Posted by: floridanature | January 13, 2009

Coontie Magic: Reading the Message in the Relic

I’ve always been fond of relics. Maybe that’s because I’m a nostalgic sort of guy to begin with.

Or maybe it’s because each vestige of the past has a different story hidden in it somewhere. And I’ve also been a lover of great stories

yardnbenchOnce I lived in an old Cracker farm house on a dead-end country road outside of Sanford. The house, built from heart cypress in 1928, was a relic itself. As was the acre or so of land that surrounded it. Both the home and its place in the landscape seemed encased in a sort of time bubble. Outside, the anxiety of a region made giddy by the fast bucks of eyeblink-quick sprawl roared on. But inside, for a long time, all seemed safe, stable. You could almost believe it might never change.

Near the east ditch that marked the boundary line in the back yard, under a blood orange tree, there was a little coontie growing. It was barely higher than a cinnamon fern—indeed, it seemed as if it might have wanted to be a fern at some time in its own prehistory. But unlike a fern, it had narrow shiny leaves that looked more like a palm. At least once a year, ocher-colored cones that hid bright orange-red seeds spike up from its base.seedcone

Although this coontie was a native plant, it was seldom found in the wild anymore. I knew that for thousands of years, the Native Americans here used the tuber of the plant as a starch, shaping it into cakes and breads. Today, the most likely place to find a living coontie was in a state or county park where it was used for landscaping. In such places, it also served as an iconic reminder of the truly special nature of our peninsular landscape.

The fact it still carries part of the name given it by the early Creeks, conti hateka, is a blessing all by itself. In this way, the coontie’s a semantical relic that still allows us to say words outloud that others used here long before us. Like the names of some of our rivers—Econlockhatchee, Wekiva, Loxahatchee-–the simple act of pronouncing the word itself can be, in the best of moments, evocative of our departed “earth people” who named them and of their deeply spiritual natural world.timucua

Beyond its iconic status, the coontie is pretty cool all by itself. Neither a palm nor a fern, it’s a cycad—one of those dinosaurs of the plant world that thrived in a distant time when plants were just coming to grips with this post-smoldering planet and its primeval canvas. It was a time when when nature still had the time to experiment. No population explosion, no nuclear bombs, no global warming, and certainly no shifty-eyed little mammals coming down from the trees to screw it all up. Just the pure tabula rosa of the new earth and all of its possibilities. A good time to try out the coontie. If that works, maybe give the turtle and then the alligator a go. For a nice chuckle, toss in a bowfin or two.

Bowfin

Bowfin

Funny thing is, these guys never really evolved with the rest of their counterparts from the Jurassic. Nor did they become extinct. Turned out, they did just fine by remaining faithfully prehistoric. (Which I’m sure is a quality many of the old Florida Crackers would appreciate)

When I moved from my old country home to the edge of the historic district in Sanford, I took along a lot of that coontie with me. And I brought a clay pot with another I had grown from a seed, a plant that was now becoming bonsai-like by its years in the pot.gatorlog

Ray Willis, a good, solid fellow who is the archaeologist for the Ocala National Forest, brought me by a truck load of coonties the other day. Ray, who grew up on the Panhandle before going to UF to get his doctorate, lives in Umatilla and works in the forest nearby. The bed of Ray’s pickup was full of cooties he had culled from his patch back home—little ones with whole tubers, and larger ones with the tubers sliced in half. Coonties take a long time to germinate, and it takes a patient, patient man to grow a coontie—one who appreciates the way the thinest of lines from the past still hook onto the present. Ray unloaded the coonties in the side yard, and covered them with sabal palm fronds to protect them from the light. He did it so gently and with such great care that it seemed as if he were tucking his children into bed.native_coontie

I was both thankful and excited by the little prehistoric native plants, figuring all the ways I could spread them around my own landscape. They fit easily into the fenced backyard, where everything was going natural anyway. In the front, it gave me great pleasure to rip up two narrow avenues of St. Augustine grass around my sidewalk, and to plant the coonties there instead. I also gave two plants to a neighbor, one to a friend, and a pot of fat coontie seeds to a very with-it lady who wants to start a nursery on her land.

As I did, I thought of all the Native Americans—-the Taino and the Timucua, the Creek and Seminole—who had relied on this fern-palm for sustenance for so long, a gift that was so vital to them that they named gods after it. I wondered vaguely if the conti hatekas that surrounded me now were more than icons, wondered if they might approach totemic level, like the great spirits that once were carved from pine and posted on middens along the mighty St. Johns River, homages to owls and otters, and other protective scouts from the nether worlds.timucaujpg

If, like physical energy, this spiritual dynamic isn’t created or destroyed, perhaps it can still be found in the coontie’s tubers and inside the seeds of its cones. Maybe it’s encoded within the genetic memory that rests inside the heart of the plant itself.

And if this code could be cracked, what would it tell us about the people who lived here before us for thousands of years—what stories would it reveal that help us understand how they saw the earth and the universe unfolding around them ?

I’m guessing this wisdom would be far more than a historic souvenir, and its use far more than that of a natural heirloom. If we’re lucky, we might even figure out how to let those old native gods know that modern engineering and cold-hearted manipulation of our landscape hasn’t worked for us. And that, just maybe, some of us are ready again to trust in Their everlasting natural power to sustain us.

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Responses

  1. great post!

    http://www.100steps.wordpress.com

    • Thanks much! – bb

  2. Great post. Coonties are one of my favorite native Florida plants. They seem plentiful in Ormond Beach. I have seen them all over Florida, but Ormond seems to have a high density. Occasionally you may see some out on the spoil islands in Mosquito Lagoon.

    http://www.pucpuggy.wordpress.com

  3. Thank god some bloggers can still write. My thanks for this post.

  4. All around good piece..

  5. Enjoyed your post very much. I’ve only recently become interested in Coonties and you really added to the beauty of this plant for me. Live in VIERA, FL.


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