2. Thanks, Robert. Generally, I don’t mind folks being clueless, cuz we all have good and bad days; I do mind them being mean-spirited and clueless, and then being appointed or elected to positions where they make decisions that affect the health of “our” landscape.


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