The Last Patch of Florida Land
People travel to the Florida Keys not so much for the land but for the water. What little land there is jutting just above sea level from Key Largo to Key West has mostly a weary, provisional feel to it, unlikely limestone outcroppings curling southwest just over 100 miles. Most of the Keys aren’t even true islands, but exposed remnants of onetime reef, the hardened remains of ancient sea creatures, and artificial fill, some of it cobbled together by Henry Flagler’s laborers in the first decade of the 20th century so that they could lay track for his doomed railroad. The tracks, stretches of which you can still see, were washed under by the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 along with hundreds of human victims, roughly half of whom were World War I veterans employed by President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration to build the present-day highway.
But I’m all about the neglected land of the Keys today. I’m not interested in its lovely aquamarine waters, maybe because so many other people are. I operate under the assumption (highfalutin and obnoxious, I realize) that the most worthwhile places to see are likely those that hold the least general appeal. And so I’m on my way 100 miles south from my Florida home to the Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park. This scruffy, 2,400 acre natural site stretches like a long green finger northward on the island for several miles starting where the US-1 crosses Jewfish Creek onto the Keys from the Florida mainland. I peel away from most of the Keys-bound commuters about twenty miles before this intersection, when I turn off the US-1 onto Card Sound Road just south of Florida City, not so much a city proper as a strip of highway festooned by every fast food franchise you can imagine on either side. The Card Sound route juts eastward across the Card Sound Bridge to northern Key Largo and Country Road 905, which then cuts southward for about ten miles—most of this acreage representing the hammock—before joining back up again with the US-1.
It’s about eight miles longer getting to the Keys from Card Sound Road so commuters generally stick to the more direct route on the US 1 from Florida City, which was the route of Flagler’s railroad, as well. It’s mostly a pleasant, wild stretch of land along Card Sound Road, accented by intermittent expanses of marsh and mangrove-lined creeks. I open my windows to take in the sulfur smell of the mangroves, which sure beats the smell of the automotive exhaust and fried food I’ve left behind in Florida City. Still, the tension between the wild land and our human designs upon it can’t be escaped so quickly. Gargantuan cement power poles on the north side of the road loom like schoolyard bullies over the mangrove-lined creek on the south side. I pass an enormous Cemex cement plant, which surprises me. It doesn’t seem like there’s enough solid earth around to sustain such an enterprise. Before long, I pay my $1 toll, cross the bridge over the open expanse of water and find myself on the northern end of Key Largo.
A combination of factors has staved off most real estate development here. As Joy Williams documents in her indispensable book, The Florida Keys: A History & Guide, speculators bought up much of the land in the 1950s and planned to create a new city of 100,000 people. Thankfully, the Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service bought the land back and designated it the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge. In the 1980s, a massive condominium development was well underway on the adjacent site of the present-day Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park, but the developers went bust. Today, the embattled presence of the American alligator, American crocodile, Key Largo cotton mouse, Schaus’ swallowtail butterfly, Eastern indigo snake, and Key Largo woodrat—all of which receive some measure of federal protection as threatened or endangered species—represents the strongest bulwark against future development. I haven’t yet seen a woodrat in person, one of North America’s most endangered mammals, but photos of these nocturnal rodents suggest that they’re much comelier than the Norway Rat, which most people think of when they think rat. Florida’s version is smaller and boasts much larger ears and eyes. They could really use a rebranding campaign.
William Bartram was impressed enough by Florida’s woodrats that he contributed one of the earliest accounts of the species in his Travels (1791). “The wood-rat,” Bartram writes,
is a very curious animal, they are not half the size of the domestic rat; of a dark brown or black colour; their tail slender and shorter in proportion, and covered thinly with short hair; they are singular with respect to their ingenuity and great labour in the construction of their habitations, which are conical pyramids about three or four feet high, constructed with dry branches, which they collect with great labour and perseverance, and pile up without any apparent order, yet they are so interwoven with one another, that it would take a bear or wild-cat some time to pull one of these castles to pieces, and allow the animals sufficient time to secure retreat with their young.
The woodrat, along with the manifold Florida plants and animals that Bartram painstakingly describes in his classic work, might be seen as links in a chain that connect Bartram and his contemporaries with those of us living in Florida now. It means something, I think, that the ingenious log structures of the Key Largo woodrat, which I might stumble upon today in the hammock, would closely resemble those pyramids that Bartram gazed upon and described over two hundred years ago. It may be the closest we can get to our American predecessors, these singular moments of shared sight across centuries. These ever-evolving but enduring landscapes are fast disappearing, however--collateral damage, mostly, of our competing human endeavors (e.g., agricultural, residential, and commercial development), which include collecting pressure by orchid, fern, and bromeliad thieves, tree snail and butterfly poachers, and the various environmental depredations that have accompanied our drastically warming planet (incursions of exotic plants and animals, advancing armies of new pests and blights, etc.). Bartram, writing well before the industrial revolution, couldn’t imagine that humans would represent a threat to woodrat well-being far greater than bears and wild-cats, that we would so drastically alter the wild land he so assiduously documented.
I remember how sad it made me feel when the movie version of Cold Mountain was released several years ago and I heard that it was mostly filmed in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, not in the American south. One of the major complications of filming the movie in the U.S., apparently, was that the landscape of the American south had been so irretrievably altered since the Civil War. Some might call this progress, I suppose, but it seemed almost inexpressibly sad to me that filmmakers seeking to capture an American past not so very distant, really, were now compelled to outsource our forests and meadows and mountains to eastern Europe.
Most of us, these days, must drive a fair distance in our carbon-spewing automobiles to access shrinking acres of green. We are all the progeny of William Faulkner’s multiracial McCaslins and Sartorises and Edmondses in Go Down, Moses (1942), who hear the whirring of the sawmills chewing through cypress and gum and oak, who feel at first that the Big Woods and their creatures (ivory-billed woodpeckers and deer and bears) will surely repel this “puny gnawing,” but who see the wilderness recede further and further from their homes in the span of their mere human lifetimes.
I drive on—what choice do I have?—make my way south toward the entrance of the Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park between a high thicket of trees on either side of the narrow two-lane road. I must be buzzing past innumerable tree species in this hammock, and I can make out the rusty bark of a gumbo limbo here, the scythe-shaped leaves of a mahogany there, but nearest the road the trees stand not so much as individuals but as uniform green walls; they’ve recently been trimmed back with what must have been an enormous vertical mower. Left to their own devices, it wouldn’t take long at all, clearly, for these tree walls to converge and erase the highway. Our human encroachment on the land seems fairly modest for the moment, anyway. I lean my elbow out the window, take in the spicier, vegetal aroma that has overtaken the earlier mangrove sulfur.
A few parking spots and a high concrete archway—a remnant from the abandoned real estate development—greets me at the park’s mouth. “WELCOME TO . . . the Real Florida,” a brown sign against the archway reads. I’ve been to this park a few times and my initial impression is always the same as I walk under the archway and enter the hammock, that it’s not quite “real” enough and that it’s even somewhat creepy, the inharmonious convergence of this wild hammock and the broad asphalt road, originally designed for automotive, rather than pedestrian, traffic. There’s a vague, Planet of the Apes feel to these few accessible acres of the park. It’s not only the archway and the asphalt road. As you walk, you glimpse partially buried coral walls amid the green, you reach a circular courtyard, which seems to have been designed as a traffic roundabout, you pass through a dank concrete tunnel beneath an abandoned roadbed. Would a contemporary filmmaker, I wonder, be able to erase the archway, the coral walls, the courtyard, the tunnel and asphalt road from the camera’s field of view?
The “real” part of this park, the wild part, isn’t too impressive at first glance. The first thought you’re likely to have is that it’s little more than a bramble. Hardly any of the stately (and mostly non-native) palms that you see on the Florida postcards. The canopy isn’t very high, only thirty feet or so. Most individual trees boast only modest, near spindly, trunks. A dense, green understory of shrubs and vines—and, no doubt, the thicker clouds of mosquitoes off the asphalt trail—dispel any notions you might entertain of traversing the hammock, itself. There’s not much chance I’ll glimpse a woodrat’s abode through the foliage. It’s impolitic to say, but one could see how real estate developers and politicos alike could look at this tangled landscape and figure that it wouldn’t be any great crime to clear it for condos.
The trouble, however, is with our eyes, not with the “bramble.” When it comes to trees and forests, we tend to celebrate heft. Maybe it’s John Muir’s fault, whose voice and concerns seem so contemporary compared to his lesser-read predecessor, Bartram. All the hay Muir made over those mighty sequoias out west. Or those Hudson River School artists and their outsize landscape paintings. It takes some concentration to set aside these notions privileging the scale of individual specimens and to see and appreciate the great tree diversity standing on either side of the asphalt trail—the tradeoff for size in a subtropical hammock. I’m standing on the site of the greatest tree diversity in the entire United States (!), my American Birding Association guide informs me. Taking some time to study the leaves and bark of the trees before me, along with the help of a separate guidebook, I’m able to distinguish pigeon plum from poisonwood from wild tamarind from gumbo limbo from Bahama strongbark from satinleaf from blolly from lancewood. And more! Most of these trees originated in the West Indies and were established here through the digestive tracts of migratory, seed-eating birds: Bahama mockingbirds, summer tanagers, white-crowned pigeons, and mangrove cuckoos, all of which can be seen here if you keep your eyes and ears open and get a bit lucky.
I don’t get so lucky today. I’d especially like to glimpse a few white-crowned pigeons, one of the local specialties that John James Audubon painted so beautifully on his 1832 visit after shooting God knows how many of the poor creatures from their perches. I scan the tops of the tallest pigeon plums and poisonwoods for the birds. No dice. I turn my attention once again to the plants, themselves. Looking down into the understory, I’m able to recognize the shiny green tongues of Jamaican caper leaves, the broader, flatter, and lighter-green leaves of beauty berry, and the crinkly-looking leaves of wild coffee. I’ve laid down hefty sums to buy these specimens at my native plant nursery. I’ve spent countless hours babying them with copious doses of water, slow-release fertilizers in various optimal nutrient proportions, and neem oil spritzings to fend off various pests and blights. So it’s sort of nice, and oddly surprising, miraculous even, to see that these distinct plants actually do grow all by themselves in their natural environs, this still-wild land. Eventually, I reach a birdy patch. I’m not the most talented birder, but I can make out the tell-tale song of a white-eyed vireo—chik-aperweeo-chik—even though I can’t spot it inside the dense canopy. Next, I glimpse a couple northern parulas (one of my favorite warblers) with their chestnut necklaces and several tiny gray gnatcatchers flitting about in the greenery fifteen feet high hunting countless varieties of insects. I see several small ovenbirds, too, bobbing their Mohawk-striped heads as they walk across the ground, mostly away from me. If it weren’t for these precious remaining acres of unfragmented hammock on the Keys, where would these tired creatures go during the winter, or on their migration stopovers to and from the tropics? The hammock offers a respite for me, as well. I feel my pulse abate as I stand still here for several minutes and just watch and listen while breathing in the ripe, earthy smell of the trees and shrubs in varying states of composition and decomposition.
This contact with Florida’s last bit of land before giving way to the ocean makes my mind wander to a more remote human history, more remote than Bartram. Take away the unwelcome remnants of the failed condominium development, it occurs to me, and this second and third-growth hammock looks pretty much the same as the first-growth hammock must have looked to Florida’s Native Americans, who feasted on the fish and crustacean-rich waters nearby and, in turn, were surely feasted upon by swarms of mosquitoes, no-see-ums, and sand gnats. A site here on Key Largo has been radiocarbon dated to 1000 B.C. In the 1500s, the first Europeans started to arrive, mostly to plunder the island’s resources—which included timber from the hammock—enslave the natives, and/or convert them to Christianity. Small wonder that early encounters in and around this Key Largo Hammock weren’t always so peaceable. Not far from the very site on which I stand, on June 23, 1837, Captain John Whalton and four of his crewman—who were stationed on the vessel, Florida, a floating light to warn ships off the treacherous Carysfort Reef—paddled ashore on one of the ship’s boats to gather wood. Unfortunately for Whalton and his crew, the Second Seminole War was still raging and they were ambushed by Indian musket fire. Captain Whalton and one member of his crew were killed and scalped, while the two other crewmen escaped. The floating light Florida remained in commission for another 15 years before it was replaced by the Carysfort Reef Lighthouse, the first of six iron screw-pile lighthouses built between 1852 and 1880 off the Keys, which continue to warn ships off its reef. Manned until 1960, the light atop the Carysfort Reef Lighthouse receives its charge today from a solar panel.
Florida’s indigenous peoples. William Bartram. Captain John Whalton. A solitary lighthouse keeper perched atop Carysfort Reef. One of our prevailing myths, writ-large in our literature and at least partly true, is that excursions into the wild represent antidotal escapes from society. Yet my various excursions never quite fit this description. My short visit to the hammock today, for example, puts me into contact with nature and humankind, but a different sort of human contact than I’ll experience once I’m back at the office.
I continue on the trail, preoccupied by visions of wooden ships under mast and Native American settlements, until the canopy opens up to a mangrove expanse and the asphalt trail gives way to a narrow, unpaved path. I shield my eyes from the restored sun until they adjust to the new light. I can’t see the ocean or the nearby Carysfort Reef Lighthouse, but a briny smell overtakes the spice of the trees behind me. I don’t see much wildlife about, but a white pelican on the wing drifts lazily across my field of view in the distance. The path loops for a mile or so around this marshy section before it brings me back to the canopy of hardwoods. Pretty soon, I run into a couple walking their dogs, which are permitted at the park on leash.
“Can you get all the way around now,” the woman utters as they near, “or is the tide up?”
“I just did the loop,” I say, “so I guess it’s low tide.” They thank me without breaking stride, keeping up with the dogs bucking against their restraints. I didn’t know that I wouldn’t have been able to go all the way around the trail had the tide been up. But I love that this is true. Maybe there’s no escaping the water here on the Keys, after all. No matter. It feels good to be on this last patch of Florida land that just barely escaped our recent human designs, a place still shaped by the peregrinations and digestive inclinations of white-crowned pigeons, and the timeless pull of the tides.