|The River Styx - February 2, 2018|
Florida has always been a big part of my life having vacationed here with my family when I was young. I spent my undergraduate college years at Florida Southern College, in Lakeland, if for no other reason than I was quickly growing tired of those cold and dreary Midwestern winters. It was in Florida where I met and married my wife of 43 years, a native Florida gal. I still have family and friends here. My father is buried here. And it was here in Gainesville where I began this blog almost a decade ago.
Many of us, including my younger self, think of Florida as a place of sun and fun, a place to escape to when life elsewhere in America has grown old and tiresome. Yet for some of the natives, Florida can become just as old and tiresome . . . just a place to be. My wife has felt this way having grown up here although nostalgia and thoughts of family and friends still here have tempered this a bit over the years. "Florida is a transient state in which too many rootless people dare nothing for the past nor this state’s future," writes Floridian novelist Randy Wayne White in Ten Thousand Island (2000). "Florida is a vacation destination or a retirement place, as temporary as time spent in a bus station . . . Like a bus station, Florida attracts con men and predators. It always has, Florida always will."
I am quite certain this is true. When you get right down to it, Florida is really no different from any other state. There will always be those who sing its praises while others disparage it every chance they get. Florida is certainly not the state I expected to find the first time I visited here in December 1962. There was a lot more to the place than the beaches and palm trees I had seen in photographs and on postcards. I have always enjoyed the beaches, but I am strongly drawn to the less visited hinterlands, especially the inland scrub of central North Florida. Ocala north to the Georgia border, along with the Panhandle, resembles southern Georgia more than it does peninsular Central and South Florida. To quote an old adage: "In Florida, the farther north you go, the farther south you are." And this is truer than one might think for North Florida still retains its strong Southern roots.
For over five decades I have been a regular visitor to Florida - mainly to the Gulf Coast where my family vacationed when I was young and where my parents retired in 1984. There were my three years of college in Lakeland (a year was also spent in Germany), and now there is my in-law’s home in Gainesville, the county seat of Alachua County in central North Florida about an hour and a half southwest of Jacksonville and two hours north of both Orlando and Tampa. For several years now Gainesville has been ranked high on the list of the best places to live in the USA. Driving across town one is struck by the large variety of trees; despite development the city has been careful to preserve its urban forest. I have always felt very much at home here. It feels like home away from home.
Alachua County today is somewhat of an anomaly, tending to be more liberal than the rest of North Florida due in large part to the presence of the University of Florida campus (the fifth largest in the USA in terms of enrollment) and the diversified community that supports it. There are world famous medical facilities. There is a thriving cultural scene in the area with several museums and performing arts venues. Gainesville is the home of the late Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Stephen Stills lived here as a boy, as did Don Felder and Bernie Leadon of The Eagles. They, along with Petty, all attended Gainesville High School. And one cannot overlook sports (GO GATORS!!) The University is by far the largest employer in the area and locals wear the Orange and Blue everywhere you go.
That said, Alachua County was not always this forward thinking. According to the county’s Historical Commission it was the site of at least 21 documented lynchings of African Americans between 1877 and 1950, including at least ten in Newberry, just a few miles west of Gainesville. In 2017, Alachua County announced plans to place markers at the sites of every extra-judicial killing in the county along with a memorial plaque in Gainesville listing all of the victims. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center there are still several Ku Klux Klan entities, as well as other white supremacist and separatist organizations, operating throughout Florida. How can we overlook the fact that a self-proclaimed white supremacist murdered 17 high school students and faculty in South Florida just a week ago? So Randy Wayne White was perhaps not too far off the mark with his views on modern Florida. It is still a very edgy state in so many ways, especially when one ventures into the rural interior.
I choose, however, not to dwell on all of this, but to celebrate this inland North Florida scrub land I have come to love over the years. This brings me back to my own "small place of enchantment" as Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1896-1953) called rural Alachua County southeast of Gainesville. Rawlings, a 20th century American author, moved south to Florida in 1928 and purchased a 70-acre farm and orange grove in Cross Creek where she lived until her death in 1953. There she wrote novels set in the Florida scrub, the most famous of these being The Yearling which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, in 1939.
It is to this little corner of Alachua County that I return to every time I come to Florida. A visit would not be complete without a trip to Cross Creek and the Florida scrub, roaming the back roads over by Cross Creek, Micanopy, Island Pond, and Hawthorne. The narrow country roads pass under canopies of live oak festooned with long gray beards of Spanish moss. This year, in the wake of last autumn’s Hurricane Irma and its torrential rainfalls, there is plenty of water in Cross Creek, connecting Orange and Lochloosa lakes, and in the River Styx which is only a few miles long and more a swampy creek than a formidable river. It connects Newnan's Lake with Orange Lake. This is not always the case and I have visited this area there was no water in them or in the lakes they connect. But this year there are white herons and egrets wading the sedgy sloughs looking for their next meal. An alligator was resting on the bank as if he had not a care in the world. This entire area is a high-quality bald cypress swamp forest surrounded by Southeastern conifer, sand pine scrub, saw and scrub palmetto and swamp tupelo . . . part of the extensive Ocala National Forest, the southernmost in the USA and one of the largest east of the Mississippi.
Again, I am reminded why I like to come back to this special part of Florida. Perhaps Miss Rawlings said it best when surveying her home and farm at Cross Creek. "It is necessary to leave the impersonal highway, to step inside the rusty gate and close it behind. One is now inside the orange grove, out of one world and in the mysterious heart of another. And after long years of spiritual homelessness, of nostalgia, here is that mystic loveliness of childhood again. Here is home."