Julie Hauserman
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How to Love Florida

By Julie Hauserman

Florida is such a mystical, made-up, watery mirage place. If you paint a sunset using the real colors, it looks fake, like motel art.

Lime SinkIf you live here, you know that those colors do exist. That sometimes, canoeing on the mirrored surface of a cold, black spring, it looks like you’re paddling through sky. Sometimes, fog fills up the dune hollows like wildfire smoke. Blue heron statues poke out of green marsh. White ibis swirl, blizzard-like, off mangrove branches.

Breathe in that Florida smell. Clean. Salty. Blue. Listen to the birds – so many you can’t know all their names. Hear the water suck air when the alligator goes under.

Go barefoot, but watch your step.

There is so much to know here, and so much to lose. I have been writing about natural Florida for 19 years, and I feel like a storm chaser, bulldozers at my heels.

What we have become: House-driveway-mailbox-house-driveway-mailbox-house-golf course-strip mall-high rise-big mall-theme park-house-driveway-mailbox-house.

Foxwood is Glenwood is Heron Place. The wild things get pushed to woods and swamps without names. Once, state wildlife biologists radio-tracked a wild panther as it dozed beneath a billboard near a trailer park.

We have saved some great places, thank God. We all own wonderful beach and riverfront and springs and wild jungle woods. Big chunks of it and small slices, all public. We own the bottoms of rivers and bays. The sand under the curling beach waves is still public. Some species that we hurt are coming back; bald eagles and alligators – to name two.

But we have let so many places slip away. “Look at that,’’ we say listlessly, looking out the car window. “Another strip mall.’’

Near my house, an Eckerd’s drug store sits, improbably, on what used to be an otter pond. I used to love a hilly cow pasture near where I live. The hillside soared toward the sky, and always reminded me of that Andrew Wyeth painting, Christina’s World. One day, I watched men drive huge trucks across that hill and load up the cows. They were making way for another crop of houses. Emerald Lakes, I think they called it. Odd name: in Florida, a green lake isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Where I live, the roads keep getting wider and the fat oaks keep coming down.

I need to tell you: So much of what happens to the wild, loamy jungle that is Florida’s heart happens inside buildings. It happens in county commission chambers and corporate boardrooms and Cabinet meetings and - God help us all - in the Legislature.

While you are going to work and picking up your kids, while somewhere nearby a heron works the shallows and an osprey plummets for a fish, deals are being struck. Impacts are justified. And when people talk about ‘the environment,’ what they always end up talking about is money.

I can’t tell you how many people in suits I’ve heard assuring us that they had found a “win-win situation.’’ As if wild Florida could possibly win when another three high rises were getting piled on top of her sagging, sandy spine.

I’ve watched governments put a price on trees. We let developers fill one swamp if they promise to build another, somewhere else. Sometimes, we let the bulldozers have their way and just take money in exchange. We let boats go fast where manatees float because the boats bring money and the manatees don’t.

We don’t like to say no.

And, like ants swarming over the remains of a picnic in the park, Florida’s newcomers aren’t particular about the landscape. The sun shines and the palms wave, and that’s enough. That scares me.

The Everglades could be completely overrun with cattails – a clear sign of water pollution there – and somebody who moved here from New Jersey would think the big marsh looks great. Thousands of people live in Florida condominums around “lakes’’ that are really man-made stormwater ponds, and they never know the difference. At Florida beaches, the waves still look pretty hitting the shore, even if the ecosystem is so sick that the fish are filled with poison.

I challenge you: Learn to see through the mirage. Tell Florida’s stories. Paint her sunsets. Photograph what’s here now, and what’s lost.

Love this place fiercely and loudly. Keep telling. Keep reminding.

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