Posted by: floridanature | April 6, 2009

Doe Lake: Sorting the Real from the Make Believe

Doe Lake is tucked away off a dirt road in the Ocala National Forest, surrounded by a hammock of live and water oaks. Its shore is green, crammed with native plants and soggy wet soils, and it sparkles in the late afternoon light, a sandy-bottom Florida lake as clear as they all once were, in another century. doelake

The old dining hall for WPA workers who helped clear roads through the Forest and build trails and offices and kiosks back in the 1930’s sits atop a bluff that slopes gradually down to the edge of the lake. There were barely 1.5 million people living in Florida then, and the interior was lonely and wild.

I park next to a row of big American pick-up trucks, and walk inside. There’s already 150 people here, spread out under the rich hardwood or outside around the edge of the lake itself. We’re here for a celebration, one intended to bring attention to a little cabin once used by the family of the great naturalist Archie Carr for three generations. The cabin, built of cypress and pine in 1938, was a backwoods refuge for the Carr family, a place where they could learn about the wonderful strangeness that distinguished natural Florida from all else.

Fla. Gov. Claude Kirk, Marjorie, Archie Carr

Fla. Gov. Claude Kirk, Marjorie, Archie Carr

The little cabin with its Cracker-style look and feel is symbolic of the ethics the Carrs embodied, ideals once learned and then shared with all who cared about the power of the natural world, and the animals that populated it. Its full utility is not easy to define; it’s a bit of Cross Creek, a bit of Aldo Leopold’s “shack”, a bit of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond.

Certainly, key ideas vital to understanding ecology and the singular nature of Florida were born here; but like all righteous ideas, they sometimes hide in the margins of our existence and are not always evident, until we really need them to be. All we know is that they urge us on when we walk a strange, dark trail at night, or paddle an unknown sliver of river that seeps through a rainforest, no real map and certainly no guide to show us the way. For me, life has come down to that, and as such, is clearly divided between those who move ahead with quiet and informed determination; and those who pretend they do.

woods around the cabin

woods around the cabin

The dress for this evening is “Florida casual”, and if we were at a country club somewhere, that would mean the “swells” would be tricked out in their L.L. Bean outdoor garb. But here, folks are honestly relaxed, t-shirts and camo and jeans. We line up cafeteria style for our dinners, and I heap piles of local flora and fauna on my plate, hearts-of-palms and venison and fried gator. We needed a hog to round it all out, and Dr. Ray Willis, the archaeologist for the Forest, went out and shot one, and the cooks roasted it. I grab a large glass of sweet iced tea, and sit at the table near the front, next to a good fellow from Umatilla who has fished and hunted most of his life. We talk about the St. Johns River, since he has loved fishing it, and I once wrote a book about it. We talk of gators, because, well, that’s what Florida folks usually do—sooner or later, they trade gator stories.

The idea behind this all is to raise money that will help restore the little Cracker cabin so that it becomes a functioning emotional symbol of a true Florida-born conservation ethic, one embodied by Archie and his wife, Marjorie Harris Carr, his father, Pastor A. F. Carr, and his five children. Dr. Tom Carr, Archie’s surviving brother, has donated the 46 acres of land and the cabin to the USFS in the hope its iconic value might provide a sort of beacon in the ever-darkening night of Florida’s post-industrial, self-absorbed world. To that ends, Bob Giguere and I have produced a short film about the cabin via our non-profit, Equinox, and when the time is right, we get up and screen it for everyone.

Bob Giguere shoots Ray Willis for our film

Bob Giguere shoots Ray Willis for our film

There is a sort of protocol for presentations, and we all file dutifully up to the lecturn to add a few words when needed. We are not showmen, so the coming and going is often clunky, but in an endearing and genuine sort of way. Two former UF students of Archie who have now earned worldwide reputations for their own work in conservation biology speak respectively, first Dr. Peter Pritchard and then Dr. Perrin Ross. Both are low key, funny, informed, eloquent. A few years ago, Peter was named as one of the “Heroes of the Earth” by Time magazine. Both he and Perrin tell of the inspiration gifted to them, a quality they continue to pass along to all of the rest of us students of the earth. Ray gets up and explains a bit about the plan to restore the cabin, and why. Rick Lint, the Ranger in charge for the Forest, introduces some of us, no fancy prelude, just a few meaningful words.

A woman next to me at the table leans over and whispers “This is like a movie”, and she is right because there is almost no pretense, no sign of acting, no individual promotion, just a bunch of guys who have all tried to do the right thing, and are doing it with their hearts. It is, if anything, a theater of true courage, and that sets it all dramatically apart from a mere just-pretend theater with music and narrative scripted and precisely managed. And do you know the old phrase—actions speak louder than words? Action is what the evening is really about, and not the choreography of charade, but the rich energy of an inner core infused by the light.dilaptedcabi

And I think again of philosopher Joseph Campbell and of his description of the “Hero’s Journey”; he reminds us that being brave or strong is not the most vital quality of this archetypical “hero.” Instead, it is sacrifice, which means “making holy.” All return to their starting point with elixirs, food, or knowledge to share with the community. If, on return, they seem ragged and humble, well, it matters little.

And, so this evening from another century becomes one of hyper-reality, a moment so rare that we can hardly find room for it in our imaginations, except to think that, just maybe, this might be a movie, one in which modest but righteous men prevail. And outside a cloud bank drifts away in the night sky and the lake becomes luminous under the moonlight, as if it has been perfectly cued to do so.



  1. Your essay seems to draw on those deep springs which feed the River, and in turn fuel journey that has unfolded through your writings. The Forest is a place of mystery and revelation, a place we enter to reengage with that which is lost in our post-industrial, self-absorbed world.” It has a way of stripping the layers and is both a haven and a place of danger. For those who enter with respect for its power and magic, the Forest’s gift is knowledge; the fool’s payoff is death.

    The reference to Campbell was particularly intriguing – what are the hero’s elixirs? His gifts borne of sacrifice? The naturalist seems to return with vital knowledge to reconnect us with our humanity lying dormant beneath those deadly layers of “civilization” you referenced (L.L. Bean as theatrical costumer – lol). But what of the artist? In “Hyacinth Drift,” Rawlings returns with self-knowledge which fuels her creative spirit. In this case, I believe, the artist herself/himself becomes the offering. In either case, the journey is a sacred one implying restoration of life for the community. Whether the hero is bearer or vessel, it matters not.

    Thank you for your writings – your offerings, particularly in this swirl of religious mythology and symbolism concurrent with the Easter / Passover season. Nature remains the enduring, tangible life force. Our community needs its guides to nurture our understanding.

  2. Hi Lydia
    Thanks for thoughtful comments. Yes, returning with exlixirs. Could be the potable evidence of another world===maybe the liquid proof that we are indeed ‘in solution’; on the water, immersed in it, comprised of it. And it quenches our thirst, in more ways than one. Might just help to know that it gives us clues, like it did for Marjorie Rawlings, learning navigation by following clues of those plants floating atop it.

    And yep, what about the artist? Have always looked at ‘Hyacint Drift’ chapter as a watershed (sorry) moment where the gut of nature finally preempted the intellect. Listening to the senses, instead of relying on someone else’s idea of a map.

    Got to figure it must always yeild self knowledge or some shard or two of wisdom, nothing big, maybe just a way of seeing that can be put beyond the actual journey. But what is the sacrifice ? A life risking moment? A loss of time back in the socialized world? Losing your place in the status=life que because of your dissappearance ?
    At the least, i’m guessing it must be growth, the gaining of new info that forces you out of old, safe templates and challenges you to acknowledge a different way of seeing. Wow, and what of that comfort of blissful unknowing that the traveler forever leaves behing ?
    AFGO: Another FXXing Growth Opportunity….

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