* ‘La relación’ by Alvaro Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, 1555. deVaca was the first European to explore Florida, Texas and the Southwest. A remarkable account, made even more so because deVaca was in Florida over two decades before the more celebrated DeSoto. The author was part of a 400 man expedition that landed on the southwest coast of Florida, blundered badly, and then spent the next four years hopelessly lost, eating saddle leather, nuts and berries. The tenacity of the four survivors earned them a sort of mystical following among the Indians, like Forrest Gump running across the country, trailing along pilgrims in his wake.
* ‘North and South’ by Elizabeth Bishop. The poet’s poet, a woman who could clip off the end of a sea grape leaf and see the ocean in it. It’s worth it if you only read the searingly lovely poems “Florida” and “The Bight” in this collection.
* ‘Ecosystems of Florida’. Edited by Ronald L. Myers and John J. Ewel (Foreword by Marjorie Harris Carr). The first and most complete book to help us understand our wondrous oddball Florida habitats and the links between each. This is how Florida should be managed—by ecology, and not by politics.
* ‘Floridays’ by Don Blanding 1941. The “vagabond poet” spends some time in Florida and leaves behind some wonderfully eccentric poems–all of which are sharply accurate in their description of our landscape. The title poem was plucked by Jimmy Buffett for a song by the same name.
* ‘Key West Reader’, edited by George Murphy. Wonderful compilation of short stories, essays and poems about the Keys by writers who have lived or spent time there over the years. From John James Audubon (“The Death of a Pirate) to Jim Harrison, Wallace Stevens, and editor Murphy, whose “Rounding Ballast Key” is a deeply poignant poem (and not just because I know both Murphy as well as Capt. Vicki Impallomeni, about whom the poem was written.)
* ‘Roadside Geology of Florida. By Jonathan Bryan, Guy Means and Tom Scott. The single best contextual insight into the weird oceanic geology that makes Florida tick, from the limestone of the Suwannee River to the Florida Keys.
* ‘Tales of Old Florida’. (various). An anthology of magazine articles and essays on Florida from the 1880s through the early turn of the last century. A time capsule look into how people have seen and experienced La Florida with a filigree of baroque description of people and place, from “Sponges and Spongers of the Florida Reef (1892) to “Mr. Wegg’s Party on the Kissimmee” (1886). Most were written in a time when Florida was regarded as wild and untamed, a sort of mysterious Amazonia tacked onto the tip of the North American continent.
* “Travels” by William Bartram. 1791. The original-eco guidebook to the southeast—but especially to Florida. Rich with the gentle naturalist’s own drawings of plants and animals he collected and sketched along the way. For Bartram, the outdoors was ‘the grand theater of the Sovereign Creator’ and Florida springs were “vast fountains of ether.”
The guy understood ecology long before it had a name; but, more importantly, he showed us you could live with nature without having to exploit or destroy it—a lesson most Florida developers and their shill politicians still need to learn today.
* ”The Yearling’ by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. 1933. Rawlings won a Pulitzer for this touching, uplifting, sorrowful story of a young boy coming to manhood in the remote Florida scrub west of Lake George. The author borrowed from real places in the landscape, from Silver Glen Springs to the St. Johns River to the ‘islands’ in the scrub (although she often re-named them). A gifted storyteller with a focused eye for people and place, Rawlings listened to the stories the Crackers told her and she got it right.
* ‘Wekiva Winter’ by Fredric Hitt. Crisp historic fiction of the time when the Timucua and other native Americans were encountering strange white people who landed on the peninsula and bogarted it for their own gain. Ethnobotany and earth-based spiritualism vs. the industrialized world-to-be. Hitt re-imagines moments along the St. Johns and the Wekiva that ring with authenticity, and make us yearn for the wisdom of a vanquished people.
‘A Naturalist in Florida’. By Archie Carr, edited by M. Carr. Archie’s articles and essays written during his life, and assembled by his wife. A true Southern teller of stories— except he was also a brilliant scientist who knew how stuff worked. What’s the use of bemoaning loss, Archie once said, unless you also celebrate what still remains in our relic landscapes. Gentle and funny, literate and informed, Carr is the sort of guy you want to share a discovery with, because you know he would get a kick out of it too. .
* ‘Everglades: River of Grass’ 1947. Marjorie Stoneman Douglas. I interviewed Ms. Douglas once in her Coconut Grove cottage when she was 96 for a story in Newsweek on the Glades. She was astute, stubborn, and sharp as a tack. Her book was the seminal one on this vastly misunderstood river system. Although loaded with sturdy polemics on how to restore the Glades, it was also gracefully written. Between this and Mike Grunwald’s recent “The Swamp” and the rich fictional triology about the Everlades (Killing Mr. Watson, et. al.), you’ll learn all you need to know about the massive wetland that once stretched up to southern Orlando and covered almost all of southern Florida. After this, you’ll be ready to kayak/canoe through the western national park for seven or eight days, maybe even stop for a visit at the old Watson Place on the Chatham.
* ‘Mirage: Florida & the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S.’ by Cynthia Barnett. Why we’re running out of water due to ignorance and bush league Florida politics. Cynthia did her homework and it shows. Our loss of groundwater, springs, and surface water quality isn’t an act of nature or God—as some might have you believe. It’s simple math. And our inability to elect politicians with a great deal of sense.
* ‘Up for Grabs: A Trip Through Time & Space in the Sunshine State” by John Rothchild. 1985. First really honest popular history book to explain why Florida is just so darn strange (hint: It always has been.). Laid the ground later tilled by “Some Kind of Paradise” and more recently “Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams (both excellent reads in their own right). When first published, it so jarred the rigid Chamber smiley mind-think that a local columnist in the Orlando Sentinel actually wrote an essay to try to discredit it. Not unlike an ant trying to out-do an ant lion….