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Posts Tagged ‘Florida’

Florida, As It Used to Be

I don’t think there are many places in America where people have had a greater impact on the overall environment than in the state of Florida. The Everglades, that swampy “river of grass” that once extended from Lake Okeechobee to the Florida Bay, has been interrupted by highways and sugar plantations. The big lake itself has been modified and contained by numerous dikes and canals. Shorelines have been overdeveloped, beaches have been artificially expanded, natural waterways have been dredged and deepened, invasive plant species run rampant all over, and great tracts of open land has been clear-cut, raised, and built upon. I won’t even go into the paved monstrosity known as Greater Orlando ….

Gulf Coast As It WasNot to be forgotten are the changes to Florida’s gulf coast. When Hernando De Soto explored Florida in the mid-1500’s, the gulf coast was lined with subtropical estuaries, tangled masses of native plants rarely seen any more. Palmettos, saltmarsh pines, and mangroves formed a natural wall dividing narrow beaches from the interior. Manatees plied the waters and great flocks of migratory birds filled the skies. In the time before European exploration, I suspect Florida was an immense botanical and biological wonderland, filled with thousands of species of plants and hundreds of species of animals, the Amazon Basin of North America. It must have been wonderful.

After the colonization of America, the peninsula of Florida was ignored by all settlers, Spanish, French, English, or whomever, for the longest time. It was deemed wholly inhospitable, and, to an extent, I’ll agree.  I stated earlier it must have been wonderful, but not for humans. For settlers, it must have been ghastly. All that slow-moving water plus all that humidity plus all that biological diversity meant insects and disease. To make matters worse, the best arable land is in the interior, away from the cooling ocean breezes and ease of nautical transportation. So, if you wanted to actually eek out a living in the Sunshine State back then, you needed to tolerate an awful lot of misery and hardship. So the peninsula was mostly ignored by most settlers for a couple hundred years

Then, along the way, something changed. Something drastically changed.

Mangroves and the Bay

De Soto National Memorial, situated in Tampa Bay at the mouth of the Manatee River, is a tiny little spot of Old Florida.  The shoreline area is chock full of mangroves and other species of trees, shrubs & plants. Spanish moss clings to live oaks, gumbo trees surround the visitor’s center, and birds nibble on wax myrtle berries. Even the beaches are different, they are rocky and covered in shells, not artificially enhanced with truckloads of fine sand like most Florida beaches. It’s a postage-stamp facsimile of old Florida; a 26-acre oasis in the middle of an overpopulated, overdeveloped, overpaved land; a reminder of how the coastline used to look in the days before Henry Flagler and other 19th century industrialists developed the dual coasts of Florida’s peninsula.

PinkThat’s the sad thing about Florida. I lived in south Florida for a couple of years, and many things bothered me about that state. First is the overdevelopment. The flatness of the land has made development so easy. There are almost no natural boundaries to demarc things like in other parts of the country. Most of the rest of the eastern United States is interrupted with big rivers or mountains, these obstacles prevent most back-to-back development. Not Florida, there folks can build and build and build some more, uninterrupted. From a plane on approach to a southern Florida airport, you can see miles and miles of square grids divided by overwide roadways, each square packed solid with home after home after home. Whenever I fly over the state, I look below and just shake my head at the inanity of it all. The Lorax would weep.

All of this development has led to other problems, like a dropping water table. When I went to De Soto, the Manatee River was basically a dry river bed, something normally seen in west Texas, not Florida. Yes, there was a drought in the state at the time, but overpopulation stresses the water table in such a way as to make droughts more damaging to the environment. I suspect in ages past, before permanent settlement, Florida still had droughts, but the rivers still flowed with water. Now, a few months without rain and everything is dry. That’s one price of progress.

PloverThe sad thing is this, in my opinion (and this is based solely on my own personal observations), Floridians care less about the environment than any state population with the exception of Texas. They just don’t seem to care. They water their lawns constantly, even when hurricanes approach they don’t shut off their sprinklers. They plant grasses and non-native plants that either require lots of fertilization to thrive, or spread out and choke the marshes. They shamelessly drive big honkin’ SUVs everywhere. I swear there are more four-wheel-drive vehicles per capita in warm, flat Florida than in snowy, hilly Massachusetts (and don’t say “it’s for towing boats”, I doubt 1 in 10 are used for that). I know one Floridian who practically burst into tears when high gas prices meant he might have to downsize from his big Ford Expedition. And I’ve never seen a region so disinterested in saving electricity: you’ll see regional baseball fields brightly lit all hours of the night. The whole place is so brightly lit you don’t even need headlights. I’m surprised you can see any stars.

I’m sure I’m going to get slapped for this, but in a way, it’s good that the real estate market has crashed. Finally, after decades of pleading from environmentalists, the crush of development in Florida has ground to a halt, not through ethical concerns over what we are doing, but because it’s no longer profitable. It’s a shame that people have lost their livelihoods in this economic crisis, but the path we are going, the continued over-building of America’s best places is simply not sustainable.

Gumbo-Limbo Tree in Spring

[I don’t want to disparage the folks of Florida with this post. I do want to state that I did meet a lot of great people when I lived in Florida, and made some really good friends. I just think Floridians could take a little more care, that’s all. Pics on this post are mine and copyrighted thusly. See my other photos of De Soto National Memorial here.]

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Links:

De Soto National Memorial

Mangrove Action Project

Florida Coastal Strategies

Google map to De Soto

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[Note: the following post contains some mature language. Sorry, Mom.]

Tourists are People, Too

I spend an awful lot of time harping about tourist traps. I find them crowded, expensive, artificial, and uninteresting. I’m probably one of the 1% (or less) of Americans who’ve been to Disney World and didn’t like it. The best part of my trip to Disney was the people who went there with me. Spending quality time with good friends is always a good thing, but the park itself is overpriced and over-hyped. Thankfully, the guy who arranged the trip was an amateur Disney specialist: he picked the best time for us to go and we didn’t run into any noticeable crowds. We went on Space Mountain four times in 20 minutes!! Even I have to admit that was pretty cool ….

Public Domain Photo, University of South Florida

I spend an awful lot of time harping about tourists, too. So many of them are aggravating, pushy, disrespectful, and uninteresting. I’ve been to so many fascinating places in this country, and almost without fail, there will be some other tourist there who does nothing but bitch and whine about everything from the weather to the fact that you actually have to get off your fat ass and walk half a mile on a trail to see Devil’s Tower in its full glory. Generically, tourists piss me off, even when I’m one of them.

My friends tell me I’m too judgmental and intolerant. And yeah, by and large, they’re right. It’s part and parcel of being a socially dysfunctional hermit :P. But, as that great American philosopher, Popeye the Sailor, says: “I yam what I yam.” However, I’m going to shock all who know me: for this post on the old Spanish fort of Castillo de San Marcos, I thought I’d cut everyone some slack.

Public domain photo courtesy of the University of South FloridaCastillo de San Marcos is right on the waterfront in beautiful St. Augustine, Florida. St. Augustine is a great little city: clean, green, properly developed (meaning neither a dead city nor a frenzy of strip malls). The day I visited was a beautiful, clear day, and I was in a terrific mood. I was on my long, one-way drive from Palm Beach County, Florida, back to New England, beloved land of my birth. I had lived in Florida for over two years, and I just never fit in.

I met some great people and made some good friends but, generally, I was a terrible Floridian. I hate sunbathing (I’m a burner, not a tanner). I love walking outside during snowstorms (walking outdoors during wildfires just ain’t the same, regardless of what the brochures say). I’m not a graceful Rollerblader (I once wiped out on top of a fire ant nest, not pleasant). And I just can’t waste my entire paycheck on a boat, even on the “p*ssy boat” a buddy of mine wanted to co-buy. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all in favor of attracting p*ssy, but two cans of malt liquor and some Dairy Queen is a lot cheaper than an 18-foot cigarette boat.

So let’s swoop back from female anatomy to Castillo de San Marcos. I was on this long, 24+ hour drive from Palm Beach back to my home state of Massachusetts, back to be with all those special folks I left behind in the first place, and knew I’d need a lot of breaks. Fortunately, there are lots of NPS sites on the path, including San Marcos. I swung in to St. Augustine for my visit.

Public domain photo courtesy of the University of South Florida

I was very impressed. Not only is the fort well-preserved and interesting (I find the evolution of warfare to be extremely fascinating), but it blends in wonderfully with the city itself. I’ve been to so many NPS sites that are simply “there” as far as the locale goes. They’re usually off the beaten path, away from the city hub, not integrated at all with the social scene, basically forgotten by the populace. The great thing about San Marcos is it’s right there, downtown, within site of the beaches and next door to some great bars & restaurants.

To top it all off, the city itself is clean, well maintained, upscale, and nice to visit. But it’s not incredibly snobbish either, all the folks are really friendly, even the normally-annoying tourists. I found a nice pub nearby, had a good lunch & a brew, a quick chat with some locals, and headed back to the highway. Even I, the Uncultured Yankee Cynic, can’t find a single, negative thing to say about either Castillo de San Marcos specifically or St. Augustine in general.

Yes, I was truly in a good mood that day.

Public domain photo from the University of Central Florida

[Sadly, I didn’t own a digital camera when I visited Castillo de San Marcos. Public-domain photos courtesy of the University of South Florida. They have a neat little site with photos and brief descriptions of the defense measures of the fort. See link list below.]

Links:

Castillo de San Marcos National Monument

University of South Florida Castillo de San Marcos Site

Find Your Own P-Boat

Google map to Castillo de San Marcos

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Egret -- Public domain photo courtesy of Kennedy Space CenterSea Turtles, Sure, They’re Cool, but This is NASA!!!!

The National Park Service is all about protecting the nation’s wildlife and natural wonders. On the Atlantic coast of Florida, they control the beautiful Canaveral National Seashore, refuge to sea turtles, manatees, and various wading birds.

Yeah, whatever. Nearby is the Kennedy Space Center!! W00t w00t!!!

America has two points of ultimate coolness. One is our music (yep, we created blues & jazz & rock & hip-hop, uh-huh, uh-huh, take that, Europe, with your Beethoven & accordions & flugelhorns!!). The other is our space program.

Say what you will about NASA. Maybe they’re a team of brilliant, talented scientists who explore our tiny little corner of the universe, or maybe they’re a big financial suckhole draining our coffers & gobbling up taxes. Either way, it doesn’t matter, for their shit is cool!  KSC has a lots of coolness to see: old Saturn V rockets, various landers, and all sorts of videos & stuff. Simply being there in the shadow of Launch Pads 39A & B, where they launch the Shuttle at somewhat regular intervals, is awesome in and of itself.

I lived in south Florida for a couple of years, and saw several shuttle launches. Never made it to the actual visitor viewing at KSC itself (if they even still do such a thing in a post-9/11 world), but saw it from the pier at Cocoa Beach (cocktail in hand), and also saw a night launch from the backyard of a friend in Stuart (also cocktail in hand, imagine that). Both have great features: seeing it from the beach gives you the full view of the plumes, seeing it at night awes you as the horizon fills with the orange glow of burning hydrogen. Seeing a shuttle launch ranks as a “must do for all Americans” in my book, but act fast, the shuttle isn’t gonna be around forever.

Pad 39A -- Public domain photo courtesy of Kennedy Space Center

The neatest display at the Kennedy Space Center is a setup of the original consoles used for mission control during the original Apollo missions. It’s rows and rows of old CRTs, vacuum-tube computer banks, craptastic speakers and clunky microphones. My color printer has more silicon brains than the lot of it, but, amazingly, it got people not only into space but all the way to the moon and back! Ya look at those lame pieces of shite, and you just marvel at the feats those guys were able to pull off.

Today, people worldwide are using high-powered cellphones to surf LOLCats!. Boy, are we pathetic, or what??

NASA’s still doing lots of stuff. They’re doing a lot of global warming research, have a lot of satellites in play, have launched various probes that are still transmitting data back to Earth, and are working on a lot of other projects. Sure, things like a manned Mars mission don’t seem possible, or practical, or useful, but I like the notion of an agency devoted to nothing more than pure research into the cosmos, the stuff of which we all are made (if you believe in such things).

Anyway, my vote is go Nasa!

Shuttle Endeavour Liftoff -- Public domain photo courtesy of Kennedy Space Center

[Sadly, I didn’t own a digital camera when I visited Cape Canaveral, nor for all those shuttle launches.  All pics are public domain courtesy of the Kennedy Space Center].

Links:

Canaveral National Seashore

Visiting Kennedy Space Center

KSC Media Gallery

Do We Really Need NASA?

Google map to Cape Canaveral

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