2016 Travels:  Post #3


September 19th

Re:  Old Florida / New Florida

Dear  Friends,

 We've camped in the middle Keys (near Marathon and the 7-mile Bridge)  for nearly a month now and have much to share. All travel is really two journeys.  One is external—the sights and new experiences. The other is the inner journey—new perspectives, entering a different world.  There’s a bit of both here.

To keep it brief, we use some tricks of the digital age. This blog is complete as you see it, but it contains links (technically hyperlinks) that allow you to “click” on a picture, word, or phrase and open a new screen with more details.  Some photos link to slide shows. Words that are underlined let you digress and read more.  The headings let you quickly scan to the parts that most interest you—and skip those that don’t.

 We greatly enjoy your comments and hearing what’s up where you are, so don’t hesitate to reply if you have the impulse.


~ Richmond & Marguerite

The Everglades – Old Florida

Thanks to the generous hospitality of the Spottswood family, we were guests for a weekend in the Everglades at their place called the Cracker Bone Ranch in rural Felda, FL.  Cristy Spottswood is our son Mark’s beloved, and Cristy’s parents Jack and Terri showed us an aspect of Florida that most tourists miss.  Felda is a 5-hour drive from Key West, well into the mainland of South Florida, midway between Ft. Meyers and Lake Okeechobee. It’s little more than a crossroads with a gas station and a fire house.

The Everglades (or Pay-hay-okee) are a natural region of tropical wetlands covering the bottom third of FL, the southern half of a huge watershed.  The land is flat, and low areas are freshwater wetland swamp. Where the land is elevated a foot or two, pond Cypress, palmetto, oak, swamp cabbage, and other tropical plants abound.  Jack is successfully cross-breeding a small herd of “ Cracker” cattle (descendants of the cattle the Spanish brought to America) with miniature white-faced Herefords despite the presence  of predators like panthers, coyotes, and black bear that have been here since before Europeans “settled” South Florida. 

Video of Cristy feeding RR

We also meet Robert Redford, a darling calf whose mother rejected him. He was rescued by Cristy and Terri’s enthusiasm to bottle feed him (and Jack’s forbearance in having another “pet” besides their Jack Russell terriers).

The wetlands are only a few inches deep most places. Jack took us on sunset buggy rides to see the Florida that he’s known and loved since childhood. Our "buggy" was not something drawn by a horse or mule; the swamp buggy is a metal platform with a railing and  bucket seats about 6-feet above the ground. Under the platform are four enormous tractor wheels all powered by a powerful tractor engine. It pulls itself across boggy, wet patches and lumbers up onto the dry land at a stately speed of three to seven miles per hour.

Photo Gallery

Jack and a neighbor have cleared a circuit through about 1,000 leased acres of wild pasture and swamp where their cattle graze freely.  No hunting is allowed there. At high points, spotted along the way, they’ve set up corn feeders—tall, metal tripods with a corn-filled barrel suspended underneath.  A small solar panel and a battery run an electric motor and a timer that  scatters corn shortly after dawn and again just before sunset.  This twice-daily treat draws the cattle, wild boar, Black bear, wild turkeys, and white tailed deer.  We get to see them all from the safety of our perch on the swamp buggy—as well as glorious sunsets, rare Sand Hill cranes, and the white egrets (sometimes called cowbirds) that live symbiotically with the cattle.

From our elevated buggy seats, we were treated to the panorama of unspoiled wilderness that is typical of what Florida was before dredging and draining created the present-day enclaves of sun-seekers and industrial agriculture (sugar cane, vegetables, and citrus).

The Everglades water appears stagnant, but actually it flows slowly as a great sheet across the land. It’s purified by the plant life except where chemical runoff from cane fields and other agriculture overwhelm nature’s processes. The land, including this ranch we’re privileged to visit, is the source of fresh water for Miami and all of South Florida, as well as the Florida  Keys.

Water, water everywhere but . . .

We can’t but wonder how the Everglades can survive.  Development has encroached on the Everglades for more than a century. The immediate threat is principally the interruption of the flow of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee and agricultural run-off pollution.  Rising sea level due to global climate change is emerging as a future threat. The December 21-28  issue of the New Yorker featured an article describing Miami’s battle with rising seas. Shifting sea currents cause sea water to pile up against the Miami coast to the extent that high tides cause salt water to percolate up out of the ground in low-lying areas. It's not effective to pump this sea water since it flows back in through the sandy soil until the tide recedes. Long range predictions warn that sea level rise will eventually inundate much of South Florida. The question is no longer “if” but “when?”—and “how deep?”

Compounding the existing fresh water issues, in a stealth move, the energy industry is trying to get a bill through the Florida legislature that will block local government’s ability to prevent fracking.  If this sounds familiar, it is because it’s exactly what happened in Pennsylvania a decade ago with Act 13 and why we and our Pennswood friends are fighting fracking now.  The Florida peninsula is mostly porous limestone, with extensive systems of underwater caves, sinkholes and springs that supply most of the fresh water in the state. 

Each fracked well requires millions of gallons of fresh water that, once mixed with dozens of toxic fracking chemicals, becomes unusable forever.  This creates the additional problem of what to do with the fracking waste-water.  Fracking also pollutes the air with leakage and deliberate blow down of methane and other hydrocarbons to reduce pressure on the well head, plus routine venting for maintenance, flaring of unwanted volatile organics and intentional releases on high volume gas pipelines. Air pollution is so much the norm that the industry only documents methane pollution when it contaminates ground water.  We know now that all fracked wells can be expected to leak eventually.  Futurists predict widespread shortages of potable water due to industrial pollution and climate change. Could that be why global corporations press for privatization and buy up water utilities?

Water Worries at Home ...

When we returned to our RV one evening last week there was a note wedged in the door jamb. It cautioned us to boil our water until further notice.  It seems a back hoe broke the park's water main and, though repairs has been made, tests were required to verify that contamination had not seeped in. All public water systems can have small leaks that pose no immediate problem so long as the mains are kept under pressure, but gravity can drive contaminated water into un-pressurized pipes. We were spared the inconvenience of boiling, since our RV has a fresh water tank, and we are thus able to chlorinate and filter our water.

That experience, plus headlines about Flint, Michigan, certainly brought our dependence on water to the fore. Contrary to our un-examined beliefs and moral expectations, water is not an inherent right -- it’s a business commodity to be bought and sold. Human error, cost cutting, negligence, and willful guile can leave us dry or buying bottled water at prices that exceed milk and gasoline.  As someone sagely observed, “We can find other sources of energy, but we can’t live without water.”

A century ago people collected rainwater in cisterns here in the Keys.  There is no fresh well water. Today the cisterns are gone, and people depend on a single water main (above left) that follows US1 down from the mainland.

In the middle Keys a deep quarry now called the blue hole was created during construction of the Flagler railroad. It retains rainwater and is the only sizable fresh water pond.  Over the years it has attracted an isolated and unique local ecosystem. Key Deer are concentrated around it along with other fresh water dependent wildlife. Migratory birds rest there.

Key West - Bunking at Our Son's Digs

Sunshine Key RV Park has many great features—beautiful landscaping, abundant wildlife (pelicans, manatees, butterflies, and birds), a marina and store, a location near Bahia Honda State Park and Marathon, but it’s clear that this lovely property isn’t being maintained.  Interior roads flood after it rains, the sewer system backs up, the water main broke, Internet service is chancy, and the laundry was out of commission for a week for plumbing repairs. 

Luckily we had a Plan B:  our son’s house in Key West!  Mark’s place has a full sized washer and dryer, reliable, fast internet, and a clean shower.  We’re like college-kids coming home for break, bringing our big bag of laundry and a smile!  He’s also two blocks off Duval Street, so it’s a great location for our Sunday ritual of Quaker Meeting, a movie at the Tropic, a live concert at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and dinner with Mark and Cristy.

The Big Short

Much as we are enjoying the attractions of the Middle Keys, we do love to hang out in Key West. The Tropic Cinema screens great movies, both classic and current. Here in “paradise” we are on vacation, and we make time for films and live performances. The first we saw was The Big Short that shows how Wall Street failed to see the collapse of the housing bubble in 2007 and the far-reaching consequences. Marguerite and I highly recommend it as intense drama and education.  The events it depicts wiped out an estimated six trillion dollars of personal wealth, still more if you tally the collateral damage extending to future years. The average homeowner lost 33% and hundreds of thousands lost their homes. All of our pension funds and investment portfolios suffered. The only winners were the big banks (who got bailed out with taxpayer money) and the cynics like the film's central characters who recognized the collective blindness and bet accordingly.  We see a similar willful blindness in the oil/gas industry. (Read more here.)

The unexpected charms of the Middle Keys

This was our first opportunity to stay in the Middle Keys. We were joined enthusiastically by Cape May friends Jim & Gail for two weeks; together we explored the many wildlife sanctuaries and preserves.  Marathon offers easy access to Crane Point, a wild bird rescue facility, as well as  walking trails, a small museum, and an early 1900’s FL dwelling (a type of stucco with a palmetto leaf roof).  The Turtle Hospital  rescues, rehabilitates, and, when possible, releases turtles, protects nests of baby turtles and surgically removes fish hooks and plastic bags from the intestines of huge Leatherback turtles.  Bahia-Honda State Park , one of the most beautiful beaches in America is nearby, with opportunities for walking, swimming, kayaking, and sunset-watching.  We learned new respect for the humble mangroves behind our rig as we learned that they are what hold the soil, create the Keys, and act as the protected nursery for the ocean’s chain of life.  

 Gail is an awesome nature photographer, and Jim magically produces gourmet meals in his rig’s tiny stove and oven.  We all savor the abundance of fresh fish and local produce.

Adult GRANDchildren!

Our “kids” (Mark, Laura, and Adam) are in their forties, and our eldest grandchildren, Connor & Caleb, are turning twenty.  Our youngest are teens:  Sawyer turns 15 this month, and his younger brother Jennings turns 13 in July.  This shouldn’t startle us, but it does!  Concern for them fuels our interest in what’s happening in the world at large and in American politics.  Many of you read Richmond’s letter to our grandchildren with our last blog issue.

They will mature in a chaotic world of social change that we are only now glimpsing.  Pessimists see it as an environmental Armageddon. Fanatics see it as the End of Days.  Episcopal Bishop Spong sees it as a new Reformation. The Royal Society for the Arts (RSA) sees it as The 21st Century Enlightenment. Futurists like Joanna Macy and David Korton see it as “the great turning.” One thing is sure, we live in interesting times—and the choice for creating the future we see is ours.

Next:  Vero Beach/ Ft. Pierce sojourn