As it was previously posted, the Spirit of the Land in Florida can best be physically identified as the Land of Florida. This might appear to conveniently align with the political reality of state lines, at first, but the truth behind it is broader and deeper:
(Click on the picture above for a detailed and thorough Wikipedia article on the matter. Use it as starting point and cross-reference the many citations and sources listed in the endnotes.)
The true boundaries of the Lady are below the surface, seeping through limestone rocks and sand deposits created after millions of years of geological processes. This is the main feature unifying the different landscapes that can be found here, each linked in one way or another to one inescapable reality: We are a “water State” and Florida’s blood runs through Earth beneath us far beyond to many other neighboring Lands. When we speak of Our Sacred Mother, Lady Florida, this is the physical reality we should keep in mind.
The water flows over the surface, as well. It is no mystery that the waters of the mesmerizing and healing springs of central Florida emerge from the aquifer, cleansed and pure. They bubble up and out toward rivers that snake on their lazy path toward the coasts, becoming the backbone of wildlands up and down the state.
Then, there is the Kissimmee chain of river and lakes, flowing down south and into Lake Okeechobee. There the water pools in one of the country’s biggest lakes, but also at an extremely shallow depth. There isn’t much elevation in Florida at this point, the roll of the Land doesn’t even feature buckling layers of rock and sand. Okeechobee’s water gathers and, if it were still sovereign, it would spill over its southern lip to continue its gradual flow south. It is a slow pilgrimage, a metaphor in the physical dynamics of subtle fertilizing and purification. For over a year it travels and spreads widely across the Land’s interior, a still mirror to the Sky, a shimmering dancer in the sunlight. It meets the Sea at the Bay by the Keys and slakes the thirst of the saltwater–a good daughter offering refreshment to her mother.
However, there is a further layer of complexity in this regard: human history. While it is true that Spirits of the Land existed well before humans arrived on them–and yes, they each possessed colorful mythic stories among other natural and other-than-human intelligence well before the arrival of ourkind–the intrusion of humanity presents a remarkable change in the way of things. One must recognize the intellectual and mystic potential of the two-legged arrivals to alter the existing relationships between the Land and all its existing relationships.
The first inhabitants of Florida came from the north, carrying a set of cultural and religious beliefs that had already formed to help them survive during the world of the Last Glacial Maximum. They had come through the frozen Siberia and North America–evidence makes puts this arrival very early, suggesting they came straight to the peninsula without much stopping elsewhere–and encountered a Land very different from our own. This was a land dominated by the now-extinct megafauna of the Ice, like wholly mammoths, giant sloths, and saber-tooth tigers. Because water levels were dramatically lower then, the Land itself was twice of what we see today, and the aquifer was almost 100 feet lower. Florida was most typically a dry savanna, like the African Serengeti, with only occasional oases of lush life.
It likely took the Land and its Peoples many thousands of years to adapt, and we see this reflected in the archaeological record–or lack thereof, due to flooded sites along the long-lost coastlines–and the records of extinction for the animals alive then.
The completion of this adaptive process is probably best signaled by the formation of the Big Lake at the heart of south Florida. In fact, because of its hydrological and cultural importance, we can easily consider Okeechobee to be the heart of Florida herself. This did not happen until about 6,000 to 4,000 years ago and only after much ecological upheaval due to a rapidly changing climate. It is then, and only then, that we see the flourishing of cultures with an active hand at maintaining the natural landscape around them. A true alliance between the People’s way of life and the Land.
(This “mythic cycle” will be included in two upcoming posts to follow.)
It is important to describe what the eco-spiritual balance of Florida might have looked like, even if we have scant evidence for it. Here is a quote from Michael Grunwald’s The Swamp (which is absolutely recommended, buy here), talking about the Glades Indians that included the Calusa and many nations of the region:
They built impressive engineering projects that molded nature to their needs–not just the shell mounds that still dot the Gulf coast, but seawalls, jetties, weirs, fish traps, and reservoirs. They dug canals to create canoe routes to their hunting grounds, including a three-mile cut from the Caloosahatchee River to Lake Okeechobee that would be reopened centuries later for one of the first Everglades drainage ditches. The Calusa burned prairies to attract deer, chopped down cypress trees for their canoes, butchered the animals they idealized in their art, and preyed on baby fish that would be untouchable under modern catch-and-release rules. native people had an impact on the Everglades environment, just as gators did when they dug their holes, or birds when they ate seeds in the tropics and deposited them in south Florida.
But the natives had an extremely modest impact. For one thing, there weren’t many of them–perhaps 20,000 in south Florida at the time of European contact. They did not slaughter for sport, and their way of life was sustainable without the hunting limits, pollution controls, water restrictions, and wetlands protections associated with modern eco-sensitivity.
And what would this world of Grassy Waters, and wild nature have looked like, then? We turn to Marjory Stoneman Douglas and her breathtaking The Everglades: River of Grass for a glimpse like few others could provide:
… in the pale-green inshore currents the hordes of fighting fishes ran, the sharks and the barracuda, the mackerel, the bonito, the wahoo, the kingfish and the amberjack, moving in from the deeps to spawn and feed in the shoals. They crowded the bays and rivers. The silver mullet jumped before them among hissing acres of minnows as the big fish drove and ravaged behind them. Overhead the crowded sea birds screamed and swooped and fed. But south in the Bay of Florida and west up the coast over the shoals of the sunken Florida plateau trooped millions of other fish in long processions: the striped mullet, the snook, the snapper and the pompano, moving north and so around the shape of the Gulf of Mexico. The bays and passes were thick with fingerlings of every kind and the laughing gulls and the terns and the constant pelicans and the heavy margansers preyed on them.
The green turtles of the outer sea came plowing heavily ashore to lay their eggs, which the bears and the panthers dug up. Out of the slow western mangrove rivers the small tarpon moved in the spring and grew huge and traveled east and wet, rolling and exploding upward from night-colored waters in believable bursts of crystal and silver under the whiteness of the tide-swelling moon.
And these were only the fish and sea life. A paradise worth of birds also made their homes here, sometimes moving in and out with the seasons, fed on the life that was so abundant. So many birds with riotous plumage, that it became a fashion in the 1800s to kill and strip them naked of their wild plumage for lady’s hats to be sold up North and beyond. Add to this plenitude the reptiles and mammals that filled out the remaining niches in such a rich ecosystem, and humans among them all, fulfilling an ecological function like the rest of them (red in tooth and claw, yes, but purposeful).
Contrasted with the world most Floridians live in today, this Land was once paradise. Whereas every part of the Lady was once honored on its terms, we now only face out toward the coasts, letting industries “drain the swamps” in the interior for the sake of sugar cane, weaving networks of canals plugged with gates and running all the life-giving water away. We decide which species to protect and which to sacrifice to hunting and commercial interests. We cut off the flow of water from the Okeechobee to the Bay, denying its 400 days of pilgrimage of cleansing and life-giving. Instead, we shunt the polluted waters East and West and damn the coral reefs and sea life alike.
There are many more of us now. One thousand times more people in this State than there were “back then” when it last knew balance. All the while high rises are built and sea levels rise.
This post is not meant to be a scholarly article, but a true appreciation of Our Lady Florida depends on seeing the truth about her clearly. Science is often the best way to understand the “nuts and bolts” of ecosystems. Therefore, I welcome any comments/revisions and apologize for any factual errors I may have made. This post will continue to be updated as more accurate/recent information emerges.
I also apologize for the south-centric view of Florida here. There is no excuse, but it is the area I am most familiar with. The central and northern areas are equally as enchanting and belonging squarely within the Body of the God/dess. If you would like to contribute 4-6 paragraphs describing it, I will credit it to you with immense thanks and include it in a future post.