A guest blog entry by Brian Baxter (student, writer, world citizen)
My grandfather had a porch, a deep, screened-door affair with rocking chairs and planters made from antique, cast-iron sewing machines. The floor paint lay softened by the heat and humidity of each Florida afternoon it endured. This porch was part of old Florida. Something from before the condos which replaced the orange groves and before the canals would seem as if they’d always been there. He built many of the canals, working the dredges which drove away so many of the water moccasins and cotton mouths. An American St Patrick, pushing back nature or opening her up.
I sat and listened to that slow southern drawl slip from his lips and watched the fading blue of his eyes through his coke-bottle lenses light the toothless grin behind those lips. Every moment, every word, caught in the spaces of my childhood. Stories about a Florida which is no more and soon no more will remember that there ever was such a Florida.
Yet it exists, beneath the parking lots, condos, and golf courses— the old Florida still exists.
Given a few years of human absence, the water would leech through most of the foundations and sink holes which would swallow the busy work of Florida’s fire ants: homes, roads, and yards. Eventually the land could recover some of its former self, but the reality is that we would never let that happen.
My grandfather spent his life in a generation driven by subduing the earth and reaping a benefit from it. He lived on the land, lived from the land, and helped shape the land to fit the needs of his world. There is something to be said for having the fortitude to wade through water populated by alligators and poisonous snakes. My grandfather’s been gone for nearly twenty years, but the mostly empty canals are still there.
Mostly closed now.
The lake two blocks from his home, where my grandfather and I would wade through grass and cane taller than a man to get to the marshy edges, is neatly mown and exposed fully to each sunny Florida afternoon, steaming away slowly the fewer and fewer fish living in waters gators can no longer abide. The sound of birds resides mostly in my memory. The sweltering humidity even seems to have abandoned the sandy soil and the wet-earth smell of Florida is as noticeably absent as is the Spanish moss which used to cover every surface to which it could cling, aging even the newest structures in a silent battle to allow old Florida to express itself.
Even the Florida he created is passing away in silence.
Quite often, I think about my grandfather. He was a storyteller of the old school. He told tales, and tall or short, they always led to more tales. He had stories which spanned the reach of seventy years and knitted the present with a time and place forgotten before he was my age. He could reach out and make strangers laugh, he could be as hard and unbending as the Florida sun on a snow bird’s back, and he could read his listener far better than he could read a newspaper. When I was a child I didn’t understand the use of whitespace, a pause or a gap, a place where the stream widens out. The crafty old bastard used that tool over and over telling the same tales and noting the changes in his audience each time with observation skills he honed in the woods, in the water, and in the open sun every day of his working life.
I’m not old Florida myself, but I can still hear and feel her in the sights and sounds ingrained into the spaces of my childhood, worn smooth and comfortable by the passing of sun-warmed memories and the sun-bleached days which have turned into unaffordable housing developments. The winds in the cypress do tell a story of sorts, though I am sure few of us listen to the remaining storytellers anymore.
Maybe that’s the lesson though.
With the tale told so many times, it’s the absence of a reaction which tells us the next tale. I still love to sit on a Florida lake, low though it is, and fish for the largemouth bass which evaded me on those long-past fishing trips with my grandfather, but I steer clear of the fire ants which are strictly new Florida.