The law of the land

Between two of Stephen Nordlinger's tall, young live oaks growing on his property that borders the Big Econ river, a short stake casts the long shadow of the law: "Orange County Lot Cleaning Violation ... high grass and weeds ... cut and remove." Or else. The Jan. 14 notice was confounding.

Nordlinger, a residential advisor at Lakeside Alternative and zealous environmental activist, was being indicted by the very entity he had served for many years. Not only has he, in his canoe, rid local and state waterways of an estimated 240 tons of garbage and recyclables over the past 12 years, but he volunteers as a martial-arts instructor at a Howard Middle School after-school program and for the Orange County Parks and Recreation Department.

Nordlinger bought his 5.5 acres in east Orange County nearly four years ago precisely to protect its deep woods and to repair, through reforestation, damage from previous owners' land-clearing on the sandy, road-front side of the property. So it is that the indicted 3-foot-high stand of native yellow-eyed and blue-stemmed grasses protects countless seedlings, the result of random seeding from nearby indigenous trees.

If Nordlinger has not complied with Orange County's mowing and clean-up order by Feb. 8, their boys will close-crop it and send him the bill. Any attempt by him to impede such action, he was warned, will result in his arrest.

"I can not believe this," says Nordlinger, stepping gingerly over a cluster of tiny laurel and live oak, Southern magnolia, red maple and sweet gum. "I thought it was maybe a mistake." With good reason. The man is a legend among many who are on the front line of environmental protection.

"He's unreal," says Dale Hatch, site supervisor at the county's Jay Blanchard Park. "When I came to this park 12 years ago, we'd see muddy, wet trash loaded in cans along the water and couldn't figure out where it was coming from. Then one day I saw this guy paddle up with his canoe full of garbage. It was Steve, fresh out of the Marine Corps -- by then he'd been doing waterways clean-up in other places in the world for years.

"He's certainly educated me -- how all that discarded Styrofoam comes apart into tiny balls that animals think are eggs and eat 'em and die. Then, he taught me -- and I was guilty of this -- that if I throw away my old plastic worm in the water, the fish think it's a real one, eat it and die because it clogs 'em up.

"He's phenomenal -- all the people he's touched. He's done a tremendous job in this state; I know he has in this part, and now he even brings other people out to Blanchard."

Those other people are volunteers and community-service workers who came aboard when Nordlinger combined his eco-canoe efforts with those of Eco-Action, the activist spin-off of the Eco Store in College Park.

"I am inspired by the guy," says Beth Hollenbeck, owner of the Eco Store and executive director of Eco-Action. "He is walking the talk, not on an ego trip, not looking for praise and doesn't even let on to people the magnitude of what he's doing.

"Steve is consistently, in every area of his life, a model for others."

Nordlinger squats to watch the business of bugs that goes unnoted by most folks in their own try-not-to-be-stepped-on scurry through 20th-century life.

"All this area is zoned agricultural," he notes. "People come out here to escape backyard bureaucracy and the manicured conformity of suburbia. How can it be illegal for me to allow my land to return to its natural state? I have created no hazard or harm for anybody."

Nordlinger's call to Tracey Greene, the county's code-enforcement officer who posted the notice, to explain his environmental endeavor and to clarify other notations on the order, was fraught with frustration: There were two abandoned cars, said the inspector. Not so, said Nordlinger. One belonged to a friend who was rebuilding it, the other was Nordlinger's own second vehicle -- tagged and insured.

What about the piles of debris that were on the property, then? Not debris, he clarified, but day-old clippings for compost. His question about exactly what on his property the county identified as junk to be hauled off never was answered; could it have been the abandoned pig trap that Nordlinger hauled out of the river for garbage-truck pick-up?

"These weed wars are usually the product of two things," says Bret Rapapport, a Chicago attorney and visiting speaker to Florida as the founder of Wild Ones, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to educate and share information with communities at the plant-root level and promote biodiversity through natural landscaping and use of native plants.

"First, there's a spiteful neighbor who has some other agenda and, second, there's an uninformed prosecuting entity. The way to reverse such a situation," explains Rapapport, "is to educate the officials, who can then go and educate the neighbor. In the hundreds of these incidents that I've dealt with, these are the two ingredients that lead to the problem."

Stephen Nordlinger has learned that Orange County did, in fact, come around after an anonymous caller lodged a complaint about his place. However, interviews of adjacent homeowners yielded surprised expressions, disgusted headshakes at the notion of such nosiness and unanimous praise for Nordlinger's massive clean-up of the property.

"Before Steve moved in, it was a sight from hell!" says Mark Smith, a next-door neighbor. "Cars on blocks, engines hanging from trees, beat-up tractor-trailer trucks, a big, old cabin cruiser, even oil changes done right onto the earth!" Nordlinger has unearthed 2-foot-high mounds of nails, rolls of rotten carpet and dozens of rusted, vine-covered propane tanks.

"By the way," Smith says, "Don't forget you promised me a copy of your latest book; I finished the others." He refers to Nordlinger's four pamphlets, "The Eco-Canoeist's Journal," small, hand-written, text-and-sketch books available in some nature shops and, soon, in schoolrooms.

In a spirit of compliance, Nordlinger made some changes. His friend's car has been moved. The clippings have been spread for fertilizer, and he cut back the grasses that grew within 6 feet of the road -- until he began to run into baby trees.

"I tried to explain to Ms. Greene that if I cut the grass, the seedlings would end up cut, too. She told me to cut around them. Can you imagine?" he asks, incredulous. "Try cutting around thousands of tiny trees with a mower. That's why I asked for a few months' extension, so I could hand-shear the grass and save the trees. Still, she'd only give me 10 days."

David Drylie, director of the Orange County Farm Bureau and owner of Green Images, a nursery that specializes in indigenous Florida plants, says that soil-conservation experts promote growing native grasses because they are drought tolerant, don't require water and don't suffer from pest infestation, such as mole crickets.

Drylie and botanist Mike Mingea, both members of the Native Plant Society, visited Nordlinger's property to look around for native plants. What they ended up finding was a treasure trove -- from swamp-red bay and loblolly pine, to sable palm, wax myrtle and red cedar. There were jesimine and deer berry and dog fennel, to name just a few. ;;

"And," says Drylie, "[Nordlinger] is correct; it is impossible to mow a naturally seeded property without killing the trees."

Other tree-growing projects have shown that seedlings allowed to grow with the protection of grass cover -- for root-soil and water retention -- grow far healthier and larger than those whose grass cover is cut away.

Adding another interesting twist to Nordlinger's weed-war mix is this: "The state's standard definition of a weed is ‘anything that is out of place'; a rose in cabbage patch is a weed," says Wayne Corbin, botanist and weed-control program manager at the St. Johns Water Management District. So, if Nordlinger's property is reforesting with indigenous trees and plants, what among them would be considered weeds? "Only that which originated from out-of-state or out-of-country," says Corbin.

On the porch of his backwoods homestead that harkens to yesteryear, Nordlinger watches the early darkness of a winter afternoon close in on the tree line that guards his back three acres. Soon it will be the hours of night hawks and owl calls.

"The first time the realtor brought me out here," he recalls, "a little brown rabbit stopped and looked at me. I looked back and knew I had come home and I made a promise to the land."

On Jan. 26, Nordlinger visited Tracey Greene in order to list for her what he'd done since she posted the notice on his property. "She told me that if I wanted to appeal, go ahead, but that the contractors have already been scheduled to come out and clear the lot on Feb. 8."

Several environmental groups have committed to being on site.

Greene did not return telephone requests for an interview for this story.

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