like the poorest postcard of itself

Posted by on June 21, 2006

florida spring

Natural spring in Florida, 2006.


By the time I was old enough to ask myself whether or not I genuinely liked Florida, I was a cynical teenager, and decided I hated it, was going to college somewhere far away, and was NEVER moving back. I selectively saw the state as plastered over in concrete, onto which a hateful sun mercilessly beat. I remember standing up in a college writing class and reading a short creative writing piece of mine devoted to abusing Florida. When it came time for feedback, a girl in my class said that she was struck by my imagery of Florida as rather desolate, since she thought of Florida “as quite green.”

I was too stubborn to see the truth in her words. Still goaded by that sense of mitten-deprivation, I kept moving northward– to Tennessee for college, then New York for grad school, and then Boston for a job. I had to get winter out of my system.

But it was at some point in college that I started contemplating my native state from more than one angle. I decided that it was not to blame for its depravity, but had been exploited by the likes of Walt, and other tourism industry opportunists who had followed in his wake. Driving home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, I philosophized internally about all the fluorescent billboards advertising pecans, oranges, $5 t-shirts, and adult entertainment. I thought about my grandmother, who was born in Florida decades before Disney World was ever a twinkle in Walt’s eye. I thought about my grandfather who moved there as a newlywed with my grandmother, and their life–along with my mom’s childhood– of outdoor recreation among the palms. I thought about their now elderly friends, other Florida natives, who had told me first-hand about the clearness of the lakes and whiteness of the sand. You could swim to the middle of any lake, and see the bottom. It must have seemed like paradise then. I also thought about the Spanish explorer, Ponce de Leon, who had made an appearance in the my public school’s fourth grade curriculum; he had came ashore to a wild Florida, looking for the fountain of youth. And then there was the Indian princess who graced the state’s flag which hung near the chalk board.

Wanting to possess a geographical identity and a shred of pride in where I was from, I decided that my Florida was the pure Florida, that had only recently been raped by the tourist industry. I could hear the words of my grandfather, who was always complaining about “snow birds”– his word for northerners who moved to Florida. He was also known to say “go home yankee,” when he saw a license plate from anywhere north of the Kentucky border. I decided that my lineage was rare– I was a Florida native, and if Florida belonged to anyone, it belong to people like me. Most everyone else was an intruder. I remember even resenting it when I was living in Tennessee, but saw that there was a new Florida license plate design. It said, “MY FLORIDA” across the top, and was flashing from the cars of the very people who had no doubt relocated to Florida a few weeks ago from Michigan or Ohio. Such prejudice was deeply ingrained in my family.

I kept thinking of the platonic ideal of Florida as belonging to me and mine until I started thinking about what my grandfather had done for a living. He was a real estate man. At one point in the 1950s, he owned half of New Smyrna Beach. He had also owned Ponce de Leon springs, and countless lots around Orlando, one of which is now home to a Wendy’s franchise. He owned a beach front condominium which everyone in my family– aunts, uncles, cousins– enjoyed whenever we pleased, building sand castles, riding boogie boards, eating snow cones, and doing cannon balls into the swimming pool to our heart’s content. While in the past my grandfather’s land-owning legacy reinforced my sense of Florida belonging to me, I now realize it is not that simple. Without judging my grandfather, I do realize now that he was a part of the machinery that took over the old, wild, shimmering, green, fountain-of-youth Florida and built concrete structures to attract the invaders. This is still going on. Every time I go back I see new condos, new malls, new traffic, and new people. I can’t say it doesn’t make me grieve.

I took the photos above with my grandfather’s old Nikon on one of my annual winter trips to Florida a few years ago. I tried to take an entire roll of beautiful, hidden patches of floridaness. The grapefruit is in the backyard of the house I grew up in. I try not to either despise or romanticize Florida anymore, but I still hold an image of its purity in my heart. Elizabeth Bishop has a great poem about Florida (from which I stole a line for the title of this entry), which is clearly descriptive of an untainted, pre-tourist version. You should read it.