“Florida: A Sense of Place,” (Short version), Public Interest Environmental Conference, Gainesville, March 1, 1996

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“Florida: A Sense of Place,” (Short version), Public Interest Environmental Conference, Gainesville, March 1, 1996
Series Title:
Understanding Florida
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Mixed Material
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English
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Burt, Al
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Public Interest Environmental Conference
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Gainesville, Fla.
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University of Florida
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University of Florida
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Al Burt Papers


University of Florida Libraries







Florida's Roving Reporter and Miami Herald Columnist

"A Sense of Place"

Second Annual Public Interest Environmental Conference of the University of Florida's Law College, Reitz
Union Building, Gainesville, Florida, March 1, 1996

A sense of place rises out of feel and understanding and familiarity, and where those grow there
follow love and involvement and community all things rare if not endangered in Florida. So a sense of
place is important. Without it, the Florida dream becomes corrupted. The flavors turn to bittersweet.

A sense of this beautifully odd place Florida a garish Eden where citizens feel easy community
only in the climate has to be at the foundation of any vision for the state. But a vision here is hard to
bring into focus, because Florida is a state without orthodoxy. It aspires to be everyman's land, and the
bits and pieces of so many dreams create an aura of disorder. Across Florida there resonates a chord of
unease, born of transience and stress, and it produces a kind of full-moon madness. We are used to
reading about it in the headlines and noting it in our nationally ranked statistics of stress suicides,
divorces, deaths, accidents. Even the Florida Commission on Governmental Accountability recently
noted our impressive assortment of disillusionments. In Florida there seems to be a contradiction for
every enchantment. Our beauty boasts peculiar linings. Overwhelming commercial tackiness butts up
to natural scenes so beautiful that they shimmer with religious overtones. We have to work at keeping
our balance. Finding the real Florida, and bringing it into focus, grasping a true sense of this place, is
difficult.

Once there was a Snowbird who made a return visit to Cedar Key after many years away. This
time the tide was out, and he had not seen that before. The water level had retreated into the gulf, and
those black mudflats and oyster beds and marine junk were not covered with water. They were lying
out in the sun, stinking with what we old time Floridians lovingly regard as marine perfume. The
Snowbird sniffed and stared, unbelieving. "My God," he said, "What a drought you've had since I was
here last." He didn't understand.










If you were born here, you learn early to absorb and accept all the balances. If you migrate here
it takes time to learn to love the humidity, the palmetto bugs, the hurricanes, the mosquitoes, the
sinkholes, the deep sand, the droughts and floods. In Florida, where history gallops at a great pace, that
lag time can hurt us all.

Whenever someone starts talking about sense of place, I always remember my old story about
the crazy rabbit. I was sitting on my porch one summer morning, out there in the woods where I live,
and I looked out and saw a rabbit swimming in the lake. Rather than romping around in the briar bushes
as respectable rabbits do, he was taking a casual swim. This was not a thoughtful rabbit. He had no
sense of place whatsoever. He had left his natural element. He was in fantasyland, and enjoying it. But
that did not last. Out there he could not run fast, his best defense. He had no other rabbits for
company. He had nothing to eat. Finally, inevitably, he grew uncomfortable. So he came out and got
the ancient reward for being out of place. Two waiting dogs ate him for lunch.

How does a newcomer understand such a state? How does anyone manage to grasp this
peculiar geography and this incredible range of life? How do you develop a sense of place?

Understanding is where sense of place begins. From that comes attitudes that develop into
behavior, and customs, out of those, eventually, laws are fashioned. What you know and understand,
you tend to identify with and love; what you love, you nurture and protect.

Consider the improbable Florida scene: great swamps neighboring dune deserts, summer
flowers that bloom in February, homes that open up and bring the outdoors inside, benign winters,
peppery summers filled with rains and powerful thunderstorms and occasional hurricanes, a population
of strangers, people who came here from somewhere else seeking homes in exotic surroundings that
are nothing like the homes they knew. Minority natives who feel spiritually exiled in the place where
they were born. Almost everything in Florida moves and shifts and circles and returns in patterns:
migrating human populations, ocean tides, birds and marine life, extremes of wet and dry, humid
summers with enormous bug populations and dry winters with snow-fleeing tourists. A sense of
transience overlays it all. It drags out raggedly and becomes a consistent pattern of drags, in one way or
another affecting all living things. Salt water laps at three sides of the state and rain falls generously
across the interior, making all our natural marvels possible. That gift of Sweetwater from the sky ponds
into lakes, runs in rivers, seeps into swamps and marshes and wet savannas and bogs, and transforms
our dunes and desert-like sandhills into fabled La Florida, where life thrives in such rich variety that
people still stretch the truth and call it paradise.

All of it is linked by flow and change, as Florida rises from the subtropics in its south to the
legitimate temperate zone in the north. The uplands deliver impact on the lowlands, lakes and rivers
accept and pass on those impacts, swamps and marshes filter and screen them. Each, somehow,
becomes touched by the other. All feel the shudders and tremors that development delivers. So Florida
becomes a wet, interdependent mosaic.

Once the great bug-filled wetlands covered half the state and were cursed, drained, ditched or
filled in a patriotic passion for growth that dried up a majority of them. Now, after irretrievable loss of










all that lovely wetness, a wounded Florida understands better and evolves toward becoming a state of
swamp lovers, a place where swamps are revered as the biological headquarters for the land, market
places where natural life stirs and thrives in great range. A true and full sense of this place develops
when we begin to understand all these things, when we know our surroundings, like when the leaves
fall, when the flowers bloom, when the fruit forms, when the migrations begin and end. When we know
all this, and we know that our neighbors know, and when we add the human experience to the natural
environment, a sense of place enlarges into community.

For example, consider the scrub country where I have lived for the past 22 years west of here
about 25 miles. When friends from South Florida see it for the first time, they find it a place apart, an
ugly duckling. They do not understand my choice. I try to show it to them, through my eyes.

The scrub country is a sweetly ragged land of bone-dry sandhills socketed with hundreds of
lakes. Life there takes on a comfortable droop. It is a matter of self-defense. Natural conditions are
harsh and most living things are delicate. The land looks like desert that changed its mind and remains
unsure of the decision. The lakes offer recreation and relief, but their fluctuating levels certify the
uncertainty. There are no true cities but many contending capitals, all small and feisty and individual.
My capital is Melrose, but nearby there is Keystone Heights and Hawthorne and Orange Heights and
Interlachen, among others. There is little agriculture and relatively few people. What lives there must
learn to be thrifty and persistent. If not strong, survivors need to be crafty. Live oak and pine and
palmetto thrive. Creatures as exotic as the gopher tortoise and coral snake, and as common as the
raccoon and the transplanted Yankee or South Floridian, do well.

Once you have developed a taste for the peculiarities of the scrub country, no other place
satisfies. Crime and politics and taxes find natively creative ways to intrude, as they do everywhere, but
the scrub country down-sizes them. Most of the time, they have to invade in low gear. Deep sand and
owlish old timers and two-rut roads, sandspurs and lightning and winter freezes, general stores and
neighbors who watch and listen, all these bless and deprive and demand all at once, altering urban
perspectives and establishing wonderfully human dimensions.

A beautiful egret, the symbol of the Audubon Society, saunters up from the lake like a friendly
messenger from the wild come to our yard, and we are proud there is an old-time visitor there to see it.
The elegance of the bird its long black legs, the gracefully toe-dripping stride, the snow-white
feathering encourages reverence in us, but not in all. "Them pond-birds," says the old timer, pointing
to the egret, "is good eatin'. They'll fry up like a chicken." The scrub country jars you like that in a
variety of ways, it reminds you that old times hang on, despite air-conditioning and running water and
public libraries.

The scrub country is the other side of the coin from those facades created to attract tourists to
the concrete and asphalt heat islands along the coasts and to the urban belt across mid-Florida. As we
learned about this backwoodsy bit of Florida, we became attached to it. People moved in and out,
babies were born, friends died, the lakes rose and fell but basically the place stayed the same and we
felt secure in that knowledge. We now care deeply about the place and the people. Knowing this place










and accepting this commitment has made us know ourselves better, and it has made our lives better.
Now the scrub country is home. That is the difference. If you call it ugly we are more likely to laugh
than get angry; we know better.

That's what sense of place does for you.

What has happened to Florida, what has interfered with our sense of place has been a gilding
of something that was already golden, a cosmetizing of the old realities to make them look like an
outsider's vision of Florida. We have rouged it over, prettified it, disguised the old grit and character
with gloss and glitz.

That kind of process hints at dissatisfaction with what natively was here; it's not a true
appreciation. We turned toward trying to make refinement out of congestion, toward trying to make
room where there was no reasonable room left. We decided we could ignore the realities of limits and
resources.

It's a sad, now familiar story. Everything has been a tradeoff, a swap beauty for comfort and
convenience, spiritually soothing landscapes for profits, and dunes for condos. But we were trading
values as well as physical realities.

"Being a naturalist," wrote the late Archie Carr, one of my heroes, "I am especially susceptible to
the disease of bitterness over the ruin of Florida over the partly aimless, partly avaricious ruin of
unequalled natural riches."

All of us who love it understand the process. We worry now that Florida has become something
different, something less true to itself. We worry that the subtractions and additions and multiplications
of progress are distorting what was naturally here. We worry that we are being robbed of our place, the
one that we have developed this sense of love for.


2011 University of Florida George A. Smathers Libraries.
All rights reserved.
Acceptable Use, Copyright, and Disclaimer Statement.




Full Text

PAGE 1

Miami Herald Columnist Second Annual Public Inter Law College Reitz Union Building, Gainesville, Florida, March 1, 1996 A sense of place rises out of feel and understanding and familiarity, and where those grow there follow love and involvement and community all things rare if not endangered in Florida. So a sense of place i s important. Without it, the Florida dream becomes corrupted. The flavors turn to bittersweet. A sense of this beautifully odd place Florida a garish Eden where citizens feel easy community only in the climate has to be at the foundation of any vision for the state. But a vision here is hard to bring into focus, because Florida is a state without ortho s land, and the bits and pieces of so many dreams create an aura of disorder. Across Florida there resonates a chord o f unease, born of transience and stress, and it produces a kind of full moon madness. We are used to reading about it in the headlines and noting it in our nationally ranked statistics of stress suicides, divorces, deaths, accidents. Even the Florida C ommission on Governmental Accountability recently noted our impressive assortment of disillusionments. In Florida there seems to be a contradiction for every enchantment. Our beauty boasts peculiar linings. Overwhelming commercial tackiness butts up to natural scenes so beautiful that they shimmer with religious overtones. We have to work at keeping our balance. Finding the real Florida, and bringing it into focus, grasping a true sense of this place, is difficult. Once there was a Snowbird who mad e a return visit to Cedar Key after many years away. This time the tide was out, and he had not seen that before. The water level had retreated into the gulf, and those black mudflats and oyster beds and marine junk were not covered with water. They were lying out in the sun, stinking with what we old time Floridians lovingly regard as marine perfume. The Snowbird sn iffed and stared, unbelieving. ve had sin ce I was t understand. Al Burt Papers University of Florida Libraries

PAGE 2

If you were born here, you learn early to absorb and accept all the balances. If you migrate here it takes time to learn to love the humidity, the palmetto bugs, the hurricanes, the mosquitoes, the sinkhol es, the deep sand, the droughts and floods. In Florida, where history gallops at a great pace, that lag time can hurt us all. Whenever someone starts talking about sense of place, I always remember my old story about the crazy rabbit. I was sitting on my porch one summer morning, out there in the woods where I live, and I looked out and saw a rabbit swimming in the lake. Rather than romping around in the briar bushes as respectable rabbits do, he was taking a casual swim. This was not a thoughtful rabbit. He had no sense of place whatsoever. He had left his natur al element. He was in fantasyland, and enjoying it. But that did not last. Out there he could not run fast, his best defense. He had no other rabbits for company. He had nothing to eat. Finally, inevitably, he grew uncomfortable. So he came out an d got the ancient reward for being out of place. Two waiting dogs ate him for lunch. How does a newcomer understand such a state? How does anyone manage to grasp this peculiar geography and this incredible range of life? How do you develop a sense of pla ce? Understanding is where sense of place begins. From that comes attitudes that develop into behavior, and customs, out of those, eventually, laws are fashioned. What you know and understand, you tend to identify with and love; what you love, you nurture and protect. Consider the improbable Florida scene: great swamps neighboring dune deserts, summer flowers that bloom in February, homes that open up and bring the outdoors inside, benign winters, peppery summers filled with rains and powerful thunderstorm s and occasional hurricanes, a population of strangers, people who came here from somewhere else seeking homes in exotic surroundings that are nothing like the homes they knew. Minority natives who feel spiritually exiled in the place where they were born Almost everything in Florida moves and shifts and circles and returns in patterns: migrating human populations, ocean tides, birds and marine life, extremes of wet and dry, humid summers with enormous bug populations and dry winters with snow fleeing to urists. A sense of transience overlays it all. It drags out raggedly and becomes a consistent pattern of drags, in one way or another affecting all living things. Salt water laps at three sides of the state and rain falls generously across the interior, making all our natural marvels possible. That gift of Sweetwater from the sky ponds into lakes, runs in rivers, seeps into swamps and marshes and wet savannas and bogs, and transforms our dunes and desert like sandhills into fabled La Florida, where life thrives in such rich variety that people still stretch the truth and call it paradise. All of it is linked by flow and change, as Florida rises from the subtropics in its south to the legitimate temperate zone in the north. The uplands deliver impact on th e lowlands, lakes and rivers accept and pass on those impacts, swamps and marshes filter and screen them. Each, somehow, becomes touched by the other. All feel the shudders and tremors that development delivers. So Florida becomes a wet, interdependent mo saic. Once the great bug filled wetlands covered half the state and were cursed, drained, ditched or filled in a patriotic passion for growth tha t dried up a majority of them. N ow, after irretrievable loss of

PAGE 3

all that lovely wetness, a wounded Florida und erstands better and evolves toward becoming a state of swamp lovers, a place where swamps are revered as the biological headquarters for the land, market places where natural life stirs and thrives in great range. A true and full sense of this place devel ops when we begin to understand all these things, when we know our surroundings, like when the leaves fall, when the flowers bloom, when the fruit forms, when the migrations begin and end. When we know all this, and we know that our neighbors know, and wh en we add the human experience to the natural environment, a sense of place enlarges into community. For example, consider the scrub country where I hav e lived for the past 22 years west of here about 25 miles. When friends from South Florida see it for the first time, they find it a place apart, an ugly duckling. They do not understand my choice. I try to show it to them, through my eyes. The scrub country is a sweetly ragged land of bone dry sandhills socketed with hundreds of lakes. Life there take s on a comfortable droop. It is a matter of self defense. Natural conditions are harsh and most living things are delicate. The land looks like desert t hat changed its mind and remains unsure of the decision. The lakes offer recreation and relief, but their fluctuating levels certify the uncertainty. There are no true cities but many contending capitals, all small and feisty and individual. My capital is Melrose, but nearby there is Keystone Heights and Hawthorne and Orange Heights and Interlachen, amo ng others. There is little agriculture and relatively few people. What lives there must learn to be thrifty and persistent. If not strong, survivors need to be crafty. Live oak and pine and palmetto thrive. Creatures as exotic as the gopher tortoise a nd coral snake, and as common as the raccoon and the transplanted Yankee or South Floridian, do well. Once you have developed a taste for the peculiarities of the scrub country, no other place satisfies. Crime and politics and taxes find natively creative ways to intrude, as they do everywhere, but the scrub country down sizes them. Most of the time, they have to invade in low gear. Deep sand and owlish old timers and two rut roads, sandspurs and lightning and winter freezes, general stores and neighbors who watch and listen, all these bless and deprive and demand all at once, altering urban perspectives and establishing wonderfully human dimensions. A beautiful egret, the symbol of the Audubon Society, saunters up from the lake like a friendly messenger from the wild come to our yard, and we are proud there is an old time visitor there to see it. The elegance of the bird its long black legs, the gracefully toe dripping stri de, the snow white feathering encourages reverence in us, but not in all. em pond says the old timer, pointin g The scrub country jars you like that in a variety of ways, it reminds you that old times hang on, despite air conditioning and running water and p ublic libraries. The scrub country is the other side of the coin from those facades created to attract tourists to the concrete and asphalt heat islands along the coasts and to the urban belt across mid Florida. As we learned about this backwoodsy bit of Florida, we became attached to it. People moved in and out, babies were born, friends died, the lakes rose and fell but basically the place stayed the same and we felt secure in that knowledge. We now care deeply about the place and the people. Knowing t his place

PAGE 4

and accepting this commitment has made us know ourselves better, and it has made our lives better. Now the scrub country is home. That is the difference. If you call it ugly we are more likely to laugh than get angry; we know better. s what sense of place does for you. What has happened to Florida, what has interfered with our sense of pl ace has been a gilding of something that was already golden, a cosmetizing of the old realities to make them look like an s vision of Florida We have rouged it over, prettified it, disguised the old grit and character with gloss and glitz. appreciation. We turned toward trying to make refinement out of congestion, toward trying to make room where there was no reasonable room left. We decided we could ignore the realities of limits and resources. s a sad, now familiar story. Everythin g has been a tradeoff, a swap beauty for comfort and convenience, spiritually soothing landscapes for profits, and dunes for condos. But we were trading values as well as physical realities. wrote the late I am especially susceptib le to the disease of bitter ness over the ruin of Florida over the partly aimless, partly avaricious ruin of unequalled natural riches All of us who love it understand the process. We worry now that Florida has become something different, something les s true to itself. We worry that the subtractions and additions and multiplications of progress are distorting what was naturally here. We worry that we are being robbed of our place, the one that we have developed this sense of love for. 2011 University of Florida George A. Smathers Libraries. All rights reserved. Acceptable Use, Copyright, and Disclaimer Statement.