The Biscayne Times

Nov 20th
State of Wonder PDF Print E-mail
Written by Blanca Mesa, BT Contributor   
July 2017

TPix_GoingGreen_7-17he more you explore Florida, the more you’ll want to protect it

This summer, get out of Miami.

See natural places that haven’t yet been exploited or sanitized. Make emotional connections in wilderness that isn’t hemmed in by high-rises or expressways. Immerse yourself in the history of those who came before us centuries ago.

My Florida wanderlust began during childhood vacations. My family were repeat visitors to places like Weeki Wachee, where “mermaids” swam; Cypress Gardens; and various alligator and reptile farms. Although these Florida attractions all possessed a tourist-trap come-on, they were, in fact, centered on our state’s natural wonders -- crystal-clear springs and jungle-like forests, green swamps and seashores filled with silky white sand.

Open this summer: Florida state parks with gigantic dunes and dark, dense forests and open pinelands. Serene lakes and meandering rivers. Caves and historic cattle ranches. Some state parks may even have all of these. Florida also has national wildlife refuges and seashores. There are Spanish missions and forts, African-American historic sites, and ancient Native American villages.

In 2000, when a mysterious circle emerged from the limestone bedrock on the banks of the Miami River, I instinctively understood this ancient Tequesta site’s significance and place in history. I had already spent years seeking out Native American sites throughout Florida. At the Crystal River Archaeological Park on the west coast, I explored a 61-acre ceremonial complex of ancient burial and temple mounds. Nurtured by the sea, generations of people occupied the site for 1600 years. Now, here in downtown Miami, were our people, our tribe.

Allowing developers to build a high-rise on the site and obliterate Miami’s connection to its ancient past was just not an option in my mind. Thousands of people agreed. We came together to save the Miami Circle site, now on the U.S. Register of Historic Places and a U.S. National Historic Landmark.

That’s what traveling Florida does. It makes the connections to a primal past, to our common human struggles. These are the connections that have helped save beloved and naturally beautiful places in our community, places of sacred shared memory that define us, like the Miami Circle or Virginia Key.

Of course, much of old Florida has been erased by sprawl or neglect. The picturesque citrus groves near Clermont I loved to see along old U.S. 27 are mostly gone, replaced by subdivisions or timber-bound pine trees. Still, there are enough vestiges of the real Florida to get a feel for the rural roots of this state. There are still vast swaths of impenetrable wilderness, of open seashores, and starry nights to experience.

“Get out of the Disney bubble,” advises Ta-shana Taylor, a volunteer leader with Outdoor Afro, a national not-for-profit founded in 2009 by Rue Mapp that organizes outdoor activities in natural areas for people of color, and African Americans in particular.

“There’s so much more to Florida than theme parks and South Beach,” Taylor says.

In the past year, she has brought together hundreds of people to make a connection outdoors. Sometimes it’s just for a picnic in a park. Other times it’s camping in the Everglades. She swam with manatees in Crystal River and snorkeled in the Keys. Right after the 2016 presidential election, she organized a “healing hike” along Biscayne Bay.

Taylor grew up going to the Museum of Natural History in New York City for fun. She now teaches geology at the University of Miami. Her love for nature, science, and history comes across at all her Outdoor Afro outings.

“We’re reclaiming black history in natural spaces, a history that has been ignored or erased,” Taylor says. An excursion to Cape Florida State Park on Key Biscayne takes on a deeper meaning as participants learn of that land’s role in the Underground Railroad. In the early 1800s, runaway slaves from the Deep South made their way down the coast to take boats that would carry them to freedom in the Bahamas. The last stop was at the end of the park, where beachgoers sunbathe today.

Travel to St. Augustine, and you’ll learn of the first Underground Railroad. In the 1700s, Africans enslaved by the British escaped to Florida with the help of Yamassee Indians. By 1738 these free blacks settled at a military outpost, Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mosé. The ruins of that settlement lie in today’s Fort Mosé Historic State Park.

For Taylor, getting people outdoors has a conservation mission, too. To protect special places for the future, people will first have to develop an emotional bond, she says.

“It’s a heart thing,” she adds, “a testimony in natural spaces.”

Here’s my testimony: Understanding and appreciating the rest of Florida inspires me to return to Miami and protect the remaining natural areas and historic sites we have.

So go on. Visit the real Florida this summer. When you get back to Miami, you’ll love it even more. And fight for it even harder.


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