MAXWELL:  The native’s true love

7/5/1998- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


In these past one hundred years, man has reshaped and relandscaped the peninsula, leveling forests, draining its marshes. The process continues at such a rapid rate that many residents of more than a decade barely recognize the areas around their homes.

_ Mark Derr, Some Kind of Paradise: A Chronicle of Man and the Land in Florida

Born in Fort Lauderdale in 1945, when the eastern edge of the Everglades was a few minutes from my back door, I am one native with a bad attitude. Hold that thought for now.

We native Floridians and other residents are preparing to elect our 42nd governor. Will he be Democrat Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, Democratic state Rep. Keith Arnold or lone Republican Jeb Bush? All of the smart money is on JEB! Indeed, if elected, he might make an excellent governor _ even though, at age 45, he has never been elected to anything.

But the politics is not my current concern. I am worried about how we are losing forever that abstract idea of the Sunshine State that only we natives comprehend. I am talking about a special love, one that does not pull its strength from profit, expediency or comfort.

For us, Florida is not the Great Escape _ as it is for the thousands of tourists and transplants who flock here. It is our home, an undefinable part of our identity.

I recently was reminded of the importance of this affection as I traveled the state to interview the gubernatorial candidates. I met Bush, a real estate developer, in his office in Kendall, a sprawling suburb south of Miami. We had a pleasant visit, and I left with a better understanding of many of his positions and with more respect for him as an individual.

But as we spoke, something kept bothering me. His words? His tone? His “vision thing”? What was it?

The answer came a week later in Winter Haven while I was interviewing Democrat Rick Dantzler, who since has become MacKay’s running mate. Beneath a table, Dantzler, born and reared in Polk County, has one of the biggest rattlesnakes _ mounted, of course _ that I have ever seen. The office walls are a gallery of paintings and photographs, a monument to Florida’s great outdoors.

Like Bush, Dantzler, a lawyer, talked politics. But he talked just as eagerly about his love of Florida. I quickly learned that he had fished nearly every body of water and hunted in every woodland in the central part of the state. If asked to identify the species of fish in a particular lake, he could. He celebrates the Sunshine State and its rich natural resources for their own sake.

Now, my misgivings about Bush began to translate: He is a native Texan, an interloper who does not share the native’s unique love of Florida.

Arnold, too, is a native Floridian, whose family has always farmed in the southwest region. From his office in the renovated courthouse on Main Street in Fort Myers, Arnold looks down on a scene straight out of Mayberry. This is old Florida.

As he spoke of the land, the wide open spaces that farmers covet, I sensed a regret, a longing for the unspoiled shorelines of his childhood, when sea oats, sand dunes and blue herons outnumbered snowbirds and the imported flora choking the coast. Like me, he keeps a wary eye on the talking mouse that is gobbling up Orange, Lake and Seminole counties.

MacKay, favored to beat Arnold, is a true blue Florida Cracker. The state is his life, and he knows every part of it. And, like his boss, Gov. Lawton Chiles, MacKay, whose roots are in rural Marion County, understands that the urban centers of Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Duval, Hillsborough and Pinellas are not the state of Florida by themselves. He understands the special needs of the Panhandle and the forest and sandhill and cattle regions that make up most of the peninsula.

He knows that beyond the glitter of a towering skyline, real souls sweat and toil on ordinary jobs that support much of the economy. He has touched the muck of Lake Apopka and the Okeechobee basin surrounding Belle Glade, South Bay and Clewiston.

He understands, as does environmentalist Mark Derr, that the “tale of Florida’s development is often sordid, marked by the greed of people intent on taking whatever the land offered and leaving nothing in return . . . .”

I would be dishonest if I did not acknowledge that since he lost to Chiles four years ago, Bush, a native Texan who moved here as an adult, is educating himself about the state that he wants to govern.

He has visited many schools, some in small towns. Even as I applaud him, though, I worry about his acceptance of huge sums of money from oil interests outside the state. How will these contributions affect his environmental policies, especially negotiations for oil drilling rights off our coast?

At the outset, I said that I am a Floridian with a bad attitude. What I mean is this: I, along with tens of thousands of other natives, resent how our state has been pillaged, our beachheads privatized, our forests and farms bulldozed. I hate the condos, the strip malls, the traffic. I also resent the smugness of people such as Orlando Sentinel columnist Myriam Marquez, a Miami-reared Cuban who sees politicians with Cracker roots as hayseeds. In a recent column, while questioning the wisdom of MacKay’s selection of Dantzler as his running mate, Marquez disparaged this native duo:

“Two white, Southern fellas would have made for a winning ticket in 1960, even into 1980. But heading into the 21st century, Florida has a much more diverse and cosmopolitan society than it did when Chiles first walked the state in his hee-haw shirt, looking like Jed Clampett of The Beverly Hillbillies fame.”

Marquez has plenty of company, including transplants who do not know a damned thing about “real Florida” and interlopers who escape to this paradise to grab what they can. They do not want to understand this beautiful place that many of us call home.