Vines below! (disclaimer) These are all small, relatively low-res cuts of a larger video I’m editing…
THE LIFE HERE, the abundance. It is prodigious. My first night here was warm and wet and clear. I was staying at a house surrounded by acres of woods outside the small town of Sopchoppy, about 10 miles inland from the coast and known for its annual (yeah!) “Worm Gruntin’ Festival.” I stepped outside around 9PM to look upward—at a sky free of clouds, of stratospheric aircraft, of anything but stars and the familiar galactic haze of the Milky Way. The clarity, the visual lucidity of the night was striking—the scene in stark contrast to the nearly terrifying, natural din of the surrounding forest.
The tumult came from every direction. Owls hooted, bullfrogs croaked and rumbled, their smaller cousins in the trees and bushes chirping and barking like terriers. Strange birds called in unholy cacophony. And everywhere were the hisses, vibrations, fiddling and whistles of a voluminous insect biota in its myriad forms. I’d experienced something similar only a few times before—in the rainforests of Costa Rica and to a lesser extent in more untouched areas of the Hawaiian Islands. This was the sound of life; the sound of nature responding to the conditions for its own profusion. There is water here. There is sun. There is warmth. And there are not very many of us.
The point was accentuated later that night, when a black bear raided a garbage can behind the room in which I slept, noisily at 2AM. “We don’t own the night here,” a friend of mine said after I told him about it. “I’m not sure we own the day, either,” was my reply.
The next afternoon I explored the Gulf Coast and other areas where land meets water along the edges of Ochlockonee Bay. In places like Bald Point State Park, Mashes Sands Beach, and St. Marks Wildlife Refuge (encompassing over 100 square miles along Apalachee Bay), the shore-life that must have once abounded everywhere along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts before the 17th century, still has a hold on things. At Mashes Sands the sun was setting golden over miles of salt marshes tidally-influence and teeming with life. A few days later I returned here and met John, a longtime resident of the area, who was out walking his rather plump chihuahua, “Arturo,” along the beach. John saw me taking pictures and filming shorebirds and stopped to talk. He also wanted to warn me about wading out into the dark water just off the shore. “Bull Sharks,” he said in a thick drawl, as he smoked the nub of a once-very-large cigar. “They love this place. Though usually they only bite fishermen who net the mullet here. If you smell like fish, probably not a good idea to go wading.”
I thanked him for his advice, gave Arturo a little pat, became a little self-conscious that I might smell like fish, and was blessed a few minutes later with some great footage.
I left the Forgotten Coast (just in time to unfortunately miss the Worm Gruntin’!) for the more cultured, manicured beaches of South Florida, visiting friends and family in Tampa and St. Petersburg for a few days. I also had the privilege of meeting with Maddie Southard, the Program Manager for the Florida Wildlife Corridor. I came across the organization in my research into the Forgotten Coast, and was very quickly impressed. The FWC is made up of group of highly motivated, dedicated folks who advocate for the conservation of wildlife habitat throughout Florida—specifically for large, connected tracts of relatively undeveloped land maintained by both private and public entities that allow wildlife like Black Bears and the Florida Panther to migrate potentially across the state. Wildlife corridors, Maddie explained, are extremely important in that they allow a population of animals both space to roam, and space to seek and obtain (genetically diverse) mates. Populations of bears, for instance, cut off from others of their kind by highways, tract-housing and mini-malls, become inbred and unhealthy and might eventually disappear altogether. The Florida Wildlife Corridor doesn’t purchase or maintain land directly, but advocates and educates—specifically through sponsoring well-publicized “expeditions” through the corridors across the state that already exist.
Last year, three of the group’s founders, Mallory Dimmitt, Joe Guthrie and Carlton Ward, Jr., trekked 1000 miles from Central Florida westward, along the Forgotten Coast. Their accomplishment was filmed and documented in “The Forgotten Coast: Return to Wild Florida.” The film was aired on local PBS stations, screened around the country at environmental film festivals, and will hopefully be available for wider distribution soon. I’ll be devoting a subsequent post to the FWC’s efforts (as well as footage of my filmed interview with Maddie) at the end of this series, but my conversation with them was an important one and deserves more than one mention. The group contends that a viable wildlife corridor already exists in the central part of the state, running north from the Everglades; and also running west from central Florida all the way to the Alabama border. With just a bit of recognition and protection, these corridors can be maintained in perpetuity—forever allowing the keystone species that utilize them to flourish and abound.
Initially, it seemed like my conversation with Maddie validated my original thesis about the Forgotten Coast—that it’s virtually untouched, pristine. But this idea began to be challenged pretty quickly. She explained that even though so much of the land area of the Forgotten Coast is protected, the area still faces challenges—challenges notably to the water of its rivers and the coast itself. Because much of Florida’s land area lies just above sea level, just a few inches of seal level rise can inundate large swaths of coast. The group is already seeing evidence of this. And the rivers that flow into the tannic bays of the Forgotten Coast are under threat as well—by agricultural activities and the utilization of their water by cities and towns upstream. The Apalachicola River, for instance, is the largest by volume in Florida. But its headwaters are in Georgia—not too far from Atlanta. There are lots of “straws” drinking from the river, Maddie says, along its 500 mile length. By the time it reaches the Gulf of Mexico it is substantially diminished. This in turn leads to a higher salinity for the water just off the coast and affects wildlife specifically adapted to the lower salinity of an estuary environment—leading to the collapse of populations of things like oysters.
I was suddenly reminded of a scene from a favorite movie of mine, “Into the Wild,” based on a favorite biographical book of the same name by John Krakauer. In it, Alexander “Supertramp” McCandless tries to lead an authentic, independent life and escape civilization’s tentacles. He travels to Alaska and attempts to live independently off the land. As he’s slowly starving (nothing is as ironic as real life) he looks above him and sees a jetliner flying overhead. The image is poignant—you can never fully escape, not civilization and certainly not the global effects of our activities on the environment. I felt naïve. But the infectious enthusiasm displayed by Maddie and others of the Florida Wildlife Corridor left me with a bit of hope. I could once again picture the birds of Mashes Sands, and of St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. I could hear the frogs barking and the owls hooting, the bear traipsing through the yard. I could see the alligator floating in a marsh near the Lighthouse on a cool, windy day. If you leave them alone, protect their space, they might face challenges posed by human development located hundreds of miles away, but they might also adapt. And they might also abound.
Will Burcher is a former police officer and current author of “The GAIAD,” a story of ancient secrets not quite forgotten and the positive power of global perspective. He lives and works in Colorado, USA.
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