There is this idea that Florida is a beautiful place. There are palm trees, golf courses, lawns, gardens, boulevards, and parks. The weather is nice too. That’s why all the people from up north buy property here. So that they can experience the nice weather instead of the cold winter and play a couple of holes on the golf course before they drive down the boulevard to go have lunch in a park.
But all of these things are artificial. The palm trees are planted and mostly non-native species. The golf courses, lawns, gardens, boulevards, and parks need to be maintained by a cadre of people employed specifically to prune and trim. The nice weather only lasts a few months every year.
If we look away from the artificial Florida and instead go searching for the real Florida, where do we end up?
First of all, let’s talk about the weather. You don’t know what it’s like to live in Florida until you have spent the summer here. The humidity, the thunder showers, the hurricanes.
Then there are the wetlands with the hammocks and the sawgrass. There are pine ridges, barrier islands, alligators, and mosquitoes. Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, who was crucial in the fight to save the Everglades from complete exploitation and destruction, never visited there. Why? Because, she explained, the Everglades is not meant for people.
Right now, the Everglades is a specific thing, namely the Everglades National Park, which is located mainly in between the cities of Miami and Naples. But the Everglades—the river of grass—reaches all the way up the interior of the Florida peninsula. And if we stop maintaining artificial Florida—if we stop mowing the lawns, trimming the golf courses, and what have you—this is the Florida that will take over. And it will take over quickly.
In 2019, the movie Annihilation starring Nathalie Portman and Oscar Isaac opened in the theaters. Annihilation is based on the first part of the science fiction-horror trilogy The Southern Reach Trilogy written by Florida author Jeff Vandermeer.
Annihilation takes place in an ecological anomaly called Area X. Area X is inspired by the St Mark’s Wildlife Reserve, which is located near where Vandermeer lives in the Florida panhandle. Area X, this anomaly where all kinds of strange and horrific things happen, is a metaphor for Florida.
I agree with Vandermeer’s view of Florida. To me, Florida is a living thing that we have pushed to the brink by confining it to specific parts of the peninsula we now inhabit.
We are toying with Area X at our own peril. We build houses where they shouldn’t be built. We drain waterways that shouldn’t be drained. We build roads where roads shouldn’t go. And once in a while, Florida strikes back, and the result is catastrophic.
Much of the disaster caused by Hurricane Ian could have been avoided if we had developed Florida’s coasts in a sustainable way. The counties where Ian struck are now like Area X. Some of the damaged areas will be reclaimed and redeveloped, while other areas will be left to be absorbed by Florida.
Hurricane Nicole caused further damage this week. Piers were shattered by waves and winds. Houses collapsed into the ocean when the beach they were built upon washed out to sea. Neighborhoods were flooded.
They say that the worst part of a hurricane is the aftermath. Preparing for a hurricane takes a couple of days at the most. If you have your hurricane plan in place, all you need to do is wait for impact. When the hurricane makes landfall, you hunker down and wait for it to pass. It is afterwards, when people resurface from where they have been sheltering, that the difficulties begin.
The destruction a hurricane wreaks depends on its strength, size, and where and when it makes landfall. But regardless of the how and the when, the aftermath of a hurricane is a disaster. For a brief moment, there is only people. And Florida.
The rest of America views Florida as a weird place with weird people. To a certain extent, they are not wrong. Florida is weird. Living in Florida makes you weird.
Living in Florida is like living in a world where The Restaurant at the End of the Universe meets Leonard Cohen’s “Closing Time.” Maybe that is so because six months out of every year, we live with the possibility of facing our last moment. Maybe it’s because living in Florida is living with the apocalypse.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.
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