Our time in southwest Florida is nearing its end, as Peggy (my partner) and I are moving back to Massachusetts in a couple of weeks. We’ve missed our community of family and friends, as well as the familiarity of places and offerings, more than we imagined. It’s been a mixed experience in Florida: unusual circumstances, like friends moving away within months of our arrival; disconnect with aspects of the culture that don’t resonate with us; surprises and delights with the ecology; learning things that I never anticipated. There have been so many lessons learned in Florida these past 2.5 years that I feel like I’ve been in graduate school. It’s been quite the education.
Land and Sky
There is so much beauty in Florida. At first, I thought it was all flat. Once I started paying attention to the nuances, the land came alive.
Florida’s palm trees are glorious. Twelve species are natives: Cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto) is the state tree; Saw palmetto and Royal palm are 2 other natives that are common to our area. The first lesson I learned is that Florida is more than palm trees. There are cedar, mahogany, magnolia, cypress, oak, and many others, as well as 7 species of pine. It’s exciting to see flowering and fruit-bearing trees, feel textured trunks, and gaze at the intricate branching. The types of trees clustered in stands depend on the depth of the water and the height of the earth mounds. At Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, the towering Bald Cypress wade in water. In the Everglades, hardwood hammocks grow on islands in the midst of the wetlands. This marsh is actually a river of sawgrass that carries fresh water toward Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
Did you know that an average cloud in South Florida weighs more than 550 tons because of all the water it contains?
Florida is the nation’s lightning capital with flashes occurring about 1.5 million times per year.Sun Sentinel
The clouds here are massive. I learned that their astounding size is due to Florida’s warm, moist atmosphere. Without large buildings blocking the view, I can see the breadth and depth of the sky. The clouds occupy that huge space with dramatic, breath-taking formations. They contribute mightily to the rainfall of course, and the gorgeous sunsets.
Each morning, as I practice yoga, I look out the large lanai window and see water birds feeding at the pond. I’ve learned their names: Ibis, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Great Blue Heron, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, and Gallinule. They are majestic.
While bicycling, I am often treated to a bird sighting: perhaps an egret in the canal along a main road or a heron in a large puddle that’s formed on a neighborhood street after a rain shower. I’ve seen Anhingas and Cormorants perched at the top of trees and light poles. A Palm Warbler may suddenly land on the windowsill in the middle of the day. The magnificent Roseatte Spoonbills and Pelicans (brown and white) hang out at Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island. Burrowing Owls can be seen in a parking lot (!) on Marco Island. I learned that Limpkins like to feed at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary because of the abundance of apple snails there. Mockingbirds are everywhere: no wonder they are Florida’s state bird. I learn by watching. What extraordinary gifts.
Ocean and Wildlife
Where land meets ocean is an intricate intertidal ecosystem of mangroves, salt marsh, and oyster reefs. I learned that there are 3 mangrove species in southwest Florida: red, black, and white. Each one plays a role in protecting the coastline from harsh tropical storms, filtering out salt, and providing habitat for birds. Rookery Bay and Ten Thousand Islands Wildlife Refuge are two great places to visit for gaining an understanding of mangroves.
Unlike the Atlantic Ocean, which has strong, large waves, the Gulf Coast sea is a mild and calm basin. It is a soothing presence. Water temperatures range from 55° in January to 85° in July, far warmer and more comfortable than I am used to up in New England! We go to the beach periodically, getting there very early in the morning. We stay for a couple of hours, until the sun starts to heat things up and other people begin to arrive. It’s a lovely way to begin a day.
The wildlife is very unusual. Alligators, snakes, and geckos oh my! I had no idea that there are hundreds of geckos (officially known as anoles) in the world. Of the 14 that reside in Florida, only 1 is native (the green Florida Reef Gecko). I think it was a Brown Anole that became a temporary resident of our condo (see my post Accepting What Is: Lessons from a Gecko). Even though I’m not a big fan of bugs (and there are plenty of them here), some of them are fascinating, like the Eastern Lubber grasshopper and state butterfly Zebra Longwing! Dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, gopher tortoises, panther, and bobcats also share the land and sea here.
The flowers and plants are what capture my heart the most. My eyes feast on all of the stimulating shapes and hues. Even the leaves have glorious patterns and colors. I’ve been introduced to new flora: Crotons, Crepe Myrtle, Bromeliads (who knew that pineapple are in the bromeliad family?), Calla Lilies, and Water Lilies. Familiar plants and new varieties of them appear on our walks and bike rides: Hibiscus, Plumeria (lovely scent!), Bougainvillea, Lilies, and Swamp Lily.
A entire world opened up when Peggy and I attended the annual orchid show at Naples Botanical Garden. There’s also an orchid section inside the Garden, so we could also see orchids whenever we liked. I read The Orchid Thief and learned even more about their numbers, varieties, and history.
The pièce de résistance was viewing the infamous Ghost Orchid at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. We were fortunate to witness this rare occurrence through scopes set up by the staff. Pretty special stuff.
A couple of interesting changes occurred in the my art. Influenced enormously by the light, my work became brighter. As a result, my colors are not as heavily saturated as they once were.
The other significant change was my unexpected joy and comfort using watercolors. It started with a class at Naples Botanical Garden (see my blog post Finding Joy Out of My Comfort Zone), where I discovered tools and techniques that served as a bridge from drawing to painting. I won’t be abandoning my beloved pastels, but it’s nice to have a medium that I can use indoors in the winter months.
Being in a new place afforded me a multitude of new subjects. Lots of inspiration! I took plenty of pictures, so I have references that will likely take me through the next couple of decades.
The sad part of living in Florida is the destruction of the beautiful, unique, precious ecosystem. These problems are hardly known to non-residents. Not much has been done to alleviate the causes, until recently. Thank goodness for the activists who are working hard to find and implement solutions; here are a few that I’ve worked with:
- Calusa Waterkeeper
- Conservancy of Southwest Florida
- The Pachamama Alliance
- The Rights of Nature
Lake Okeechobee and The Everglades
Water from Lake Okeechobee once flowed freely to the south, feeding the Everglades. Early settlers (mid-1800s), not realizing the importance of the vast marsh, thought of it as wasted swampland and began to drain it. Their intent was to use it as farmland. Their efforts were much more costly and difficult than they anticipated, so government assistance was pursued. Over the next 100 years, various drainage projects were attempted.
Ultimately, levees and dikes were built to stop the Lake’s natural flow south. Pumping stations and canals were constructed to prevent flooding and redirect the water west and east. An agricultural area (owned primarily by sugar companies) was developed directly where the Everglades used to begin. Combined with run-off pollution from farming, other land development, and an influx of invasive species, the river of grass has shrunk to over half of its original size.
Meanwhile, the discharged water from Lake Okeechobee is also polluted and unusually warm. It flows through the canals that connect to the Caloosahatchee River on the Gulf Coast and the St. Lucie River on the East Coast. This water damages the coastal estuaries, kills fish, and contributes to toxic Red Tide. I learned about Red Tide after biking to one of our local beaches and feeling a scratchy tickling in my throat. When I told a friend about it, he explained that I had the “Red Tide cough”. We were unable to swim in the ocean for the first several months of living here because of it.
Flexible and adaptable
Through it all, I’ve learned how flexible I am. This was the first time I’ve ever lived outside of Massachusetts. It was also the first time I’ve ever owned my dwelling. Southwest Florida was very unfamiliar to us prior to our move. We knew only a handful of people who lived here. Moving thousands of miles across state lines took a lot of energy and planning. Gradually, I found my way into a couple of local groups (Tech4Good SWFL and co-organizer of WordPress MeetUp Southwest Florida), a volunteer gig at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, and a few art classes. I became a SWFL Climate Ambassador. Aside from the intense, humid, heat of the “off-season” and the threat of hurricanes in the fall, I acclimated pretty well to nearly everything else that came my way!