Forty-one years ago next month, my first wife and I moved to Gainesville where my first son was born. My position as Assistant Director of the TBA Division of the Florida Farm Bureau provided introduction to the close knit, warm and friendly lifestyle of the agricultural community in Florida. Many a noon found me at a huge kitchen table enjoying an enormous “dinner” with family, farmhands, and spur-of-the-moment guests like me. Southern hospitality was introduced to me first hand by wonderful, down-to-earth, unassuming people.
I frequently observed at the time that I would never consider living south of Ocala. There were just too many Northerners polluting the human environment. Their crass, abrasive mannerisms and their haughty demeanor were offensive. That ultimatum did not last long at all. I soon found myself mired in a South Florida environment that seemed to be the worst of all worlds. The average person would prefer not to see a Rembrandt at all rather than see one defaced by some vain and heartless boor who thought it would look better touched up with neon red and yellow stripes.
It took little time to succumb to the influence of apparently wealthy, successful, motivated “business people” from the New York metropolitan area. They seemed to have the world on a string – complete control of their destinies. Their lives appeared to be akin to walking through a green market and picking the best ears of corn, the reddest tomatoes, the ripest cantaloupe, and the freshest watermelon. I learned to ignore the fingered and bruised culls that they left behind for others. I coveted their success.
Before long, I convinced my family that we needed a piece of that pie and had to move back up north to make it happen. It took little time to discover the quality of life sacrifice that was made in pursuit of professional achievement and success. People laughed and ridiculed my slow pace, my casual speech patterns, and my friendly demeanor. They expected me to be “chewed up and spit out” and did not hesitate to say so. My effort to achieve success became little more than crude attempts to become the individual I loathed most, the person who would walk/climb/run over anyone who stood in his path. Prosperity comes with a hefty price tag, especially in the New York metropolitan area. While the mistake was immediately apparent, it took almost 15 years to rectify it.
Over the past 25 years many people have observed that, “Florida is not for me. I’ve got to get out of this place.” Their disillusionment typically emanates from a perceived failure to achieve the level of success they anticipated. Their frustration and discouragement is easy to comprehend. People rarely find a pot of gold at the end of a Florida rainbow unless that gold is measured in quality of life terms. Sunshine, balmy weather, oceans, rivers, lakes, and all that goes with them must be the focal point.
Our history dates back to the mid-1800’s with only a few significant events preceding that time, unlike the rich and glorified history of other parts of our country. With few notable exceptions (Clyde Butcher, the Highwaymen, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, Ray Charles), Florida was passed over when artistic and literary talent was handed out. There are precious few industrial or commercial businesses of size with Florida histories dating back more than 2 or 3 decades. Our society is superficial and tends toward overbearing. The “bluebloods” who have found this state rarely stay here for more than a few weeks at a time.
Just the same, people flock to Florida from all over the world with an unpleasant effect. A man from Brooklyn once visited Vermont. Smitten with the pristine beauty of mountains and meadows, forests and wildflowers, rivers and lakes, he purchased a ¼ acre of property and built a modest home. Situated down an unpaved country lane with beautiful vistas spreading out from picture windows, the setting was idyllic. Naturally swelling with the pride of his good fortune and anxious to tell others of his accomplishment, he invited friends and relatives to visit and share in his happiness.
When those same friends and relatives purchased ¼ acre lots next to his and built their “dream homes” next to his, the natural beauty was destroyed. The path was widened and paved. Then, the road was dug up once to install sewers and again to install underground utilities, leaving behind a sea of potholes and patches. The quaint general store with gas pumps gave way to a Wal-Mart Super Store, and the gas pumps were replaced with a Shell mega-station, owned by corporate entities located thousands of miles away and managed by transplants with little knowledge of the community. Bright yellow and red paint glistens in the harsh luminescence of 1,000 watt mercury vapor lights. It’s no different than that person passing through the green market: “Hooray with me and to hell with you!”
The coast of Florida is becoming one long megalopolis that stretches from the Keys to Pensacola on the west and the Keys to Jacksonville on the east side. A web of interstates and high speed secondary roads crisscrosses the state, enabling travelers to reach their destinations without the time-consuming interference resulting from glances out the side windows of their vehicles. The worst attributes of other parts of the country have found their way into Florida with the impact of a horde of grasshoppers.
The State of Florida, through the various water management districts has been working to eradicate exotic, invasive vegetation like Brazilian Pepper and Melaleuca, and reptiles like the Burmese Python. Only over the past 10-15 years have Florida counties and cities begun to curb the spread of urban blight through creation of regional planning councils, comprehensive master plans, and tougher zoning. Sadly, efforts to protect and preserve are being thwarted by economic issues that must also be addressed.
The first person to sound the alarm about exotic vegetation or non-indigenous reptiles was probably greeted with ennui. Other pressing issues we faced had to take precedence over bushes/trees/snakes, but environmentalists eventually prevailed. The time is now upon us to protect and preserve what remains of our unique state, but it must be undertaken in a manner that is consistent with our history, not the wishes of “Johnny-come-lately’s” and “NIMBY’s (Not In My Back Yard)” who seek to manipulate environmental standards for their own benefit.
Only those who remember the past can effectively reestablish it.