The Politics of Nature

Sanford nature writer Bill Belleville's latest book of bittersweet essays wins National Outdoor Book Award

The Politics of Nature
Bill Belleville

If there’s any sort of silver lining to be foundin the impact the economic recession has had on Florida, perhaps it’s that it has saved the state’s natural environment – or at least derailed the development machine that is consuming swaths of delicate ecosystem to make way for more houses, office parks and strip malls.

In 2006, Sanford author Bill Belleville responded to the rapid overdevelopment of the state with the publication of a book called Losing it All to Sprawl: How Progress Ate My Cracker Landscape, which documented the transformation of his neighborhood from old Florida quaint to new Florida chaotic.

Fast forward five years and progress has slowed (somewhat), hopefully long enough for Belleville’s latest – Salvaging the Real Florida: Lost and Found in the State of Dreams – to sink into the Floridian psyche. The book mixes personal experiences and reflection (Belleville describes some of the essays as “transcendental”) with occasional commentary about the poor growth-management practices that threaten Florida’s remaining wilderness. Unlike his last book, Belleville says, his current one is less a dirge and more a celebration: “I wanted to share my experiences with nature that I’ve had and help people connect,” he says. “I wanted to help folks understand that we have some really neat places that are still here, despite some of what we’ve already lost.”

In late November, Salvaging the Real Florida was named a winner of the National Outdoor Book Award for natural history writing. It was selected, says Ron Watters, chairman of the National Outdoor Book Awards, from among 130 entries and is being recognized for both the quality of Belleville’s writing and the importance of the subject matter.

“If you happen to be a Florida developer, it would be quite uncomfortable to read his stuff,” Watters says. “He doesn’t mince words at all, he tells it like he sees it. But I think he does that in a way that, at least if you’re a lover of the outdoors, is understandable and comfortable and enjoyable.”

Belleville is recognized alongside iconic nature writer John Muir, whose My First Summer in the Sierra was released this year in a 100th anniversary illustrated edition.

With Belleville’s permission we are publishing the following essays from Salvaging the Real Florida, which is available through the University Press of Florida.

– Erin Sullivan

Welcome to Midge World

Ijoined some friends for dinner at a little waterfront restaurant on the south shore of Lake Monroe here in Sanford the other evening. Nice breeze coming up off the dark night water and truly lovely the way late springtime in Florida can be sometimes. I arrived a bit late, so I’m just getting seated as the food arrives. We’re inside a large screened porch attached to the restaurant to take full advantage of the fine weather and the liquid geography. A waitress is bustling about, saying waitress-type things and a very animated woman I don’t know is also at the table, waving her arms. But this is not the strange part.

The strange part was when a truck equipped to spray insecticides drove up on the lawn next to the screened porch and started gassing us. They were actually trying to gas the midges, little fly-type insects that breed as larvae in the giant body of water outside, and then, as adults, swarm in and engulf whatever is moving. They don’t bite, but since they multiply in the millions like some sort of Biblical plague, they pile up in great numbers and are slippery as hell when you step on them.

The midges, also called “blind mosquitoes,” are hardy enough to survive in the sluggish, nutrient-enriched eutrophic waters. So the wise, long-term solution is to clean up this sluggish dilation in the St. Johns River, known as a lake. A healthy river bottom would simply support a larger equation of aquatic insects and predators, and the midge larva that live down there would find it harder to compete for space and food. That approach, of course, would take some long-term thought and planning. It seems so much better to default to the old Dow Chemical slogan: “Better Living Through Chemistry.” So instead of ecological restoration, we resort to great plumes of pesticides since it seems so much more ... dramatic. Those evil midges want to harass us, unleashing an insect jihad on our shores? Blow the suckers off the face of the earth.

I asked the waitress why the truck was gassing us, when clearly, we ought not to be gassed. Her answer was classic: “It’s the city ... or county spraying.” Which sort of means, it’s OK, because they know what they’re doing. Or if they don’t, we can’t do anything about it, anyways. Once my friend Colin, who is a physician, figured out what was happening, we all took our food and beverages and moved inside. But by then, we had a patina of pesticide about us. I also tried to study why another half dozen people continued to sit outside and feed while they were also being sprayed. Perhaps they already knew the city or county had approved it.

Sanford has tried to get rid of its midge problem for years now, doing everything under the sun except trying to clean up the lake. In 1977, the Greater Sanford Chamber commissioned a study on the midge affliction and found that it resulted in a loss of $3 to $4 million a year in business. While the midges might be tiny, this wasn’t small change. About a decade ago, the city spent about $100,000 to equip a large barge that would sort of suck all the midges to their teensy little bug deaths. But a storm came and washed it ashore. Later, the midge season didn’t arrive on time, and the barge sat there forlorn, bereft of midges. By the time they did come, everyone had lost hope and the midge barge had lost funding. Now there are three small midge barges, which function like giant bug lights. Photovoltaics energize the lights by day; by night, the soft glow draws the midges like entomological sirens to their inglorious dissolution. Sort of like little singles bars for insects.

This has been going on for years now, long enough so that researchers have written papers and even chapters in books about it all. In 1987, one Florida entomologist with a sense of humor actually described the adult form of a particular species of the midge as Dicrotendipes thanatogratus – for Jerry Garcia’s former iconic rock swarm, the “Grateful Dead.”

Other bug scientists have noted that, although all the general and specific types of midges in the family Chironomidae don’t bite, they can be, well, troublesome. There is a very subjective component in this equation, and it has been described in at least one abstract as “overall midge annoyance.”

“When large numbers of adults die, they can build up into malodorous piles,” according to one report. Another points out that the larvae of midges – which to the non-scientific eye look a bit like mosquito larvae – are “very tolerant” of human-made pollution. Indeed, midge larvae enjoy the soup of microscopic plants called phytoplankton, also known as algae. Like most plants, this algae is also jolted into growth spurts by fertilizers, also known as nutrients.

It turns out the bug-light barges are also part of another study. So far, this barge research has discovered that, indeed, midges are attracted to the lights. (I’m figuring a study of my porch light might have also revealed that.) The solution? Install lights around the lake in areas where there is little or no “recreational, business or residential activity.” That is, in the swamps. When fully lit, the swamps and other wild natural areas would then “discourage migration of midge swarms to Sanford.” It is assumed overall midge annoyance would be greatly reduced.

As for the lack of dissolved oxygen in Lake Monroe, the tiny midge larvae has the capacity to swirl up from the mud to the surface for a gulp of air when needed. It seems the midge is the right animal for the right place since the City of Sanford still channels its storm-water from streets and yards via underground pipes into the lake. This has the affect of both lowering the oxygen content and raising the level of algae. As evolutionary biologists would say, the midge has found its niche.

And of course, the chemical trucks spray toxins far and wide, even though we know by now that blasting the adult midges with toxins is lame when compared to actually correcting the conditions that make the larvae robust and happy.

However, unless you’re inclined to read a text like “The Chiromomidae: Biology and Ecology of Non-Biting Midges,” you’ll likely fall into line with folks who believe that a good dose of bug spray will cure just about anything. Years ago, when the city had its own official “Midge Patrol,” that pesticide truck would participate in the annual Christmas Parade. When it did, it would get a healthy round of applause – although to the best of my knowledge, it did not actually gas the audience during the parade.

I’m wondering if eating all the mercury-enriched bass from “lakes” like this for years hasn’t somehow made us more addled than the usual Floridian, and thus, unable to make good decisions about mixing insect management with al fresco dining. If Jerry Garcia was here, maybe I could ask him.

A Tropical Storm is Coming: Another Noir Day in Paradise

It’s hurricane season here in Florida, thatspecial time when the big blows rise up out of the Antilles and travel through the Torrid Zone for a visit. Like blizzards up north, tropical storms and ’canes are a way of life here, something you sort of try to work around. Still, there’s something very ... unreal and conflicting about it all. My point? Bad guy Edgar G. Robinson made it in the vintage film noir flick Key Largo. When told a hurricane was coming his way, he was amazed to learn that storms like that had hammered the Keys in the past. “You mean to tell me,” growled Robinson, “that there was a hurricane here before – and people still live here?”

I knew something was up late yesterday when I came home. I walked through the long and narrow screened back porch, headed for the enfenced yard. As I did I noticed two very still and strange objects on the top of the cypress fence. I stopped inside the porch and saw it was two red-shouldered hawks, positioned about three feet from each other. They were wonderfully intent on studying the fishpond just below them, so much so that they almost completely ignored me.

I walked carefully back into the house, grabbed a digital camera and came back, shooting as much as I could at a distance, and then slowly moving toward them. I got to the other edge of the pond before they even noticed me. At that point, there was only about seven or eight feet between us. I continued to happily click away and they continued to happily ignore me. There are a couple large comet goldfish in the pond, fish I had bought as inch-long culls from the aquarium store and let loose many months ago. With the sunshine and rain and dissolved oxygen, they grew fast, and were now almost 10 inches long, plump from grazing on the underwater plants and algae in the pond. There were also countless tadpoles from a bullfrog and a Southern leopard frog, along with scores of gambusia spawned by a few tiny mamas I brought back from the St. Johns just a couple months ago.

While I’d seen the hawks around before, and often heard them calling from the thick canopy of live oaks overhead, it was strange for them to be so close, and not reacting to my presence. Then I realized what was happening: I tapped the glass on the barometer in the porch and saw the needle plummet like the GPA of a FSU lineman. And it was summer. I didn’t even have to turn on the self-consciously melodramatic Fox News to know a tropical disturbance of some sort was on its way.

But I did turn on Fox for the theater value, and it was as expected, the usual scare-the-bejesus-out-of-the-audience sort of performance weather people in Florida love to indulge in, a journalistic train wreck in slow motion. The screen was full of charts and maps and pretty, green and yellow splotches that were spinning about, headed towards the Keys and South Florida. A route was already predicted, and the tropical storm known as Fay was eagerly moving along it, churning its way up into central Florida. The Fox reporters remind us that outsiders still refer to Florida as the “plywood state” as the result of heavy damage from a series of back-to-back ’canes a few years ago. I saw clips of manic consumers south of here eagerly buying everything manic merchants would sell them, stuff having to do with batteries, bottled water, plywood, canned goods and so on.

I resisted the urge to go back out myself and buy such stuff, since with all the camping gear and stoves and freeze-dried food I have on hand, I was already set. After all, life in the Torrid Zone is distinguished by nothing if not the capacity to be able to camp out in your own home. Nonetheless, I wondered if the hawks had been watching Fox News, and knowing their prey would be lying low over the next few days, were out doing their own version of hurricane hoarding, courtesy of the comets in my pond.

In the house, I checked out the aquarium where I keep a bunch of wild goldenhorn marissa snails, some native aquatic plants and two separate species of bluegill, known locally as “bream.” The two bream, who don’t get along all that well under normal conditions, react oddly when the barometer falls and the pressure changes. Since they’re wild fish and not reared in a tank from birth, they respond as they’d likely respond in the river: They huddle back in a bottom corner and position themselves, one looking one way, and one the other, as if to cover their butts – or in this case, their caudal fins – from what unnatural disaster might come their way.

By the following day, the morning was cheery and bright, but by late afternoon, a thick band of rain and winds washed over us, a weather surge so pervasive it made everything outside look white. The rain continued into the night, and the wind picked up good with gusts up to 40 mph. A large dead limb from my neighbor’s wild cherry tree fell onto my fence, and by the following morning, the yard was full of smaller branches and moss. I tried to drive downtown, but even the main highway, US 17-92 was  flooded. Lake Monroe, a quiet and domestic looking mega-pond on most days, was raging like a little sea, waves heaving themselves up with the wind and coursing northward with the current. Boats anchored outside the marina’s breakwater were thrashing around, and at least one houseboat had sunk.

At least there was no water in the house, like there had been over on the coast. I felt bad for the local homeless folks, though, and also couldn’t help but wonder how the wildlife would fare if we had much more of this. Developers don’t create tropical storms, of course, but they distort the landscape so fully that water ends up in places where nature didn’t intend for it to be. Wetlands that historically would store such storm-water simply aren’t available anymore for that function. And the human-made retention ponds and canals, which often try to do the work of wetlands, simply hold water until that special moment when they overflow. Growth management plans and future “Land Use Maps” usually study the local landscape for potential flooding, and then try to direct development elsewhere. But “amendments” to those plans – also known as exemptions – are granted routinely by elected city and county officials. This is not against the statutory law, of course, but it’s certainly an affront to land use ethics everywhere. You may think “corruption” may be too strong a word for these exemptions. But, on a larger philosophical scale, corruption is exactly what has happened because – once corrupted – the natural values of our landscape no longer function as they should.

I thought about the Film Noir thing some more, and although that genre had mostly to do with the American gangster flicks of the forties and fifties, it’s also relevant to Florida today, with or without hurricanes. We have morally conflicted protagonists, lots of femme fatales (i.e., beautiful but treacherous women), crimes of passion or money, ill-fated relationships, paranoia, and corruption – all portrayed in a subtropical landscape of high contrast lighting and distorted shadows. Florida, at once the “plywood state” and a tropical wonderland, is Film Noir, alive and well.

It sounds a bit like another day in Noir paradise, where hawks hunt comets and homes without electricity turn into large tents, and real estate developers distort reality so that it all sounds just so darn romantic you have to resist the urge to go out and do something corrupt, just to fit in.

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