28 August 2006

Some Kind of Paradise

I am a Floridian. Some Kind of Paradise, by Mark Derr, almost makes me happy about that. But it also makes me far too sad to really claim any joy.

I have not always claimed to be a Floridian. When I went to college and introduced myself, I disclaimed any attachment to the state where I'd spent over half my life. Instead I said I merely lived there, but was really from someplace else. I had at that point no intention of returning.

That I'd spent half my life in the state and still couldn't call it home is pretty remarkable. More remarkable is the change I experienced in my attitude to Florida over just the next few years. I studied the state. I examined it in several ways, it's development and politics particularly. I became interested in it. But most importantly, I suppose I missed it.

It's hard to understand why. I don't especially like it there. Winters in Florida are wonderful, of course, and autumn isn't bad (though that season is best experienced in the southern Appalachians). I love the afternoon thunderstorms in the summer, but the heat and humidity serve to chase me indoors most summer days and I can't set foot outside in the spring for the pollen. The state is a huge mass of sprawl; even small communities far from major urban centers smear across the landscape like seagull droppings on wet sand. The major urban centers themselves are choked with traffic, unfriendly to pedestrians, and generally high in crime. Our schools are lousy. Our politicians are among the most ridiculous in the country. Frankly, to my mind, there's very little to recommend the place. Once I finally moved away, when I went to college, I was glad to be rid of the place.

And it was only once rid of the place that I started to appreciate it. Perhaps that's not the right word, appreciate. Instead I developed a morbid fascination with it, an attachment I couldn't fully explain and didn't expect. I moved back to the state, voluntarily, and stayed for two years. When I again had a chance to leave, with the Air Force, I managed to move first to a city only 20 miles from the state line, and although I ultimately made it halfway across the continent I moved right back to Florida the first chance I got.

And now that I'm thinking about leaving again, as I do every few years, I find myself inexplicably drawn to stay. For it isn't Florida itself that I love. It's the idea of Florida, an idea that loom large in Some Kind of Paradise.

I'm a practicing cynic, especially about the environment and double especially about Florida. I shouldn't have any sense of idealism about my home; the place is doomed. I don't think Florida can save itself and I don't believe any of the ten million people who will move there in the next 20 years know it needs to be saved. If they did, they wouldn't move in, but they don't care or don't understand what's wrong with the place. They are responding not to Florida as it is, but Florida as they want it to be.

And that, my friends, is the truth of Florida: she is a temptress. She calls to me as surely as the sirens did to Ulysses, as surely as she called to Ponce de Leon and Pánfilo de Narváez with tales of riches and a fountain of youth, as surely as she calls every summer to millions of Disneyfied tourists, as surely as she does to the thousand people who move in every day. Florida is most attractive to us when we're nowhere near her, when all we can here is the beautiful song, the eternal, unyielding sales pitch: "This is paradise."

It's some kind of Paradise, all right, but not the sort theologians and supplicants imagine. In truth I don't suppose Florida has ever lived up to expectations. The natives were violent and uninterested in welcoming white explorers—who did plenty to foster the natives' antipathy. Even upon settling the place and beginning to tame it, the Spanish found Florida devoid of the riches they sought, and the Fountain of Youth passed into myth.

The state's early settlers found a place of unmitigated difficulty, with fierce wildlife, poor soils, and resources that, though valuable at one time or another, were difficult to extract profitably. The climate kept out all but the hardiest souls until the state was finally tamed by railroads and the dream of transcontinental travel, and of winter retreats, became reality. Even then the state was never paradise for more than a handful of wealthy part-time residents; the vast majority of the state's population struggled to survive in a harsh and unyielding environment.

Parts of the state remained untamed until man in his infinite wisdom decided that Lake Okeechobee and the rivers that drained it, particularly the Everglades, were obstacles to be surmounted—or in this case to be dredged. Thousands were enticed to come to Florida to the most fertile land on Earth, to a place where one had only to cast seeds upon the ground and watch crops of all manner grow in rich soil without a hand to tend them. This fantasy died a quick death when the Everglades muck turned out to be nigh infertile without constant infusions of nutrients, but the name "Florida" had made its way into the national consciousness as a place where untold wealth might be had.

Very soon land speculators began to carve the state up into townsites and developments, and everyone was offered a chance to own a piece of paradise. This boom lasted only a few years before it collapsed, preceding the national Great Depression by three years and leaving hundreds of land promoters and other scoundrels penniless and thousands more people stuck with deeds to worthless, undeveloped and often unusable land.

And what of today? What is it about my Florida that keeps calling me, that keeps calling thousands of families a week to pull up stakes and move south? It's still paradise, but in an altogether different form. I guess the truth is, I no longer understand it. I've spent most of my life in paradise, and I don't like it. If this is Paradise, I'll be damned.

This is a wonderful book. It falls short in some ways, soars in others, but it has the siren song at its core, and anyone who's heard it knows it will always echo in their heart and mind.

1 comment:

tyler said...

All you need to do to feed the lure of Florida is take stroll on a beach in fall, Atlantic if you're a real person, when the bugs have taken their couple month leave of the state, and watch the moon rise over a the grey wash of the night time surf.

I can honestly say that there are few things in this world that I long for with even a fraction of those evenings.

Though also for some reason all I can think of is the Florida Keys commercial from 12 Monkeys. Odd.

But really, the rest of the state is the same odd mix of something that at the same time of revolting me, draws me back with, maybe it really is nice.