“Ever since the days of old
Men would search for wealth untold.
They’d dig for silver, and for gold,
And leave the empty holes.
And way down south in The Everglades,
Where the black water rolls and the sawgrass waves,
the eagles fly and the otters play
In the land of The Seminole.”
John Anderson’s song ran through my head constantly as we traveled the roads outside of Ocala, Florida.
Off to our right, pastures of green. Grazing dairy cows, playful galloping horses. Ancient Live Oak trees spread their limbs and shade all below, adorned and festooned with Spanish Moss. Orange trees and Crepe Myrtle.
Bisecting the Ocala National forest, one can see what this land once looked like. Sand and pines, low-growing palms, the ground dotted with piles made by Gopher Tortoises, making their nests in the warm earth.
In the rear view mirror, “The Villages”. Vast, expansive new communities developing as quickly as houses can be built. Replete with shopping centers, medical arts buildings, recreation centers. Concrete and asphalt, steel and glass, power lines, signs, lights and traffic spewing forth clouds of carbon monoxide.
“Don’t they look so nice and new?” my companions cackle. I purse my lips and swallow hard and keep my thoughts to myself out of some misshapen sense of civility.
“Progress came, and took its toll,
And in the name of flood control
They made their plans and they drained the land.
Now the ‘glades are going dry.”
The River of Grass. The Everglades. The largest freshwater delta in the world. The porous limestone aquifer, barely a few feet above the level of the sea, filters water beneath the ground, and it spews forth by the billions of gallons. At Silver Springs State Park we see the inverted Niagara. A vent pouring out millions of gallons of crystal clear water. “The volume produced,” said Captain Christopher, piloting our silent, electric glass-bottom boat, “could fill four Olympic swimming pools per minute.” Water so pure you can see the ancient river bottom thirty feet below without distortion or darkness. A Gar passes beneath, four feet long and a quarter of it the snout. An Anhinga swims by below, chasing after lunch.
A sign warns us not to feed or approach the Rhesus Monkeys. If scratched or bitten we’re required to call the CDC immediately. Some well-meaning naturalist, or showman, or perhaps a little of both, brought the monkeys to the park for the viewing pleasure of the public. Released on an island, they were thought to be contained. Little did they know, monkeys are agile and fearless swimmers. Now they roam throughout the park and the adjacent lands beyond. They’ve done well establishing themselves on a foreign continent, as well as the Burmese Python, inadvertently introduced as released pets.
The Florida Panther, a sleek cat occupying the swamp for millennia, is now a threatened species due to human encroachment and over-hunting of the past. Less than 200 individuals left in the wild, and losing habitat daily.
“And the last time I walked in the swamp
I stood up on a Cypress stump.
I listened close and I heard the ghost
Of Osceola cry.”
I looked at the beauty and diversity of nature here in this one-of-a-kind place, and looked out the other window at the world of humans. Chasing money. Everything has a price. I imagined what this place must have looked like only a few hundred years ago.
“So blow, blow Seminole wind.
Blow like you’re never gonna blow again.
I’m calling to you like a long-lost friend,
But I know who you are.
Blow, blow from the Okeechobee
All the way up to Micanopy.
Blow across the home of the Seminole,
the alligator and the gar.”
I thought of the Seminole and all the other original inhabitants as they watched the destruction of their Eden.
I hung my head in sorrow. I apologized to Osceola and his people. To the panther. To the world at large. On behalf of all those short-sighted and misguided beings that have come before me. Again, ashamed to be human, who now can do nothing but cry.
If ever you enter the swamps and ‘glades, find a quiet place, you may hear the cries of two men mourning for those things that can never be reversed, returned or replaced.
It is Osceola and I.