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Farewell to Florida

Tuesday, 31 Dec 2002
written by Teresa

As we left Everglades National Park and started our journey north we began to see billboards advertising anything from eco-tours to alligator wrestling. One establishment attempted to persuade us to stop with promises of "Free Children Under Six". We did hesitate for a moment but given we've decided we don't want children there seemed little point in stopping for a half grown one.

On the edge of the Glades are areas of intense horticulture concentrating on crops of tomatoes, peppers, courgettes and aubergines. Not an inch of land is wasted and the fields have a look of military order brought to them by the hundreds of immigrant and black workers who toil, bent backed, for money in hand. There are definitely easier ways to earn a living and this is a far cry from the romantic view of bringing in the harvest, more Steinbeck than Thomas Hardy. The small towns in these areas are clearly poverty stricken with decrepit buildings, poor housing, numerous second hand and pawnshops and local "supermarkets" with no national "chains" in sight.

A commercial orange grove Stray oranges lying in the middle of crossroads is a fairly common sight in central Florida. They have invariably fallen off one of the many open top lorries carrying the fruit to the packing or juicing plants. The orange groves stretch for miles and to an eye raised in a cool maritime climate the sight of these fruit laden trees is something of a pleasure. However it reminds me of an atrocious Del Monte advert on British television, probably about twenty five years ago, in which the "Man from Del Monte" arrives at an orange grove dressed in white suit and Panama and proceeds to decide whether the fruit is ready to pick. The locals, looking suitably obsequious, stand around with bated breath until the cry goes up: "The man from Del Monte, he say YESSS!" at which point the locals throw their hats in the air and the oranges jump up and down on the trees. As you can tell, my view is somewhat tainted but looking at the size of the groves; I suspect that the multi-nationals are still at play.

Travelling north into the orange groves also brings us into the land of retirement communities and semi-permanent RV parks. There are numerous roadside billboards advertising "Safe Gated Communities". The exact nature of the threat is unspecified - maybe alligators, mosquitoes or locals, but the effect is a clear separation and the lines of differentiation seem to be age, wealth and colour.

Sebring, in central Florida, is wealthy and predominantly white with a cutesy town circle rather than the traditional square. At this time of year it is decorated with more light bulbs than I've had hot dinners and although it looks suspiciously like a large roundabout the driving etiquette is something else entirely. Traffic on the circle gives way to anything entering and this confused me somewhat initially. I had images of havoc breaking out, if a contingent of car driving English were to visit the town.

One cypress Just outside the town is Highlands Hammock State Park, offering a glimpse into Florida's past. Entering the park, the dense vegetation closes in and the light level falls. The overhead canopy is comprised of ancient broad leaf trees surrounded by palms and Cypress. The forest floor is dense with palmettos, ferns and saplings.

Much of the land is covered by dark, tannin coloured water mirroring the overhead world and creating a magic, sound absorbing swamp where the silence is occasionally broken by the insistent tapping of woodpeckers or their piercing territorial calls. The Cypress trees with their buttresses and surrounding "knees" stand incredibly tall and straight in this soggy ground, their trunks brushed by lower level vegetation. In places, the slow inexorable flow of water is just evident while elsewhere the surface is unbroken by movement. Wooden walkways allow passage through this land that time has forgotten and into a world dominated by the fecund growth.

Sterling at the Thousand Year Old Oak The slightly higher ground of the hammocks support jungle, complete with lianas. Ancient oaks covered in mosses, air plants and bromeliads dominate the canopy. The mid level is full of wild orange and grapefruit trees interspersed with palms and upward thrusting palmettos. Thick coverings of ferns carpet the ground and the odd scooped out orange is evident amidst the debris. The oranges look inviting but on a previous visit we peeled and attempted to eat one. Believe me, the fruit we buy in the shop bears little if any resemblance to it's wild cousins and is to be given a wide birth unless it comes in the guise of a milk shake sold at the park concession.

Our last night in Florida was spent at Manatee Springs State Park. On the banks of the Suwannee River, the park has a natural spring rising up from the limestone bedrock. The area of the spring itself is filled with crystal clear water and the flow has cut a channel about a quarter of a mile long, known as the Spring Run, to join the colder fast moving waters of the great river. West Indian Manatees live in the river and in the winter months come to the mouth of the run and sometimes up into it, drawn by the warmer waters of the spring that are at a constant temperature of seventy-two degrees. Manatees are huge beasts known colloquially as sea cows and related to elephants. They can grow up to thirteen feet in length and reach weights of three thousand pounds. They graze the weed growing on the riverbed and are so docile that it is safe to swim with them. Their noses are a little reminiscent of sea lions but have a prehensile quality not unlike a trunk. For me, their most amazing feature is the broad flat circular tail with which they propel themselves forward in a languorous manner. As we watched the waters of the river, the tell tale circular footprints and attendant bubbles of manatees on the move could be seen approaching the mouth of the run. Before long there was a group, with young in their midst, feeding in the shallow waters. In spite of their size these peaceful animals are in danger from the propellers of fast moving boats travelling the river and few of them are without the scars of encounter.

We have left Florida for now. Sterling needs to be in Denver for a meeting in a couple of weeks and I'm writing these last reflections from Alabama as we start heading west. The thought of the mountains and snow is exciting after the flatness and heat of the last month and of course there's always the pull of the Hot Springs at Glenwood.

This last year has been traumatic, joyful and life changing. It has brought us to a way of life that we had only dreamed of and one that hopefully will take us through the year ahead and to destinations not yet known.

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